How to Make Team Building Work for You
By Bart Allen Berry
Nov 5, 2006 - 2:21:00 PM

Teamwork is the catalyst that helps a business enterprise realize it�s full potential. Developing teamwork is therefore a long term strategic imperative, not just a touchy feely, feel good session. Developing teamwork is about facilitating a commitment to working together on the goals of the company and aligning the circumstances and opportunity for workers to contribute their best.

For an organization to reach it�s potential, it must deploy it�s human assets efficiently, for maximum productivity, creativity and synergy. For this to happen, people must want to work together, and this kind of highly focused commitment is ultimately an individual behavioral decision made by each employee. The challenge of managing individual commitment to the team, overcoming ego behaviors, lack of teamwork skills and process, and creating an inclusive and participatory work environment should not be taken lightly.

Few organizational dimensions have such great potential for organizational success if handled well, while carrying the seeds of catastrophic failure if managed badly.

With the importance of teamwork in mind, this article addresses the key elements a company should be looking at when designing a team building or team development program.

I. Start with a vision of where you are going and why it makes sense to get there. Team members need to participate in defining what kind of team they want to become, how they want to treat one another, and how they want to be perceived by their customers. Although any work group�s manager might be able to develop the ideal state vision of teamwork for his subordinates, it is critically important for the team to develop this together. Facilitating �buy-in� to a compelling picture of what the group is working towards becoming gives everyone a positive outlook and hope for the future and assures them that there is something in it for them. When employees have the chance to have input in this regards they will support, rather than resist the future state ideal for teamwork.

II. If it is an intact work team that has been together for a few months or more, do a thorough diagnosis of how things are working now. Instruments such as Aquarius Training & Development�s Functional Workgroup Teamwork Survey uncover detailed issues and problems and hidden histories that often hold back team participation. Anonymous administration of this type of comprehensive survey creates an effective current state benchmark of the work group�s strengths and weaknesses. Without this type of thorough diagnosis- even if utilized to confirm that things are going well, team development program efforts must rely on luck and anecdotal narrow perspectives to hit their mark. Guessing at what you think a team needs is the first step on the road to wasting your time energy and money on team building. Many times, team members will not open themselves to new teamwork approaches unless old issues and �water under the bridge� are addressed in some fashion. When the current state of teamwork is effectively analyzed, a target list of issues, problems and needed teamwork skills forms the basis for program design. Discussion of anonymous results also gives the group permission to talk about sensitive topics with tact and diplomacy some they can put them to rest and move on to more productive behaviors. It is important to be clear here that teamwork behaviors can be measured and statistically represented for later comparison to quantify results.

III. With team development targets prioritized, and time and budget constraints applied, work teams need high leverage learning experiences that work on several levels simultaneously to deliver the results intended. There is no more powerful adult learning modality than experiential learning. Properly designed experiential exercises and organizational simulations have powerful components;

> Unfamiliar task and settings shuffle the traditional positional relationships and create a more level playing field, which stimulates higher levels of participation by everyone.

> Artificial use of symbolism and metaphorical role-playing are designed to create situations that closely parallel organizational challenges and learning opportunities without real penalty factors. Participants often learn as much from failing in an exercise as they do when they are successful. Lessons stand out in greater relief, and are easier to objectively analyze.

> When properly facilitated, experiential exercises are adjusted to the appropriate adult learning levels and somewhat customized for different worker populations from line workers to top executives, sales groups to engineers. Curiosity, surprise, competition, and in a word- fun, keeps adult learners engaged.

> High-energy participation allows co-workers the opportunity to see themselves as more human, outside of work, as each reveals more about their true character and personality and develops a new appreciation for what each has to contribute, as well as personal styles and preferences. Individuals step out of their traditional roles and experiment with new behaviors.

> A well-organized team development program utilizing experiential exercises will present a series of progressive exercises that not only address work group issues and teach new teamwork skills but give the group the opportunity to �practice� and observe the cause-effect relationship between operating in a new way and the results they get. Teams rarely get the opportunity to practice working together, and this is the reason a large portion of an effective team development program should be spent in the experiential mode. Issues and skills addressed include everything from team leadership and planning skills to conflict resolution, communication and collaboration, problem solving approaches, and continuous improvement root cause analysis. The emphasis her is on actual practice, however, with minimal use of didactic lecture and one-sided presentations.

A point can be made here about what types of experiences are, in the mind of this author, a waste of time and money. Scavenger hunts, paintball, jeep tours, and golf may be fun recreation, but they cannot be expected to create the changes in behavior most teams need to be more effective at work. If recreation is what you�re after, there is always value from a high-energy shared experience, just don�t expect it to create a measurable team development benefit. Just because work teams are participating in something doesn�t necessarily mean you are doing teamwork training. The lucky thing is, well designed and professionally delivered team development programs should also be fun, and in fact learning is much more effective when this is the case.

It is also important to note that the longer your team development program the better results you can expect. When groups overcome initial resistance to participation and become fully engaged, their potential for learning and growth is exponentially higher. It is important to leverage this delicate state as much as possible, once it is established. A half day is an absolute minimum, one day is better, two days or more is great. You might ask yourself whether a simple outpatient procedure is all that�s needed or major interventional surgery.

IV. After a team has experienced a new way of operating, has learned new skills and approaches, and has opened up to charting a new course for teamwork, learning�s need to be transferred back to real world application at work. Typically, teams participate in a learning�s summary step and develop a list of actionable items that they will take responsibility for back at work. The best approach is to assign small improvement teams to making necessary changes in circumstances that effect teamwork and reporting on their results in 30 days or so. This ultimately makes team members �walk their talk� and follow through on the commitments they made at the team development program. These results should have measures that can be tracked for their effectiveness.

Although there are many intangible benefits to team development programs, especially when team members return from off-site programs and are noticeably more energized and warmer in their relations with one another, it is the follow through on commitments to change that will sustain the more short term �halo effect� of a high-energy team development program. Ultimately after 3 to 6 months, the baseline teamwork survey can be re-administered for a true objective measure of the program�s effectiveness and return on investment.

Many organizations spend thousands of dollars per year on events and meetings either solely devoted to team building or with some activities that are supposed to help with teamwork. Many of these are a waste of time, energy and money and produce no long term results at all. Often these types of events are ill-advised by unqualified meeting or event planners who know more about catering than organizational development. There is no reason that your valuable discretionary budgets for meetings and training can�t produce programs that are both fun and entertaining and a valuable and impactful team development training experience. Including the elements listed above, when professionally delivered, gives you a time tested and reliable formula to get the results you need for your work teams.

Bart Allen Berry is one of the world�s leading proponents of team development with 23 years of experience and team training delivered to more than 200,000 professionals worldwide. Bart is the founder and CEO of Southern California based Aquarius Training & Development and can be reached at [email protected]

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