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Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 10 minutes

How to do team-building experiences the right way

Either as an employee, manager, facilitator, participant or team member, you’ve probably taken part in some sort of ‘team-building’ exercise. And probably many of you have thought it’s a nice day off, a bit of fun, and some will probably have loathed the idea of having to do it.

 Learning to work together as a team, or group or party of individuals is fundamentally a good thing. But doing something as a team that has no purpose, and simply needs a group of more than two people to do, has no use really for team building. If you’ve ever done an outdoor obstacle course you may have similar thoughts.

 Team-building events, therefore, should be an active group learning experience. They are meant to be challenging, enjoyable and have inherent and applicable value while doing them and after. Not just temporary superficial bonding moments for a group of individuals.


 Issues of transience

 The problem with many team-building exercises is that they are brief, transient and have almost no follow up. Their purpose exists at that moment, and to be honest, if you do an outdoor obstacle course, what follow up could there be? Unless its purpose was to act as a physical fitness test.

 The relevance of these exercises only exists at a surface level, lacking any clear or deeper goal and motivation beyond getting from A to B. The team-building exercise of clear the (imagined) minefield or cross the (imagined) lava lake is just about how quickly you can get across from one side of a room to another. Team-work may occur but it’s about momentary necessity, rather than any organic long-term use.

 Essentially, such experiences serve only the purpose of themselves, they are to be done for the sake of the activity and nothing more. Any group of people can do them, whether they know each other or are complete strangers. Such activities do not mean that a team becomes more cohesive because of the activity.

Working as a team needs recognition & agreement

 At its core, a team-building experience is there to facilitate a space and a situation where a team of people comes together to learn how to work together. They need to already by a team in the sense that within their daily work lives, they need to collaborate to achieve something. When they are put into the team-building experience, it is simply an extension of that daily occurrence but one where they must learn and figure out how they can collaborate more effectively.

 Naturally, if a team-building experience was required to promote team cohesion, the team will need some guidance. The first step they will need to take as a team is to come to a consensus. Consensus is a broad word, but it is what’s needed, team members will need to compromise in order to achieve something greater than the sum of their parts. A good first step would be for each member to have the humility to admit that they are not capable of achieving the goal of the exercise on their own, that they have weaknesses and that the compromise is that they must swallow their ego and lean on the strengths of others.

 Once a consensus is reached and compromises have been made, then from this accountability can be derived. As with the acceptance of one’s ego, everyone in the team must accept their own and their team member’s responsibility and liability when working in a team. Perhaps a hard pill to swallow for many, to accept that humans are fallible and that mistakes can occur, but if you accept responsibility for your own mistakes and continue to work as a team regardless to improve, then you may get a little further overall.

 Going through this process leads to the organic outcome where loyalty and trust are slowly fostered in the team thanks to a shared understanding and acceptance of accountability that is based on consensus and compromise.


Creating the ‘team-spirit’ in a group learning game

 When creating, picking or facilitating a team-game, the basis of it needs to be that the group collaboration in it is of a cross-platform and inter-disciplinary nature. What is meant by this is that there should be clear take-aways from the experience for the team and for the members themselves. Cross-platform and inter-disciplinary in that the skills learned in that space should directly translate and be applicable back in their daily lives.

 For something like that to be possible the ‘narrative’ space or world of the team-game must be familiar and recognizable for the participating teams. Basically, the fictional world of the game needs to make sense straight-away without requiring a lengthy tutorial to explain it all – quick & efficient onboarding.

 From that basis, we need to go to a slightly counter-intuitive point. A team-building experience shouldn’t solely be about promoting collaboration, but also about letting individuals shine if they want to. There is that unique moment where bonds are strengthened through the pride of seeing a companion be successful and the mutual respect that arises from having been a part of that moment.

 What should not be part of the experience, however, is creating a space where individuals feel embarrassed or are able to fail (without choosing to) and being put in the center of attention for that failure. This will ultimately alienate people and be one more reason why people abhor team-building experiences. Though failure should be part of the experience, it should not be placed on the shoulders of one person when the purpose of the experience is about strengthening collaboration and team spirit.

Changing a mindset

 One of the reasons and issues, why people dislike team-building experiences, is because of the perception of being made to do something infantile and that there is a level patronization in having to do it. This may ring true for many, some may have gone on a management workshop course with their team and part way through they were required to learn to play drums. Learning to play drums is great and all, but does it pull a team together? What does it have to do with management training? Or did the leadership just miss the point with the team and why they were there?

 Firstly, the activity should align with the overall reason for it being there, and secondly, the premise needs to be stated properly and that the purpose of the activity is fully understood. The goal is to learn about management – does the activity align with that goal? The objective of the activity is to work as a team to achieve the goal of learning about management – the activity aligns then. The objective of the activity is to socialize as a team through the vehicle of drumming (or bowling, paintballing, etc.) – the activity completely missed the mark of the overall goal or learning management and has no inherent learning value either.

 One way to ensure that the chosen activities align with the group’s expectations is to simply check in with the participants in advance. Discover what their issues are within the team environment, as well as what they would like to learn and achieve from a team (-building) experience, and what would help them in coming together as a more cohesive team. This type of player research is an absolute must when you want to achieve a successful team-building experience.


Is a team the right thing though?

 When you do player research to find out what your employees, participants or team members want, it may be worth asking the difficult questions of: are you even a team or group focused organization?

 You may be looking at team-building exercises to promote team collaboration and cohesion, but is your organization even team-focused or team-oriented in its culture? Does it promote individualism over collective achievement? If it’s the former, then no amount of team-building experiences will help.

 If there is a need to improve collective collaboration, then you should be asking what it is you are expecting to achieve with or as a team? What is the team objective? Once you know the objective you wish to achieve (e.g.: sales targets, road-map deadlines, etc.), ask whether you need a team to achieve this objective? It is important to ask this question again because you do not want to go through putting your team through a team-building exercise just to show the merits of working as a team. No, you want to put them through a meaningful team-building activity that will help them better achieve those stated (organisation) objectives as a team.

The right kind of team-building activity

You may have come across various articles that essentially say that the best kind of teamwork activity is getting your team to simply do the work they need to do daily to achieve the company’s goals. That this is the best and most efficient way to get them to work together. Well, these articles aren’t wrong, but they aren’t entirely right either. The reason you’re looking at team-building experiences is that this daily collaboration isn’t achieving its maximum potential, and just letting your team grind away won’t get you there either.

What often is needed is being taken out of the regular, the mundane, and placed into an unknown environment to gain a new perspective of what can be done. This refreshing change of perspective is far more valuable than relentless grinding away at a task.

For the change of perspective to be effective, it is a necessity that when choosing a team-building exercise it is one that has direct experiential learning – the goal of the experience can be tailored to what the teams need to achieve in their daily jobs and be doing the activity can directly learn how to improve together to achieve that goal. Secondary goals can be added that the teams may need to practice or additional skills that they can learn that can support their main goal.

A recommendation is that the activity takes place in a fictitious setting, to better facilitate a change of perspective and environment. And if the worry is that infantility would be reintroduced using a fictitious setting, then you shouldn’t worry, because if the premise is properly incorporated and the goals are clear, then it won’t matter if its make-believe or not.

So how do you choose?

Firstly, pick a team-building experience that can be tailored fully or enough to the issues, problems, and goals within your organization that your team needs to solve and achieve. If possible, tailor the goals specifically to the participants taking part in the experience – do this through the player research. Secondly, when choosing an experience, whether you have specific issues you wish to tailor it towards or you simply wish to have a broader team-building activity, ensure it still focuses on these basic tenets:

  • Communication/soft skills
  • Is challenging in the form of problem-solving
  • Demands participants to work under pressure (limited by time)
  • Requires data/pattern recognition & information recall
  • Has variety and is set in a world that is recognizable, easy to enter and is effortlessly understood

Using all these points and outline should help you in leading your team to gain even greater value from team-building experiences, allowing them to be empowered and motivated. If you are interested in more ideas and concepts around team-building experiences than please have a look through the blog. And if you are interested in running team-building experiences with your team, then have a peruse through the products page.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.



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