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Why Teambuilding Programs Rarely Work
by Jonathan Vehar and Bob Eckert

Eight years ago, in his book "Powershift," renowned futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that the next source of power in the world economy would be the ability to manage, control and use knowledge. We are in that time -- Toffler's future is here.

Like never before, the ability to share and leverage the knowledge of others is separating successful organizations from those that fail. Many organizations focus on the geekily glamorous technology used to transfer knowledge such as: internet applications, LotusNotes, intranets, extranets, LANs, and the like. But the hardware and software is only a small part of the equation. The part that really calls for sophisticated interfaces is the pinkware (read: people).


Even with the best technology, systems fail. So how do you ensure that your high-tech, low-tech, or even no-tech knowledge-utilization system works? By making sure the people can work...together.

After all, the set of knowledge-utilization skills that add up to something we call team work is the critical method of operation in this information-driven economy. Whether in manufacturing or service, organizations which creatively increase efficiency and reduce cycle times by utilizing the wisdom of teams are consistently reducing their costs and improving their bottom line in long-term sustainable ways.


A training method which has grown in reputation and is widely used is to give the developing team incrementally more challenging tasks which, if the full skills of the individual and the group are used, will end in success. Programs using adventure-based methods such as Outward Bound, Project Adventure, ropes courses and their many spin-offs have proliferated.

As a former Outward Bound instructor and Project Adventure facilitator, I'm well versed in the methodologies; strengths and pitfalls. Sadly, the issue of physical prowess is almost impossible to eliminate as a contributor to success in these types of programs. I saw a clear need for a challenge methodology which eliminates the hierarchy of physical prowess, and equalizes the team members in a new and unusual environment.


The most frequent way we work to create Innovation Teams is in the usual organizational training environment: a conference room, training room, or hotel banquet room (although we like to be outside when weather permits). But we also work with teams using highly experiential training metaphors. Two new metaphors that we've been using to work with teams are 1) cooking and 2) sailing. We're focusing on cooking here, but the theory is similar.

The adventure of institutional level gourmet food preparation provides all of the challenge needed for great team building exercises, while at the sametime making physical prowess of no significance in the likelihood of successful outcome. While many of us exercise and have recreated extensively in the outdoors, very few of us have ever REALLY looked into the exotic environment of an institutional kitchen at a fine restaurant. We have no idea of the dynamics of creativity, communication and teamwork that occur behind the swinging door. This is the perfect environment for team building, and one in which ANYONE can excel.


We begin with the raw or half-baked team, a multi-station institutional kitchen, a chef who knows that (to paraphrase the old cliché) too much direction spoils the team building experience, a menu, raw foodstuffs and team-building facilitators. The group is briefed by the facilitators in the dynamics of productive teams, and given a series of simple challenges which could be easily overcome but which are chosen for their uncanny ability to set up participants to behave unproductively and fail.

Yes, fail.


As an Outward Bound instructor, a yardstick of skill was my ability to choose a challenge for a group that was perceived initially to be impossible, but which, by working hard together, the group would invariably succeed at. Consequent to that success was a significant increase in group esteem and "team spirit." Experience with my clients however showed me that upon returning to the workplace, the group rapidly moved from productive adventure challengers to business as usual. They were proud and a little bit arrogant, which is a recipe for inattentiveness to maintaining an effective team. "We don't need to remain vigilant for unproductive behaviors; we are a great team!"

Effectively used, the opposite formula yields a far more positive and long-lasting outcome. Failure, in the presence of simple challenges which only require that we behave in mature and productive ways (something we all know how to do...in theory) yields vigilance for unproductive behaviors where success methodologies yield overconfidence. So as participants struggle with these challenges, the lesson becomes clear: participants must remain constantly vigilant for their personal unproductive behaviors if they are to succeed in the long run and, more important, this vigilance must never end.


Into the kitchen we go. There is a short safety lecture by the consultant chef. The group is oriented to the facility. They are led to a table with a pile of ingredients and the menu for a 4-5 course gourmet meal. They are told that they have 2.5 hours to prepare the food and present it to be consumed. THEY will be consuming it. And, another warning: they are told that at some point in the process, the facilitator will introduce additional stress to the environment.


It is up to the group to define how they will manage the project. They are required to relegate responsibilities and manage resources. The group must find expertise of which they are not in possession and make it available where needed. Sound familiar? Why, it's just like real work!

Typically, teams arrange themselves into subgroups with specific menu items to prepare. Commonly, they must negotiate and share resources between subgroups. About halfway through the project, the facilitator informs each group that it has 5 minutes to transfer one of its members out and be prepared to accept a replacement. Just like the workplace! The stress begins to creep into the process. And the time is running short, as are the ingredients. And tempers. Naturally, the facilitator is watching the whole time for issues of communication, planning and productive team behaviors.


After the gourmet meal, the entire process is extensively debriefed for key learnings. The energy of the debriefing is one of curiosity about improvement potentials rather than one of celebratory backslapping and high fives. The celebration is more about learning to be vigilant than about how to be a high-functioning team. Being a productive team is hard work. It takes vigilance in an atmosphere of honest group introspection. Not easy work in itself.

The kitchen and the meal with friends have often been the places of honest conversation and evaluation of our lives. How many times have you found yourself at a party in the kitchen having the time of your life with friends? This type of experience leverages that cultural history for the improvement of team productivity, and consequently, the ability to manage and communicate the knowledge resource that is the true currency of commerce today.


Because a process like I've described fosters humility in the minds of the team rather than "ego-inflation", the team members carry an attitude of personal vigilance back to work along with their new team skills. They remain vigilant for their own unproductive behavior patterns, rather than defaulting into the old pattern of "blame-storming" that is present in so many potential teams.

We've been looking for methods to make team effectiveness training stick. Try it this way and you'll find out what we did. This works!

© Jonathan Vehar 2004, All Rights Reserved

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