24 June 2009

Team Building is a Waste of Money

You would think that one of the consequences of the current recession is that the demand for "team building" would decline. However, a quick search via Google seems to indicate that this industry is flourishing. This is strange, as my experience is that, even in the best of times, what passes for "team building exercises" is a total waste of time and money.

This is certainly the case if your goal for the "team building" is to help ensure that a team tackling a complex project is happy and comfortable in dealing with each other. There is a lot of research that shows that increasing the internal satisfaction of the team has negligible effects on the success of the team in reaching its goals. In my experience, the only possible useful outcome of such an event is that the team members get to know each-other better. It might be the Norwegian in me, but it seems that this same goal can be achieved by including a nice dinner with some bottles of good wine at the team kick-off dinner.

The question then remains: what can be done to quickly create an excellent team? Luckily, this is fairly simple. What you (as a sponsor) need to do is:
1) Set clear goals and targets for the team (if they do not know exactly what they need to do, they cannot be successful)
2) Bring together people in the team with the right knowledge, skills, and experience (the team cannot be successful if it is not able to do the activities required for meeting the goals and targets)
3) Give the team tough deadlines early in the process, and force and enable them to work together (this creates the required "us versus them" feeling that excellent teams often have)
My friends in the "team building industry" will say that this is exactly what they do with their team-building exercises. They may be right, but why spend money doing this temporarily in an artificial setting, when you both should and have to do this in the real setting in any case?

My recommendation is to skip the external team-building exercise, and put the team together in a room (preferably latish in the afternoon) and 1) give them a clear explanation of the background to the problem that they are being asked to solve, 2) present the goals and targets that they need to reach, 3) present a first-cut plan for how you believe that these goals and targets should be met (including a stretch initial milestone), 4) explain why each team member has been included in the team, and finally 5) ask the team to develop their own detailed approach and plan. When this has been developed and discussed, the final activity should be dinner (spending a small part of the money saved by skipping the "team building exercise".

Finally, there is one part of a successful project where the "team building industry" can play a role. A key part of building a successful team is to celebrate success. This means that after a team has reached key milestones, it may want to celebrate by going wild-water rafting or some other team-building exercise.

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