Team building and unconferences. A featured interview with Paul Hebert

Paul Hebert currently heads up the business development group at Excellence In Motivation, a $100+ million marketing services agency that focuses on influencing the behavior of a company’s employees, channel partners, vendors and customers. Paul has held a variety of positions with incentive companies from marketing to sales, sales positions within a brand identity firm and even had a position with a major defense contractor. His education is in Quantitative Business analysis and has worked with companies such as Chrysler, Toyota, AT&T, Convergys and other Global Fortune 500 firms.

Paul also writes a blog about influencing audience behavior at Incentive Intelligence. We cross posted on team building, unconferene and motivation, I invite you to have a look at the post on his blog.

Let’s see what he told us

1. Three qualities of a good team builder

1. First of all a good team builder must be able to suspend judgement about team members based on initial impressions. A good team builder waits and watches to assess strengths and weaknesses. Too often we start to assign roles and responsibilities based on initial impressions without taking the time to understand what one’s real abilities are. This is especially true if the the team leader already has some experience with the members of the team. In most team building exercises the team members are from the same organization or department and we assume contribution based on current position, job function or level. This could be a mistake. Take the time to talk through the team building exercise, listen for contributions and how people are interacting. It may surprise you who the contributors may really be. It may even make the most sense to eliminate reference to titles and work areas and make sure subordinates/supervisors are not on same teams.

2. Second, a good team builder must be attentive to the dynamics of the entire team, not just where the “action” is. In other words, while someone is talking or working, a team leader/builder assesses what the others are doing. It is similar to a coach that only watches what happens around the ball in a basketball or football game – much of what makes a team success happens away from the ball. Are the other members of the team engaged, or are they staring off into space? Are only one or two folks on the team actually participating and the others just going through the motions.

3. Third, a good team builder keeps the objective in mind during the entire exercise. Many team activities can shoot off onto tangents without someone there to continually provide course corrections. Every team exercise has a goal (and it is not to win – even if it is positioned that way.) A team exercise is about learning and growing – regardless of if you win. A team builder understands that winning is only one element of success. Ensuring the team is working toward the appropriate goals of the exercise takes some work.

2. The characteristics of a successful team building exercise are?

1. Simple to understand rules and instructions. Too complicated and the teams spends all their time just figuring out the exercise and never get around to working as a team toward the ultimate goal.

2. Hand in hand in with simplicity of instructions, is simplicity of outcome. Clear and concise success metrics. If the outcome has many interpretations then it won’t be clear who earned the award.

3. Multiple levels of contribution – in other words the exercise can’t rely too heavily on physical strength, or too heavily on high-end mathematics. The exercise should include challenges that cover a wide range of possible contributions – knowledge of a specific area, logic, problem solving, organization, creativity, etc. The more things that are required the better chance you will engage a larger number of team members.

3. Tell us the best result you got with a team building exercise

I was working with a large global tire manufacturer that had two sales organizations – one focused on the “passenger” segment and one focused on the “large truck” segment. Neither sales organization worked together yet they had many distributors and/or dealers in common. The dealer would therefore get a sales call from the guy selling passenger tires and a call from a person selling large truck tires. Neither sales person knew the other sales person and didn’t know what the business relationship was like. There were approximately 450 sales people from each organization – total of 900 sales people.

The goal of the meeting was simple – introduce the two teams, and encourage team problem solving.

Obviously, we needed a large area for the event. We used the parking lot at the Dallas Cowboys football stadium. The team exercise was to build a “car” out of plastic pipe. Each team was given a set amount of materials and they had the ability to trade in for different materials based on a “budget.” The teams had to design the car, build it and then race it for top awards. The process required team problem solving, team construction and then decisions on how/who to race. One of the fun parts was the tires used for the “cars” had the company brand on them.

The event was rated extremely high by the participants and many of the sales people were able to leverage their relationships made during the exercise to drive additional sales in the following year.

4. Tell us the most difficult situation you were involved and how you got out of it.

At the same meeting outlined above we did have a fairly substantial injury. The cars, built out of piping, were powered by the team members pushing the vehicles down a track while one team member was in the car steering. In one case a car simply came apart and the “driver” severely injured his leg. We had planned accordingly and there were emergency vehicles on site for quick removal and treatment.

5. The day of the team building event your survival kit includes…

1. A Plan B – for every team event planned there is a second team event planned. Every event has unanticipated problems, from weather, to poor venue design, etc. A good event always has a back up that requires different logistics. This ensures that an event will happen – even if it is not as glamorous or well-prepared.

2. Luck – sometimes you just need luck. However, luck favors the prepared mind (see number 1)

3. Communications – keeping all constituents in the loop on what’s going on – from the participants to the executives. Keeping everyone up to date on what’s happening eliminates second guessing and overreaction to small problems that inevitably crop up. No event is flawless.

6. Why team building activities should be preferred to other forms of motivation techniques?

I don’t think that team building is “preferred” to other techniques. It based on the objective. I would say that more and more in today’s business, team work is critical to success so I would say that team building activities are more prevalent and more often considered than in the past. I’d ask myself the following questions to determine if team building is the right technique:

Is my objective something that, at the core, is based on two or more individuals working together?
Is my future business strategy one that will require team building? In other words, is now a good time to get the teams built in advance of a change in the organization?
Am I willing to invest after the event to ensure the tools (software, additional meetings, etc.) are available to continue the team building experience. Team building requires a lot of ongoing support after the initial event if it is going to be taken seriously by the participants. Nothing damages an organization more than a huge team building exercise with no follow up to reinforce the message.

7. Share a winning team building idea for our readers to try

This may sound like a cop-out but there isn’t a “winning idea”. Each company has unique needs for team building. Rarely is the overall need for the meeting “team building” but more likely team building to achieve a specific business objective. Is it a need for greater trust because you’re combining two separate organization entities that typically compete? Is the need one of simple social networking – knowing who has knowledge and in what areas to enhance speed and quality of solution development? Each of these objectives will create a different exercise or process.

They all will have some things in common – as indicated in number 2 – simplicity of design, simplicity of measurement and multiple levels of contribution. The process may change based on the overall objective, time allocated, space, numbers, location, etc.

8. What do you see as the top three motivation issues surrounding unconferences?

I think the key here is to create an environment that can allow people to be motivated. In other words, we need to remove barriers to motivation as opposed to create reasons to be motivated. The top three things I would do from a motivation/influence point of view are:

1. First and foremost I see education as the first issue regarding motivation at an unconference. Unconferences are very different from traditional meetings and events and regardless of how motivated a participant is, without knowledge of the process it won’t work. We have a saying in the motivation world – motivation with out education is energized incompetence. The first thing I would do is provide the information about unconferences – what it is, how it works, what the outcomes are, etc. I would then do a “quiz” with reinforcement – some sort of award – to get the participants into the material.

2. Second – since it is so different than what a typical attendee has experienced I would make sure that the communication surrounding the unconference included some testimonials from people who have come from similar backgrounds and found the unconference successful. A very powerful influencer is testimonials from people that are similar in nature to the target audience. People need to see that it has worked with people like them.

3. Third – I would continually document small successes along the way – before the meeting as things are getting organized, during the meeting as things are accomplished and after the meeting. Seeing successes – no matter how small – creates the feeling that this is actually working. Communicating the progress will influence folks to continue to make progress. Nothing motivates like achieving a goal. Continually show the participant that the unconference is getting them where they need to go.

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Julius Solaris
Julius Solaris is the editor of, he is an international speaker and author of The Good Event Registration Guide and Event App Bible.
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