Why Teams and Team Building?

I have mixed emotions when it comes to team building.  It would take a corporate Grinch of gargantuan proportions to say, categorically, that team building is a bad idea. The philosophy behind team-building is, essentially that:

  1. In corporate settings, people work in teams more often than they do not.
  2. High-performing, well-oiled teamwork don’t happen by accident.
  3. Teams can accomplish FAR more than individuals in almost every case.
  4. Some conscious thought must be applied in order to ensure that teams are working together in ways that maximize creativity, productivity, effectiveness, and sustainability – i.e., people aren’t burning out as a result of being on the team.

The premise makes sense. Given the kind of world in which we live, groups of people don’t necessarily automatically come together in peace and harmony to produce something wonderful and impressive together. Some do, of course. And some do not.

So in theory, team building – if one defines team building as creating an effective, humane group of people working towards a common goal – is a good idea. Anyone who’s ever been on a team knows that each team is different, and that it takes awhile for the personalities to mesh. So far so good.

The problem with team building usually does not occur during the actual activities, which can often be fun, effective, and even helpful.

The problem occurs when the team building is over and we all have to go back to the office.

The problem is that most team building exercises, by their nature, are temporary. The challenge of effective team-building exercises often comes during the Transferability phase, where people determine how the things they’ve experienced in the team-building experiences can be transferred back to the office.

Or the problem arrives when the matter of sustainability is raised. In a good team-building exercise, everyone comes away feeling good about themselves, each other, life, and the universe. And then the grind of being at work wears down that enthusiasm, and the inertia of the office gradually weighs in, until a year has gone by and things are, perhaps, not as different as one would have hoped.

So. What to do? Team building skills need to be learned, developed, honed, practiced; but the learning and the doing take place, literally, in two different areas. How can a company get a return on its investment from a team building exercise? More importantly, how can a company create a team building experience that is ultimately valuable because it lasts beyond a week or two after the experience?

The problem reminds me of the Big Bang Theory.

When faced with the problem of the origins of the universe, physicists developed a theory called, creatively enough, The Big Bang. This theory states, roughly, that the universe “began” with an enormous explosion, and has been expanding ever since. A very complex theory is the Big Bang.

But I have it on very good authority that it explains why the universe is constantly expanding, even as we speak. It is the momentum of the Big Bang.

Team-building exercises need to be like Big Bang events. It’s not the end of something; it’s the beginning of something. Team building must be a component of an overall plan.

A plan has a goal, steps, measurements, and reassessment; then more steps, more measurements, more reassessment, steps, measurements, etc.

To conduct team building exercises as stand alone events doom them to failure, because they have no momentum beyond their own existence. But taken as part of an overall plan for an organization, they maximize their power. The organization’s business direction feeds the momentum of the team building exercise. The team building becomes a step in a plan, not a stand-alone event.

Let’s take an example:

An organization may feel that its feedback mechanisms are poor and must improve if vital creative energy is to be preserved.

As a first step, that organization would determine a clear sense of where it wants to be in the matter of feedback.

It would then select a team building exercise that focuses on issues of trust, tact, and a studied willingness to be open to receiving feedback. (After all, if one isn’t good at receiving feedback, it doesn’t matter how skillfully that feedback is given, right?)

It would then determine what policy or procedural changes might be necessary to support the lessons of the team-building event.

It would then determine how to measure an improvement in feedback. It will figure out how it will know when feedback skills throughout the organization have improved, and when there is a culture where feedback is given and appreciated easily and often. The goal of developing an organizational culture doesn’t have the stigma attached to feedback will be clearly articulated. They will essentially build a bell that rings when substantial improvement in feedback has been achieved.

And that organization will do all that before it has even scheduled a single team building exercise. It will have planned how to modify policies and procedures, how to modify its unwritten cultural norms, how to reward and incentivize feedback, how to penalize problems that arose because team members refused to engage in productive feedback. That organization will have mapped out its cultural approach to feedback, including goals and metrics, and then determined a team-building exercise that fit into that overall strategy.

Team building events as fun and wonderful as they are, are valuable only insofar as they are Big Bang events; i.e., momentum creating events, the energy of which fuels further efforts.

Without that level of planning, team-building events will have a hard time delivering as much value to the organization as perhaps they could.

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