Team Building Activities Can Pull Your Group Together Like Nothing Else, But Consider Letting Participants Know A Little Of What To Expect
Your company’s CEO saunters to the front of the meeting, moving easy and confidently, hips rolling like John Wayne’s. He ignores the snorts and snickers of some of the gathering’s more bored, we’ve-done-it-all-before participants. “All right, let’s get moving,” he says, with the acid of black coffee still graveling his voice.
He moves over to his mount, steps into a stirrup, throws a leg over the horse and settles into the saddle. “Okay, cowboys,” he calls out to the humans in the group. “Let’s head ’em up and move ’em out!”
Your meeting’s team-building exercise has begun: a cattle drive. However, more often, says Kathleen Glenn of Southwest Conference Planners, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the confident company CEO takes one look at the horse he’s been assigned and suddenly loses some of that executive swagger. The truth is, he’s looking at the toughest customer he’s ever dealt with in his business life. “It’s okay, though. We teach everyone to ride,” she says. “What some executives are really worried about is that at the end of the exercise we rate everyone on their riding skills. They think they won’t measure up in the saddle. We also rate everyone on how well they handle their steer.”
That’s right; in this exercise, the team actually drives cattle from Point A to Point B. Along the way the team develops its own cattle call, learns how to drive a wayward steer out of the brush and, not so incidentally, learns how to work together doing something that most likely not a single team member has ever done before. “It’s one cow per person,” Glenn laughs. “Now, how often can you say that?”
Meeting professionals know that a good gathering will accomplish much more than simply meeting an agenda. Social activities allow attendees to interact casually; recreational sidebars, such as a round of golf, can bring a little friendly competition to the proceedings. A museum visit or a cultural tour can add some interest or at the very least provide a diversion from the pain of a morning’s worth of PowerPoint presentations. But an effective team-building exercise or program can accomplish all of these in a single activity. More importantly, the best team-building programs give participants an experience of value that can improve workplace attitudes, productivity and morale.
“In the work environment, people tend to have set roles. An activity lets everyone look at their coworkers in a new light,” comments Tai Kuncio, one of the principals at a San Francisco-based team-building company called Absolute Adventures. “When you’re doing the activity, you’re still working together. You’re still with the same people you’re with back at the office, but you’re in a completely different environment.” The result, he says, is that you can really see how those office roles developed, and once you see that, it becomes easier to change them.
“We try to break down barriers and let people open up a little, to be who they really are,” adds Warren Press, director of corporate events at Feet First International, which organizes and hosts Make Your Own Movie and Make Your Own Music Video team-building activities at NBC Universal Studios in Los Angeles. “We take people out of their norms, and what happens is that they usually really learn a lot about themselves. You’d be surprised what happens to people when they get in front of a movie camera.”
In the Seattle area, Lisa Dupar Catering, which catered the Bill and Melinda Gates wedding reception among other huge events, began hosting team-building events in the kitchen at the request of some corporate clients. Originally, the idea was to provide an opportunity for a lot of fun mixed with a little learning about food and wine, but the events have grown in scope. “It really does take a team to produce a meal,” says Dupar. “For one thing, it’s all about the timing. One person’s working on a sauce, someone else is doing the salmon and someone else is on the vegetables. But everything has to come together at the same time. You really do need each other to be on-task. There’s not really much margin for error, and if there is a mistake, the consequences are immediately apparent and often disastrous. What happens is that people learn how to both focus and at the same time be aware of everything that’s going on around them.”
Taking people out of their usual comfort zones, where we all tend to rely on habits and patterns, causes people “to learn to rely on one another instead of the old usual habits,” says Dan Tavrytzky, vice president of sales and services at the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Bringing people together this way creates a camaraderie that’s difficult to achieve back at the office.”
THE TIKI TEST
Michael Swyney, who organizes team-building events and programs at the Pacific Palms Conference Resort in the City of Industry, Calif., points out that team-building can also do a lot more than create an opportunity for people to get to know each other better and have a little fun: it can also teach skills that are directly translatable to the workplace.
One of Pacific Palms’ activities is called MapQuest. Swyney got the idea from his four-year-old son. The activity, in which the group is divided into teams, involves three elements: naming the team and creating a team slogan; inspecting a puzzle map of the United States and then telling the larger group how long the team will need to assemble the map; and then assembling the puzzle according to a plan of specific steps the team has agreed on. “What MapQuest does is get the members of the team to strategize and also to think collaboratively,” says Swyney.
Most of his team-building activities underscore strategy, collaboration and planning. In The Bicycle Factory, for example, teams participate in a series of problem-solving activities. For each successfully solved problem, they are rewarded with parts to a new bicycle and more tools. The winning team is the one that builds a complete bicycle first, and the bicycles are then donated to charity. In Box It Up, teams design and decorate a cereal box with all the elements typical of commercial breakfast cereal packages: recipes, simple back-of-the-box kids games, even ingredient lists. In the Tiki Test, a dinner event, team members make masks, create a chant and perform a dance while wearing their masks.
“The first Tiki Test I did was with a bunch of engineers,” says Swyney. “They painted their masks with colors based on their brands, and they created all kinds of wild designs. They painted their faces, they danced and chanted— they totally got into it. What I thought was going to be a 90-minute event was a three-and-a-half-hour event, and there was nothing but excitement the whole time.” The kicker was when he later visited the company’s office, and they had all the masks hanging up on display.
“What I do is ask meeting planners what they want their people’s faces to look like at the end of the event,” Swyney says. “Do they want them to look happy? Exhausted? Exhilarated? The important thing for me to know is what meeting planners hope to accomplish with the event. Before the first Tiki Test, I asked the meeting planner what had been the best event they’d had before. She told me it was a trip to Universal Studios where people got to wear goofy costumes, do cheers and dance. It was at a time when the company wasn’t doing well, she told me, and they really needed to rally their people. So I went home that night and happened to look at a palm tree I‘ve got in my house, and I looked at one of the palm fronds and saw a face. I thought, hmm, a mask.”
He notes that team-building has evolved over the decades. The idea first became popular in the 1980s when more women joined the executive ranks. “Team-building back then was fluffy, kind of warm and fuzzy,” he says. “Before that, ‘team-building’ had pretty much meant golf.” But warm-and-fuzzy went too far in some cases, and more than one corporation got hit with a sexual harassment suit in the wake of a team-building activity. So in the 1990s, team-building emphasized what Swyney calls “table-top events” that keep people separated in their chairs. By the 2000s, however, “it was okay again to get a little closer.”
However, the biggest recent change Swyney has seen came after 9/11. “Now people want events that create conflict so they have to solve problems. They want to come out at the end as winners.” Effective events emphasize strategy and goals, he believes.
Mikii Cummins, the director of brand marketing for the Sunstone Hotels chain, worked with Warren Press at Feet First on a Make Your Own Movie team-building event at NBC Universal Studios. It was part of a sales incentive-customer appreciation meeting for her company. Her group included Sunstone executives, sales people and loyal customers. “Some people knew each other, some didn’t,” she says.
Feet First provided costumes, equipment such as cameras, boom mikes, clapboards and a screenplay. A level of excitement was present right from the start because, she says, Universal Studios is an actual working movie lot, yet it is also included in the Universal Studios visitor tour. “There were these trams going by full of people on the tour, and they saw us in our costumes and with all the movie equipment, and they actually thought we might, you know, be somebody,” she chuckles. “They were taking out their cameras and taking photos, and you could hear them wondering if that guy over there—one of our executives—was a movie star or something. So our people totally got into that.”
Scenes for the movie, a western, were shot out of order. Moving from scene to scene, roles changed—the director of one scene became the boom-mic holder in the next, for example, and the damsel-in-distress in one scene clacked the clapboard for the next. Everyone got to try everything. The Sunstone group was large enough that there were two crews, actually, both working from the same screenplay, but in different order.
“The next day at our hotel, we got to see the movies,” recalls Cummins. The night before, she relates, Feet First had edited the scenes into a story, just like a real movie, and they had added music and sound effects, plus some stock footage of things like a train coming down the track.
“People were laughing and laughing. Every-one wanted to see it again. It was also interesting that the two movies were slightly different. You could see where the different teams made different decisions.” Feet First had also prepared a blooper reel, which was also greeted with great hilarity by the Sunstone group.
Every participant got a DVD copy of the movie they worked on to take home. “It was all anyone talked about the next day, about how much fun they had,” she says. “People got to see their coworkers in a different setting. The person who’s the boss at the office, wasn’t the boss on the movie. Sometimes, it was the administrative assistant who was the best director; some people really got into directing, but everyone was helping each other.”
Warren Press notes that Feet First provides a fight coach for certain scenes, and teaches people how to properly use the cameras and other technical equipment. “We usually go with a western, because there’s a western area on the Universal backlot and also because westerns lend themselves to humor,” he comments. “It’s about having a good time and about learning about each other. You can work with someone for years and never really know them. After an event we will often hear things like, ‘We learned so much about John today.’”
RELEASING YOUR INNER SEINFELD
Team-building can emphasize fun, strategy and collaboration; it can also create the setting for people to reach inside themselves to find talents they didn’t know they had.
Maya Gedeon, the human resources director at Avolent, a software company in San Francisco, worked with Absolute Adventures to create an event at a company picnic “that would be fun but also interactive.”
Considering that Avolent’s employees are, for the most part, engineers and computer experts, the event that Absolute Adventures came up with might seem a big stretch: comedy improv. “A bunch of engineers can’t really tell jokes, so they brought in a guy to help, and he really did,” says Gedeon.
The result, she says, was a day full of laughter for everyone, including the normally off-site and “virtual” employees Avolent had flown in to participate. There were group activities such as a mass hula-hoop test, plus a hike at the site and a barbecue, all on Angel Island on San Francisco Bay. “It forced people to interact who don’t typically come into contact, and they discovered they could have a lot of fun and get to know each other without all the pressures and stuff that happens in the office,” she says.
Gedeon also emphasizes that people were not allowed to bring laptops or PDAs to the event. “You have to be disconnected from the office to have an effective team-building event. You can’t have people checking e-mail or their Treos. That was a big reason why everyone enjoyed the event so much; people weren’t drifting off,” she says. She also made sure the old office groups didn’t reform at the event. “When you go to your own little group, it defeats the purpose.” Finally, executive hierarchy was kept off the island. “There’s really no hierarchy when everyone’s in their shorts,” she says.
That’s the benefit, too, of the cattle-drive event in Arizona. When the boss can’t get his horse to giddy-up, the group has the opportunity to learn about how he or she deals with a dose of humility.
Dan Tavrytzky at the Scottsdale CVB says that team-building can level the field, and even the educational component can contribute. His organization has been involved in geo-caching team-building activities in which teams—once they discover a hidden cache in the desert—have to answer questions such as why the trunk of a saguaro cactus is folded like an accordion, or why a certain sandstone layer is filled with fossils while another is not. “You find out who are the fast learners. That can be helpful back at the office,” he says.
Gedeon says that once the Avolent employees were back at the office, she got a lot of good feedback about the Angel Island event. “It boosted morale, no question. It showed that the company cares about its employees. But you have to reinforce the team-building lessons. They can fade,” she advises.
Michael Swyney at Pacific Palms agrees that motivation is short-term. “Before we begin an event, I always talk to the group. I tell them, ‘Don’t let this go. Realize this value of this time.’ If they can make it last three months back at the office, that’s pretty good.
“You can’t do this once and never do it again,” he continues. “If anything, a successful team-building event raises the bar for the group. The next time, they will expect something better.”
Meeting professionals ready to incorporate team-building into their programs would do well to do some advance planning, team-building experts agree. Swyney says that meeting professionals can do themselves a big favor right at the start: Don’t call it team-building. “People don’t really like the term. If someone says you’ve got to show up at eight in the morning for team-building, suddenly there are a lot of excuses. Call it ‘group dynamics’ instead, because that’s what it really is.”
Dan Tavrytzky agrees: “Try not to have your people show up with a lot of preconceived ideas. Preparation isn’t important except that people need to know what kind of clothes to wear.” Tai Kuncio at Absolute Adventures says she always advises meeting professionals to send out e-mails advising participants how to dress. “Other than that, a lot of times groups we’re working with don’t really know what they’re getting into. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. You have to know your group.”
Lisa Dupar of the Seattle catering company recalls a group of German employees of one company who arrived at her kitchen ready to eat and drink, but not to cook. “They were like, ‘Where’s the beer?’ They didn’t really get what the event was all about at first, but then they got into it. So I think you’ve got to let people know what they’re in for.”