Playing to win

Projects are drawing employees from all sectors of the business, which is where good teambuilding scores, as Simon Kent discovers

In the past decade, the importance of teambuilding has at last been realised. According to Phil McGeough, a consultant with the Industrial Society, 10 years ago many organisations held the somewhat unrealistic belief that any group of employees could be pulled together to work effectively as a team with no prior training or support.

"Nowadays developing teambuilding skills is critical," says McGeough. "Moreover, it’s important to understand from the organisation’s perspective what that team is about, where its members will be working and how they will work together in order to provide the right kind of intervention or support."

The rapidly expanding global nature of business together with flatter organisation structures have created many types of team. Andy Dixon, a consultant for outdoor training provider Impact, has noticed a significant increase in events targeted at cross-functional and international teams.

Phil McGeough also highlights the relatively new phenomenon of the "five-minute team", a selection of people drawn from diverse parts of an organisation who come together for a short time to solve a problem, then disband and move on to the next project.


Theatrical skills


With the increase in team-related challenges has been an increase in the techniques available to trainers for developing these skills. Outdoor schemes are extremely popular, but other trends are emerging – particularly the use of drama- and theatre-related skills. Team leading has even attracted its own qualification – NEBS Management, the specialist awarding body, has recently released Building Success, a CD-based resource which supports team-leading qualifications at Level 2.

In a recent event held at Impact, Andy Dixon found himself working with an international group of representatives from Mobil Plastics. However, although the attendees came from Italy, Holland and Luxembourg, it became clear that cultural issues and geographical distance were not the real issues that needed to be addressed. "People in the team were simply working on their bits of the business and ignoring what everyone else was doing," says Dixon. "At first glance you might have put that down to the cultural differences, but really it was a matter of breaking out of the ‘silo’ mentality."

Impact set the group a series of team tasks which relied upon some cross-team work to achieve the objective. In this way participants addressed the aims of their individual teams while being conscious of the other team’s operations. "Our technique at Impact is to replicate the kind of situation participants would be working on in real life," explains Dixon.

And experiential training breaks down barriers so quickly that teams cannot fail to bond, adds Mandy Blackwell, spokeswoman for Lakeside Management Development Centre, which has 40 years’ experience in teambuilding techniques.

But although providers stress the importance of tailoring teambuilding events for each organisation and team, it is clear there are benefits to be had from activities which simply focus a team’s effort on one objective. On 24 September this year, Action for Blind People ran a dragon boat race at Surrey Docks. The charity event won the interest of many corporate teams, and the tournament was won by a team from solicitors Farrer & Co.

"The reason dragon boat racing is so popular is that it requires no previous experience," says solicitor Melissa Button. "You don’t need to be incredibly fit to take part, so anyone can have a go."


Under pressure


As she points out, the experience has a good effect on teams without putting individual members under pressure, as can sometimes happen in dedicated training events. "Corporate teambuilding events can make participants feel isolated if they can’t build a bridge across a river or whatever," says Button. "With dragon boats, you’re very much a team from start to finish, so individuals aren’t subjected to the same pressures."

This point is picked up by McGeough of the Industrial Society: "What concerns me is that some people who operate on the edge of teams or in the background might be there for a very good reason," he says. "Trying to bring them forward through a team-building exercise might disrupt the effective interpersonal relationships in that team."

The Marconi Challenge seems to combine both these elements. To begin with it is open to all the company’s 49,000 employees around the world, and it concludes with a weekend of activities for more than 100 teams, each of six people. This year the event took place at Camp Hill, an outdoor training supplier in North Yorkshire. Teams competed against each other to complete more than 65 different tasks, and not only did the members of each team learn to work together, but the event generated a sense of camaraderie between all participants.

"The fundamental message is about teamwork, leadership and relationship building," explains Fraser Camper of Camp Hill. "But at the same time these people work in 17 different countries, and this is a chance for them to come together as one. It helps to promote the company’s identity."


Safe environment


For a long time now role-playing exercises have provided a way for individual managers to practise and develop their interpersonal skills in a safe environment, dealing with actors playing difficult customers and so on.

However, awareness is growing that there are parallels between theatre and business skills, and some teams are now looking to the stage for help with their development.

Steps Role Play recently delivered a 36-hour programme to a team of marketing personnel at Oracle. Twenty participants from three different departments who needed to start working as a team as quickly as possible had been brought together. Steps set them the challenge of staging a play – finishing the script, rehearsing and creating the costumes and set – for a performance in front of an invited audience.

"When you put on a play, you have to work together or nothing happens," says Janet Rawson, one of Steps’ directors. "They had to allocate tasks such as lighting, direction and wardrobe, as well as overcoming problems like having only three copies of the script between them."

Ian Keeling, managing director of Four Pillars Hotels, is a fan of theatre techniques in business training. "To some extent, if you work in a service industry it’s very like the theatre," he says. "If you work in a restaurant you’re on show all evening and, like an actor, you have to rehearse beforehand to ensure nothing goes wrong and your customers are happy."


New perspective


Keeling arranged a training event at Oxford Playhouse Theatre for all Four Pillars’ assistant managers. Here the employees – and Keeling himself – took part in games based on theatre skills, all of which offered a new perspective on their day-to-day work. In one, participants had to make a series of alterations to their appearance and identify the changes made by the others.

"What was interesting was that at the end of the game we all changed back to how we were without being asked," says Keeling, "This illustrated how even if you make changes within your organisation it’s easy to return to the way things were if you don’t work to keep the change going."

No matter what methods are used to support today’s teams, there is always a great emphasis placed on ensuring that learning is transferred to the workplace, especially for geographically diverse teams and five-minute teams.

However, organisations are seeking ultimately to establish their employees as good team players, able to work across the organisation in all directions and with any other employee. To this extent such skills should be demonstrable by each employee rather than within set teams.


Dos and don’ts of teambuilding


Do:


  • carry out extensive analysis before teambuilding takes place: assess how the team works together and what issues need to be addressed;

  • get those taking part to commit themselves;

  • achieve a common understanding of the reason for the team event;

  • understand team strengths and weakness and allow for physical and cultural differences when designing team activities;

  • look at the process. Teambuilding activities are rarely about outcomes alone: how the team works together to achieve that outcome is more important;

  • give and receive feedback: talking about personal feelings and reactions to an exercise will provide more insight than judging by appearance alone.

Don’t:


  • underestimate how hard it is to develop a high-performing team;

  • try to promote its development: if the team will eventually be left to work on its own, it must learn to operate independently;

  • suppress ideas or creativity: censoring thoughts or processes can damage morale and limit future contributions;

  • forget that the behaviour of all the team members affects the team: members must be given and made of aware of their responsibilities in every aspect of team performance.

(Compiled with the help of Impact Development Training Group)

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