Team building – anything’s possible if you can afford it

It seems you get what you specify.

Abseiling down a gorge, paintballing in a forest, rafting on a wet and windy day in Wales it would appear that team bonding can occur at any time – and under the most unusual circumstances.

There really is very little that team building specialists cannot facilitate these days – something that Rob Finley, director of Team Adventure Activities UK can attest to.

One of the more elaborate corporate programmes the former soldier has devised involved meeting a group of four bank executives at Heathrow Airport at 7am (they thought they were going to a business meeting), accompanying them to Geneva and then transferring them to a glacier by helicopter. In true Bond-style, they swapped their suits and briefcases for snow and ice suits and scaled a peak before flying back in time for dinner – shaken, tired and hopefully stirred.

Whether you’re looking to hone leadership qualities, improve group working skills, build relationships or simply break the ice between new departments, there is a suitable team-building event out there for you, says Finley, whose company has been organising events with Lloyds TSB for some five years now.

“For example, if you’re after a traditional problem-solving day, I’d always recommend a Crystal Maze type set-up in the morning – which involves a group of around six finding problems, construction tasks and brain teasers (they are scored on how well they complete the tasks), followed by a raft race in the afternoon. All the credits a group has achieved are then counted up and they can use them to buy raft-building equipment.”

More useful

He says this type of structured team building event is far more useful – and better value for money – than something like go-karting, which will actually put group members back in an individual role while they are completing the task. In terms of cost, Finley estimates that a problem-solving day like the one described will cost around £65 per head for the day, while go-karting could easily cost a company £65 an hour.

While fun, but unstructured, events are perfectly adequate rewards or ice-breaking sessions, experts warn that companies should not expect to see any tangible team-building improvements back in the office environment.

According to Carol Cole of the Association of Business Psychologists, selecting an appropriate event comes down to evaluating the purpose.

“If the event is all about having a good time, or being staged as a reward, then something like paintballing is fine,” she explains. “But it would be naïve to assume there will be a direct correlation between the way people enjoy the day and the way they go about their work back at the ranch. Such events can sometimes be quite divorced from the realities of the business world.”

Far from being a useful by-product of a good day had by all, results-driven, team-building programmes have to be carefully co-ordinated to reflect the needs of a business and provide individuals with clarity about their role within a team, says Steve Turner, director of Bramley Lakes Learning & Development, a company which specialises in one-day and residential team-building programmes at its two country estates in Norfolk and France’s Loire Valley. It also uses the Dorney Lake rowing centre at Eton which will feature in the 2012 Olympic Games.

“There’s a degree of negligence if people just book an event and think team-building happens naturally,” he insists. “Team-building is a strategic choice, not a virtue. It doesn’t happen by just turning up. People need to understand the objective.”

Turner, a former Olympic rower, explains that Bramley Lakes uses both indoor and outdoor team-building activities as part of an experiential learning process. Each programme is bespoke and specifically geared to address the outcomes and objectives an organisation is looking to achieve.

Different examples

“We drill down and look at any problems upfront – at different examples of where a type of behaviour is being exhibited,” Turner continues. “This pays a return further down the line [during an event] because you’re working to more defined set of objectives. We’re about inspiring performance and we underpin that with three mechanisms: experience, solutions and results.”

Having worked a number of high-profile blue chip clients, as well as smaller businesses, Turner says that effective team-building programmes tend to go down the clarity route, with the concept of a working in a smart and healthy way: smart – meaning good processes and so on healthy – representing softer skills and how people interact with each other.

“Our differentiator is really correlating the things they do to business situations. Any activity we put on a programme is used to draw out business analogies. Invariably, we’re looking at barriers to why that doesn’t happen in the workplace. In sports, it’s pretty clear what the goal is and there is usually a good feedback mechanism. The challenge in the corporate world is that sometimes the clarity isn’t there and the feedback can be particularly weak. That could be down to a number of factors – such as an undefined goal, management processes or an individual not asking for feedback.”

Turner claims that the beauty of team-building is that it allows companies to accelerate a process where a team can work in a cohesive manner when the pressure is on – ensuring a project has a high level of performance throughout.

“Most of the programmes we work on run over at least four to six events (usually starting with a one- or two-day event) because people are looking for sustainability,” he explains. “Ultimately, companies want to build a team that is self-managing.”

Typical costs for a five-event Bramley Lakes programme featuring 10 or 11 people would range between £20,000-£30,000 for a six- to nine-month period.

Clear objectives

Liz McKechnie, senior partner at Impact Factory, agrees that effective programmes have clear – and well communicated – objectives.

“You do the tasks, allow the outcomes to speak for themselves and then look at what you’ve learned,” she says. “And this should be followed up six months later so that learning is embedded.”

In the current financial climate, the case for team-building can be a difficult one to argue, but McKechnie insists that this type of intervention does not have to entail spending significant sums sending people out of the office.

“The trick is not so much what you do – it’s how you work with what you do that gives the value to an organisation,” she states. “I do think people have to think very carefully about how they spend their budget [on team-building] they need to be sure there is a value to it. We’re a consultancy and we’re very happy to discuss people’s options with them – whether they choose to use us or not.”

She says in the current climate many companies are looking to run programmes in-house – and argues that these can be just as effective.

“We can easily offer a team build that doesn’t involve going outside, for example theatre games which can offer people a hugely jolly day. It’s a question of being a bit creative and being very clear about why you’re doing it. Generally speaking, if you’ve got one day, you can deliver a message and get people working together. But everything should be written to a set of aims and objectives.”

TOP TIPS

  • Talk to some reputable companies about what your options might be
  • See if there’s something you could do in-house
  • Follow any in-house session up with a nice lunch to boost morale and convey the message that the company is not merely paying lip service to team-building
  • You can save money by heading straight to a specialist supplier – this will enable you to negotiate a greater discount and avoid paying additional sub-contractor commissions
  • Use an organisation that is willing to invest time with you
  • Have a good idea of what you want the outcome to be
  • Track the benefits on an ongoing basis

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