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Teambuilding can work

Monday, 12 September 2011

Sometimes, something I read in the paper makes me simply put my head in my hands and sigh, and that was the case a couple of weeks ago when I came across the headline:

Civil servants sent on trips to play drums

You can probably guess the rest of the story. Probably following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, Whitehall said that they'd spent £38,000 on "away days", with £26,000 being spent in one year with one company. I have one major issue with this article, and others like it, and it's this: either the journalists, or the client, or a combination of the two, are undermining the very principle of teambuilding.

Teambuilding works

We offer team building events, and I've been running them for nearly ten years now. We often do things that can be sneered at - leaping from tall things, running around in woods, lighting fires and so on - but we focus, really hard, on doing things that work: that have a real, positive impact on people's performance in the workplace. That means translating whatever exercises you do into practical, useful stuff for the individuals involved. It's never about the exercises themselves.

Journalists are journalists

One way of looking at this is to critique the journalistic approach. A story about 'civil servants' (an image of grey suits anyone?) doing rhythm exercises on African drums (giggling yet?) whilst spending our heard-earned money (seething yet?) makes a 'good' story - because it taps into our emotions.

What it doesn't do is actually look at whether the amount spent on teambuilding is beneficial? £26,000 is a lot of money, until perhaps you put it in context. That sort of cash in a large organisation could easily be saved by a team working more efficiently and effectively together. Would it seem unreasonable to suggest that, if the whole of Whitehall worked better together, a massive multiple of £26,000 could be saved?

"Frustrated hill walkers"

Once, in a pitch, I was asked whether I was a "frustrated hill walker". The potential client (who became a real one after the meeting!) bought into experiential outdoor learning, but got annoyed with people who ran these sessions without any real understanding of business. He viewed them as "frustrated hill walkers" - people who were simply trying to make money out of their hobby, packaging it as a team build when actually it was just a fun day out (for those who like that sort of thing).

There is nothing wrong with people who work together having fun together; it'd be an awful world if we didn't. But there is something wrong with doing fun stuff and pretending that it (alone) will improve business performance. You need to make the connection between what you are doing and the real world of work if any long term positive benefit is going to come out of a team-build.

A non-story

Ultimately, in its own context, this was a bit of a non-story. In a broader context, however, it does very clear show the dangers of confusing 'activities' with team development, and will hopefully focus people's minds on getting real value out of teambuilding sessions.

What I hope it doesn't do is tar all experiential training providers with the same brush. What are your thoughts and experiences?


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