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Corporate Team Building: Getting the Name Right

August 7, 2009   |   AUTHOR: Julius Solaris   |   POSTED IN: team building

This post is by Anne Thornley-Brown, President, Executive Oasis International, team building and incentive travel specialists.

The economic meltdown is giving our industry and its clients an opportunity to clear up confusion and return to a bottom line oriented approach to team building.

team building tips for your corporate events
Photo by Executive Oasis International

In the coming weeks and months, we will be examining team building from various angles. Before we embark on this exploration, let’s pin down some definitions.

Question: What do these headlines have in common?

Northumberland council criticized over team building courses (from the Journal, July 24, 2009)

“Thousands of staff working for Northumberland’s new super-council are being sent to special team bonding workshops – at which they are asked to say what animal they most closely resemble.

Part of the session involves participants being asked to tell other group members what animal they would describe themselves as given their personal characteristics. Some employees have been less than impressed by the initiative, which is being held at a time when the council has axed hundreds of posts and is facing major efficiency savings to balance its budget.”


Innovation in hotel teambuilding events (from Travel Weekly, November 1, 2008)

“Hilton Sydney has partnered with Microsoft and Xbox 360 to create Play@Hilton, a new complimentary gaming area available to all Hilton meeting delegates…. Play@Hilton can be selected as either a dedicated gaming room, complete with food and beverages, or as individual mobile units for use in the Hilton Meeting Centre common break areas throughout the duration of the meeting.”

Answer: They represent a disturbing trend in our industry. Increasingly, hotels, recreation centers and entertainment establishments have been marketing recreational and sometimes totally frivolous activities to corporate clients as “team building”. This has created confusion in the marketplace and diluted the meaning of the term “team building”.

Recreation does not Constitute “Team Building” but….

Before you write me off as a killjoy, I want to stress the fact that, I am not opposed to fun. In fact, I strongly believe that incorporating recreational activities into team building can help to relax the group, break down barriers and facilitate interaction during business exercises.

Social and recreational activities are important for team spirit and organizational health. However, merely getting a team together to participate in an activity does not constitute team building. We’re getting to the point that almost any activity from a night at the pub to racing slot cars is being dubbed as “team building” just because a group of employees get together to do it. This practice has trivialized the entire profession and caused many companies to dismiss all team building as fluff and cut the budget as soon as there is a dip in the economy.

Bouncing castles are great for company picnics and parties. I would use an Xbox lounge in a heartbeat for energizers during break time or for an evening activity during an executive retreat…but it’s not team building. Activities that are strictly recreational should not be passed off as “team building” merely to make it easier to market them to corporations or to justify (hide) them on financial statements.

Team Building vs. Team Recreation

The terms “team building and “team recreation” are not interchangeable.

Team recreation involves a group in an activity or experience just for the fun of it. No business objectives or outcomes are expected.

Team building improves team cohesiveness and performance to boost business results. Its goal is to introduce the group to tools and strategies that they can use to improve performance when they return to work.

Team Building Phases

To ensure that team building is effecitve, it is important to build the following phases into the design. (Please note that recreational activities are optional.)

- Pre-session Communique to communicate goals, objectives and expectations
- Executive Briefing to identify key business issues and clarify how team building is relevant to your business (1/2 hour – 1 hour)
- Team Briefing by the facilitator to set the context and establish ground rules ( 1 1/2 – 2 hours)
- Business Simulation that parallels organizational realities and reflects the challenges that your organization is facing (3 – 8 hours)
- Recreation– ideally this should be intersphered throughout the session (flexible & optional)
- Debriefing to uncover key learnings (1 hour)
- Business Application Exercises to give the group an opportunity to tackle specific business issues and challenges based on the tools and strategies acquired during team building (2 hours for prep., 5 to 15 minutes per group for presentations)
- Business Agenda Items (flexible)

Returning to a Bottom Line Focus

Let’s look at one last headline:
Indoor play area plans specials (from the Desert Sun, July 10, 2009)

“One program that is starting to gain popularity is a team-building boot camp involving inflatable equipment.
The business was starting to take off when the economy took a downturn, she said.”
Maybe the economic meltdown will have some benefits after all. Now that companies have to scrutinize and justify their spending, perhaps they will be less likely to try to pass off bouncing in an inflatable castle or jumping on a trampoline as “team building”.

Perhaps, we can finally get back to basics and down to business in team building. However, let’s hope that organizations don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Savvy executives will likely be able to cut through the foolish and frivolous and shift their focus to team building that adds real bottom line value. We can all help by using the terms “team building”, “team recreation”, “social activities”, and “entertainment” appropriately and accurately.

  • http://trade-show-promotion.blogspot.com/ Kye Swenson

    This is a solid outline for team building. One thing I've notice that has led businesses to pass off leisure activities as team-bulding activities is because many managers think they are forcing a “stiff” corporate culture in comparison to their competitors. But let's face it, there are few companies that have its own toys for employees to use to relieve stress (like Google does with the Googleplex).

  • http://www.movingfrommetowe.com KareAnderson

    Good for you for going public on so-called team building – and doing it so specifically so people can see that a bottom-line approach to all parts of a meeting, including this goal makes the meeting more meaningful for everyone. Having been a post-”team building” speaker where the many attendees were irritated or worse at the exercise they had “been put through” I know first hand how such activities have unintended consequences.

  • http://www.fragmnt.tv StevenJBarker

    Anne, you are dead on. To be honest though, I think “team building” is only years away from loosing it's meaning. We face an uphill battle when selling true team building's effect on the bottom line. We have a lot of work to do. As you said: back to basics.

  • http://twitter.com/executiveoasis Anne Thornley-Brown

    Thank you for all the retweets.

    Steven, alas, I think we are there already. Most ot the time when companies call to request “team building” they are asking for fun and games. It may be a challenge to get people to re-foucs on a bottom line approach. The recession may cause this to happen as a form of maket correction though. Kye I agree with you. I have definitely seen companies that have strong corporate cultures and provide employees with toys for stress relief, lounges for employees, team building that incorporates activities that are enjoyable, and social events a couple of times a yeart. I think this is a positive thing and that it definitely contributes to corporate, team and individual health. The key is to remember that companies are businesses first and providers of recreation second. Definitely there should be social events but the balance has pendulum has swung too far in the direction of fun and games. Nottome line oriented team building and recreational activities somehow seem to get painted with the same brush. Every time there is an economic downturn, the budgets are cut as team building gets perceived as a “non-discretionary” “activity”.

    Kare I hear you. It is no fun to work with a group that is frustrated because they have just gone through some activity that they consider to be a fluffy time waster.

  • http://twitter.com/executiveoasis Anne Thornley-Brown

    Thank you for all the retweets.

    Steven, alas, I think we are there already. Most ot the time when companies call to request “team building” they are asking for fun and games. It may be a challenge to get people to re-foucs on a bottom line approach. The recession may cause this to happen as a form of maket correction though. Kye I agree with you. I have definitely seen companies that have strong corporate cultures and provide employees with toys for stress relief, lounges for employees, team building that incorporates activities that are enjoyable, and social events a couple of times a yeart. I think this is a positive thing and that it definitely contributes to corporate, team and individual health. The key is to remember that companies are businesses first and providers of recreation second. Definitely there should be social events but the balance has pendulum has swung too far in the direction of fun and games. Nottome line oriented team building and recreational activities somehow seem to get painted with the same brush. Every time there is an economic downturn, the budgets are cut as team building gets perceived as a “non-discretionary” “activity”.

    Kare I hear you. It is no fun to work with a group that is frustrated because they have just gone through some activity that they consider to be a fluffy time waster.

  • daveblum

    Really interesting article. I agree whole-heartedly. I would say, however, that we shouldn't err too much on the other side and make our team-building TOO professional, TOO business oriented. The best simulations stand alone as well-structured, fun activities. We certainly don't need any more “death by powerpoint” team building sessions. But again I agree–once you've created and beta-tested your simulation for its “enjoyment factor”, then you absolutely MUST add in the elements that lead to discussion about your own organization and best practices for future work. Otherwise it's not team building–it's a team recreation.

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