Team – Teambuilding events: doing the right thing

This first appeared in the Huffington Post 11th November 2013.

I feel privileged and really lucky that last year I got to be part of a team that enabled two cyclists to ride non-stop on a tandem for just under 60 hours covering almost 1400 km and on the way getting remarkably close to breaking a long-standing record. Being part of this team was quite simply an exceptional experience. The level of dedication, focus, camaraderie, desire to succeed and openness to improvement and change was something special. It remains for me a special memory and I got to experience and observe it first hand and, if this is what a great team is, it’s worth a whole heap of effort to create.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many teams, some of whom frankly I was glad not to be a member of. More positively, other teams were so good I learnt more from them than any value I have delivered. Great teams don’t just happen. They are the result of hard work, reflection, and learning as well as appropriate leadership and followership.

The focus here is on events which are held in order to develop the team in some way, and not simply in team meetings. I’m not going to cover all the dimensions; just a few of the key pointers to get you started and help you avoid the most common mistakes.

Bunkum or beneficial?

Team events can be amazing, powerful, developmental experiences that significantly improve the performance of a group of people. They can also be dire, pointless, and even dangerously close to abusive. I began to question using the outdoors to develop teams when over a decade ago my co-author found himself trying to persuade a non-swimmer to leap five metres into the sea off cliffs in Pembrokeshire – all in the interests of team building. She did it, but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say she was a better team player as a result. This incident led to us researching the efficacy of outdoor management development and concluding that at best its benefits were unproven and at worst it was unethical.

With thousands of companies all offering promises of enhanced performance through activities as diverse as chocolate making, stand-up comedy, ‘it’s a knockout’, climbing, art, drama and personality profiling exercises – it’s really hard to work out what is a gimmick and what’s genuine – or more bluntly what’s a complete waste of time and money and which is likely to deliver an ROI.

Before the event

By thinking through the following issues before embarking upon a team event you stand a better chance of making a difference to your customers, the business and the people involved. Ignore these principles and the delegates may still have a good time but it will almost certainly be of little practical business value.

What’s the point?

The most important input into the design of any team event is not what the choice of activities should be but the outcome you hope to achieve. What is it you wish people to be doing at the end that they are not doing now? This might be the way they are behaving or the tasks they are focused upon. Whatever it is, be really clear on what you would like the outcome to be – begin with this end in mind. Unless you know what you want to achieve, how can you know you what to do and whether you have been successful?

For example, if you want the team to have a bit of fun and relax together following a very intense period of work, it may well be that a fun session doing something like chocolate making followed by a dinner is entirely appropriate. On the other hand if you are starting a project, time taken to share previous experiences and personal perspectives on the challenges that lie ahead may be more appropriate. The choice of activity is dictated by the end you seek to achieve.

Is there any other way?

A team event serves to deal with team issues; bringing people together for the event should be because there is no better way of addressing the issues. For example, understanding your own personality profile does not require the team to be together. Understanding how these different styles impact upon each other from a team perspective is better done if everyone is there to hear and think through the implications.

At what price?

Whilst it is sometimes difficult to assess the value of a team event, you should at least be aware of the financial cost and the opportunity cost. It is sometimes useful to translate these into the amount of sales required to cover the cost of the team event. For example, if you work in retail, calculate how many average baskets of shopping would have to be sold to generate enough profit to pay for the team event. This can help attendees appreciate how much value the event needs to deliver to be considered worthwhile – it can help focus minds.

Building or working?

A group of direct reports who meet once a month to update you on what they have been doing is not a team; it’s a collection of direct reports. Unless there is a clear and direct mutual dependence on others to achieve a goal, you don’t need to worry about team building, instead focus on developing team working skills. Developing team working skills doesn’t need a specific team event; it can be achieved through on-the-job coaching, mentoring and/or attending a development programme.

A group of people expected to own a common goal or set of common goals on which their collective performance is measured ought to be behaving as a team – whether there are formal reporting lines or not. Team building in this case is worthwhile and develops a group of people striving to achieve a specific aim. Team working helps people understand how to work as part of any team. So decide which you need – team building or team working?

Don’t be devious

If you have a problem individual, don’t think holding a team building event will somehow fix the problem. It will annoy the team and make little difference to the individual. Focus on coaching the individual instead. If you have a strong desire to spend time in the outdoors, don’t justify it by organising a team event – do it in your own time. Don’t hold a team event to somehow help people make a decision you’ve already made. It will discredit the process and you will be seen as manipulative, dishonest and political.

Is that you in the mirror?

An under-performing team says as much about you as it does about the team. So if you don’t like what you see, in the way the team is behaving, ask yourself this: ‘What am I doing that leads these people to believe that this is the right way to behave?’ Start with what you need to change in the way you are managing before addressing the way the team behaves.

During the event

Less is more

If there’s one golden rule for team workshops it is – less is more. Better to do less really well than try and over-pack the agenda with activities that never really allow conversations to develop and understanding to deepen. There is always a desire to put lots in, which is understandable, but having a conversation about an aspect of team performance that needs to improve, and then working out a plan of action, can take time.

Be aware of the facilitator or company promising to solve all your team problems in a day. It’s rubbish. Team behaviours take weeks, months and years to develop and can take some time to truly change. In a day you might begin to identify the key issues and possibly come up with a solution for one or two, but expect it to take a whole lot longer to see the difference in the way the team behaves.

Smoke and mirrors or real value?

Facilitators can be very helpful in a number of ways:
• they allow you to focus on contributing to the conversation without having to worry about keeping the discussion on track
• they can handle the group dynamics and ensure everyone is able to contribute
• they can enable difficult conversations to be had, helping steer them through the tough bit
• they can focus on the process and timing so you don’t have to
• they can challenge you back on behalf of the group to ensure the team are not simply being railroaded into a decision

A good facilitator should help the team feel as if they have had a great day without the presence of the facilitator really being noticed. A good facilitator is like a good midwife. They don’t need to have had a baby to be a midwife, but it helps! A good facilitator doesn’t need to know the topic but it really helps if they understand the business, the acronyms in use and the key drivers of business performance.

A bad facilitator can consume too much air time, be fixated on the agenda and lead the team into dead-end discussions as well as being focussed on what they are doing rather than the group.

If you are going to use a facilitator, spend some time with them. Allow them the opportunity to meet the team and hear each perspective on the issues and challenges. That way the facilitator avoids being biased by your view. If they are any good, during these conversations they will spot the pain points and potentially challenging issues that are either unspoken or avoided and help the team address them.

Heroes, athletes and the famous

Getting input from someone famous or an amazing athlete is always good fun. But a great runner is not the same as a great business person. The challenges of sport are different from those we face in business. Often, the performance level is so far removed from us mere mortals that we struggle both to relate to it and connect it to the business.

If you want someone to help your team be inspired about performing well in business, get someone who’s good at business to talk to them. If you want them to understand how to be a great rugby player – get a rugby player to talk to them. However, a great rugby player who’s also a top business person – that’s different!

Dissent does not equal lack of willingness to work as a team

Team events are often expected to produce a consensus, a shared belief in what the future could be and sense of how to get there. When someone disagrees, this is not evidence of a lack of team behaviour but a difference in perspective.

Don’t use difference as an excuse for discipline or dismissal. It could well be they are right and everyone else is wrong! In as much as you expect other people to be open, be open yourself.

After the event

Whatever you do on your team event – unless it was simply about having fun – there should be some actions arising. What are people going to do next? These actions need to be clear, precise, with an owner and auditable. Don’t rely on stuff simply happening; check to make sure it has happened. So many enthusiastic discussions are held that amount to nothing because as the old cautionary tale goes:

‘This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.’

Let’s be honest – unless you deliver a change in performance by people doing something different – what was the point?


Team events are not the solution for everything. They have their place, provided you are clear that what you need to achieve requires the team to think through how to change their performance or because you wish to reward them in some way.

They are not the solution for an under-performing employee or because you’ve decided you have a number of direct reports and that, therefore, means they must be a team. However, when appropriate, coaching a team to a higher level of performance is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a manager and leader. Best of all, having a great team around you to deliver your business objectives makes success a damn sight easier.

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2013 All rights asserted

“The world of business is missing a trick. The greater use of simulation to help improve people’s skills could lead to substantial improvements in performance. We should learn the lessons from other sectors.”