Sophistication and innovation are the new watchwords in
development exercises. Lucie Carrington analyses the latest trends in
Team-building is the black polo neck of the training world – it’s perennially
fashionable and can be dressed up or down to suit the occasion. But while polo
necks haven’t changed much since the Beatles, team development that firms
invest in today has little in common with what satisfied them even 10 years
ago, when it was all about being cold, wet and adventurous.
"It used to be that firms simply wanted a group of people to be more
effective. That’s not what’s going on now," says John Atkinson, chief
executive at Yorkshire-based Fusions Training. "It’s much more likely to
be about some sort of cultural change, with organisations looking for people to
The nature of what makes up a team has shifted too. Teams are much more
fluid now than they used to be, Atkinson says. "We still have long-term
teams but we also have project teams and short-term teams, such as a cabin crew
that changes from flight to flight. Then again, we have teams that are simply
networks of people within an organisation."
Endless raft building has also left a sense of activity fatigue, according
to some experts. Julia Middleton, who heads up the leadership organisation
Common Purpose, has specialised in creating senior cross-sectoral teams.
"Among the senior people who participate in our programmes, there is
always a whole group who have done team-building, and as soon as they see the
Big T exercise coming up, know how to behave and so switch off learning mode
and move into performance mode," she says.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they know how to behave when they get back
to the office. Middleton’s view is that if team development activities are to
work, they have to have some other objective as well.
In addition, the market has also become intensely competitive. This has
enabled employers to demand more for their money and forced suppliers to add
more value. The result is that team development has become much more focused on
business aims and outcomes. It has also become more measurable.
Supermarket giant Tesco’s approach is a case in point. "We do quite a
lot of different team-type activities," says Kim Birnie, group learning
director. These range from what Birnie calls ‘me-and-my-team’ stuff, which
helps managers deal with particular issues, to divisional programmes that can
cascade down through thousands of staff, through to corporate leadership
"We use creative learning techniques so that people will enjoy
it," Birnie says, but it’s very much about business benefit and
reinforcing Tesco’s corporate values. "We say that if you are trying to
create a new team, then there’s a Tesco way of doing it."
As a result, most team-building is delivered in-house. For example, Tesco
has developed its own team development tool, called High Performing Teams, that
managers can use. They don’t have to use it all but can pick and choose the
bits they want – those which are appropriate for their team.
Outcomes are also very important, Birnie says. "We are very good at
holding people to account and follow up on what they said they would do
Suppliers have understood that their clients want team-building that adds
value to their business. Programmes and activities are now much more tailored
to the needs of individual teams, says Gary Platt, a senior consultant at
As a result, there is now a massive emphasis on helping participants
understand more about where they fit into the team. With this comes an array of
psychometric measures and team analysis tools that are used as the basis for
Some suppliers are more attached to these diagnostic tools than others.
Woodland Grange uses a mixture of Myers Briggs personality types, Belbin team
roles and the Strength Deployment Inventory. But they are simply a means to an
end, insists Platt.
"Whether these models are true or not, I couldn’t care less. They are
an important way of getting people to think about what they are doing, how they
are behaving and how that might be affecting the people they work with."
Along with other experts, he believes that’s a crucial step in the team
Taking account of organisational culture is also important when developing
and delivering team-building activities – especially when using outdoor
challenges. Platt talks about ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ organisations. Values and a
belief in letting people get on with things drive hot organisations, Platt
says, and Virgin Atlantic is probably one. However, cold organisations, such as
the Civil Service, are driven by rules, codes and hierarchy.
"There would be no point in using team-building activities that foster
ideas about values, beliefs and empowerment for a cold organisation when it
simply doesn’t fit into the way they work," Platt says.
In fact, the use of team-building activities at all can be questioned.
"You can resolve many team issues without picking up any activity, through
reviewing how people work and facilitating discussions and problem-solving
processes," he says.
This is the approach Jan Matthews takes in what she calls ‘team therapy’.
This has come out of her work as a trained counsellor and therapist. "Team
therapy is about helping people find ways of doing things differently,"
Matthews says. "The work I do is very much about getting individuals
within the team to stop moaning about situations they aren’t happy with and
doing something about it."
Matthews has developed this approach working with Warwickshire County
Council Social Services. She offers a minimum of three sessions with a team of
about 10 spread over six months.
Impact also offers this sort of team coaching as part of its work with
senior teams. "More and more, we are becoming coaches of teams and working
along side them," says senior account manager Ian Cook.
The greater sophistication of team development hasn’t completely squeezed
out the motivational approach to team-building, especially for more junior or
front-line teams. "It’s still useful if you’ve got a bunch of people who
work hard and need to work well together," Cook says.
"It’s about giving them a strong shared experience that they can refer
back to." Which is pretty much where team-building started all those
Tips for top-notch activities
– Plan ahead – do not contact your supplier at the last minute because you
have just found that you have some extra cash – you are not going to get good
value for that
– Know what you want to achieve – is it genuine team-building or a problem
manager who needs help?
– The clearer you are about your objectives, the more focused the supplier
– Whenever practicable, involve the team in defining objectives
– Get the backing of team managers
– Find a supplier who wants to get to know your business and invest in that
– Do not consider a firm that is not prepared to tailor its team-building
activities to suit your people
– Ensure activities are clearly relevant to your workplace build in time and
money to review the success of the programme
– Measure your results – if the aim was to reduce the number of mistakes and
increase revenues – has it happened?
The right motivation
Team-building and motivation went
hand-in-hand when Cereal Partners, manufacturers of breakfast cereal, called in
Fusions Training to run a series of workshops for the Welwyn Garden City
factory last autumn.
"The workshops were targeted at getting the new bonus
scheme to work," says Daryl Richards, training and development manager.
The scheme is based on reducing wastage and saving energy, and the activities
Fusions developed were designed to meet that objective. For example, a simple
exercise of getting water from ‘a’ to ‘b’ had obvious parallels with product
"We opted for a motivational day with a bit of fun,"
Richards says. "Staff weren’t keen at first and there were plenty of
people who insisted they weren’t running anywhere. But it worked brilliantly."
"It was incredibly motivational but it was also a way of
getting people to think twice about what they do and how they do it."
There has been some lasting impact too, Richards says.
Relationships have improved, and so too has productivity.