I was the "interviewee" for an "Inside the Executive Suite" article from Armada Corporate Intelligence about how to plan team building exercises that create impact for work teams. As described in the article, I've been on the good and bad side of various team building exercises during my career. I'm not a big fan of having people do trust falls and anything that's going to make them physically uncomfortable. Instead, we've tried to use the right mix of pre-packaged programs and custom designed team building exercises (i.e., a 1,200-person giant paint-by-number activity) to generate near-term impacts and longer-lasting benefits.


Here's an edited version of the "Inside the Executive Suite" article. – Mike Brown

3 Keys to Team Building Exercises that Create Impact

We don’t know about you, but only one thing surpasses our lack of enthusiasm for developing ice breakers and team building exercises. That’s our lack of enthusiasm for PARTICIPATING in these exercises when we’re not leading them. Too often, group activities intended to build team affiliation and collaboration are disconnected from meaningful objectives, resulting in no lasting business impact.

An article in Bloomberg Businessweek called, “Mandatory Fun,” highlights how organizations are turning to outside organizations to handle employee team building activities. This goes beyond implementation to planning them as well. One reason is internal managers are too taxed to generate ideas for team builders that create real impact. As a result, they schedule happy hours that might become intriguing experiences, but are hardly furthering business objectives.

A New York-based company, Wekudo, has popped up to handle strategizing and planning team building activities. “We could do,” as its name is pronounced, matches companies looking for team building with activity and event providers that could fit the bill. Currently, the company serves only New York City.

If your company is outside New York and you are saddled with identifying team building activities, what are great, alternative ideas beyond sending everyone to the local watering hole with $20 for drinks?

We asked an executive in our network for a ideas about what sets the stage for team building success. Here are his suggestions for designing team building exercises with the potential to deliver lasting impact while fitting current budgets.

1. Identify What Impact You Need – Currently and Ongoing

“It’s easy to find pre-packaged team building exercises. While some seem to go in and out of fashion, there is no shortage of painting, pottery, improv, paintball, rope course, sports, and extreme activities pitching pitch themselves as meaningful team building activities.

“While any of them could be great experiences for a team, until you decide what you want to accomplish from the activity right now and into the future, who knows what is best? If you go into it without a strategy, you’re just taking up a lot of peoples’ time with random activity. Start by deciding if your objective is:

  • Spending time together
  • Learning more about one another
  • Building trust
  • Accomplishing something
  • Learning job-applicable skills
  • Demonstrating healthy vulnerability among team members
  • Forging lasting relationships
  • Identifying natural leaders

“Those are just a few possibilities. Once you know the desired impact, you can explore and vet activities strategically. That applies whether you are buying an experience from a third-party or designing and creating one within your company.”

2. Decide What Type of “Different” You Need

“Having one or more elements of the team building activity that are different, exotic, or at least outside the norm of daily work situations turns activities into memorable experiences. Planners can get carried away, however, thinking EVERYTHING has to be different for effective exercises. That’s not the case. Working from the impact you want to achieve, are you best served by:

  • Selecting a different location?
  • Intermixing different people?
  • Engaging in a different type of activity?
  • Having people act in different roles than are typical?

“I’m a believer in keeping some parts of team exercises familiar. Having familiar elements tied to daily work life helps create a connection between the team builder and routine activities people will return to soon. Often, a different activity and location go together (i.e., going somewhere DIFFERENT to play paintball or engage in a sports activity). If those elements are different, the challenge becomes how other experience elements are tied to the workplace. One approach is keeping a standing work team together during an activity so they learn more about how each other performs in new situations.

“Budget constraints mean we have had to develop different types of activities within familiar workplace settings. Those are challenging; one key is avoiding ice breaker games people have done fifty times. We’ve used writing and performing songs, an ice breaker where the group introduces each attendee, and having people name the actor that would play them in a movie to create memorability and impact in boring conference rooms.”

3. Create Something Tangible

“Increasingly, we’re having groups create individual or collaborative content within team builders. We’ve had 100+ educators generate the content for an eBook in under an hour. A Fortune 500 creative department traveled to a new city for an immersion experience culminating in generating new product ideas. The conference attendees we mentioned that participated in the paint-by-number activity created, when their work was combined, two unique backdrops used the next day at the conference they were attending.

“In each of these, tangible outputs had business purposes. What was different was the experiential, participatory nature of how they were created. None of the people in these three examples were full-time writers, new product developers, or artists, respectively. We used structure, however, to let them take on new business roles successfully and memorably.”

You Have Options

Whether you go outside for team building activities or handle them within your organization, these planning questions will be valuable to ensure your team building experiences create memories AND have a positive impact on your team’s ongoing performance.  – Armada Corporate Intelligence

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