Do team-building away days such as white water rafting or assault courses really help teams to work together, or are they just fun events that have a short-term uplifting effect on morale, at best? Dawn Smith gathers opinions and considers the evidence.
“The key with team building, as with any event, is to be clear about the purpose and then design the event to meet that purpose,” says Graham O'Connell at the National School of Government. Adventurous activities “can be an engaging part of the mix”, he adds, “but I do think that more often than not they are used as a form of entertainment or reward, or as a shared challenge in the vague hope this will bring people together (which it may or may not).”
While there’s nothing wrong with providing a reward, it’s not the same thing as team building, contends John Wright at Symbiosis Consulting, whose company uses the outdoors as part of integrated programmes. “Away days and activities, even in isolation, can be great for rewarding people who have worked hard,” he says. “If activities are well organised, safe and appropriately challenging I am sure that people will bond together faster than in most office environments. However, lets not get carried away with this. An outdoor activity away day is unlikely to be a life changing experience or long term performance boost on its own.”
For a long term, positive effect on the way a team works together, activities have to be used appropriately, in the context of a team development initiative, and then related back to the work environment. For Wright, the optimum would be “A blended programme of relevant theory, outdoor and indoor action and team based problem solving, excellent facilitation to help participants draw parallels with their work and life experience, setting personal and team goals to take learning back to work/life.”
The integrated approach is also taken by team-building specialists Leadership Resources, which uses outdoor and indoor team exercises in combination with classroom work in its customised development programmes. “Teams need to understand their roles, and what they need to do in order to achieve their objectives - for example, communicate freely - and you can’t learn that sitting round a table,” says Director Ken Minor.
The value of activities and practical exercises is that they bridge the gap between knowing what to do and how to do it, says Kathleen Harrison-Carroll at experiential learning specialists, Katalan. “It’s important for individuals to be able to immediately apply what they have learned,” she says. “There’s a huge difference between knowing a thing and being able to use that knowledge.”
Karen Stone at R&A Consultancy and Training uses the phrase 'mind to muscle' to describe this transition from thinking to doing. “We recognise that people experience work with their emotions, bodies and minds and, in order to be effective, training should match that experience,” she says. “By putting delegates in live leadership/teaming situations, they get to explore what works and what gets in the way of success. Having them feel, see and understand the impact of their behaviour, they can then put in place actions to develop what they've learnt. This means they return to the business with a set of behaviours that they need to do in order to achieve their desired outcomes.”
R&A has used High Ropes, crewing yachts and white water rafting as part of the learning experience. At Leadership Resources, one approach is to devise business scenarios that take place outdoors - for example, key information on which they have to base a presentation may be found at the foot of an abseil.
Breaking down barriers
As well as allowing people to practice what they’ve learned about team roles, taking part in activities can be a great leveller, says Ken Minor. “We had one client who asked us to include some ‘yomping’ in a team development programme. When we asked why, he said he wanted to break down barriers. Outdoor activities can take away the status and hierarchy. Also, when you are out on the moors, without a mobile signal, everyone is immersed and focussed as a team on what they are being asked to do.”
However, there are pitfalls when using activities - and not just the danger that team members will be sucked into a bog or catch sheep ticks. “Things like personal dislikes (e.g. doing very physical things), disability friendliness, physical and psychological safety, perceptions of others, impact on the business if all are away at once, etc. all need careful consideration,” says Graham O'Connell. The cost in terms of upsetting people who “don’t enjoy that sort of thing and feel they are being forced to do it” can be high, cautions Kathleen Harrison-Carroll.
Alan Hunt, managing director of team building company Sandstone goes as far as saying that it’s detrimental to team building, if everyone in the group is required to pursue an activity such as white water rafting or horse whispering. “When you have just one activity, a third of the group will love it, a third won’t mind doing it, and a third will think it’s their idea of hell,” he says. “The team then splits. The third that hated doing it bonds together, and the two thirds who love it or don’t mind doing it bond together. So you have two cliques.”
At Sandstone, which started out as a learning and development company and only later began specialising in team building events, the activities are designed so that teams are working towards something that requires a number of different skills to achieve it. For example, in the activity called ‘Cube’, teams must complete various different tasks, ranging from intellectual conundrums to racing in giant caterpillar tracks, in order to earn pieces of a giant cube that they are assembling. "None of the tasks are compulsory, and the focus is on the team processes required to tackle the activity successfully," says Alan Hunt. “There are too many tasks to do them all, so teams have to prioritise. At the debrief we can focus on the parallels of the processes in the workplace.”
Impact and evaluation
He stresses that team building can have a long lasting impact through the changes they bring about in methodology. “People need ability, commitment, methodology and experience to be the best that they can be”, he says. Often, high levels of the other attributes are used to overcome weaknesses in methodology. A team building event can’t affect the former very much, but can highlight ways in which the team’s methodology can be improved. “If you ask them to do something unfamiliar, you take away their biggest crutch, which is experience,” he says. “Then you can expose good and bad methodology in teams, and look at how that can be improved and applied back to the workplace.”
Measuring the impact of team building events on the business is somewhat trickier. Graham O'Connell believes that evaluation is in two parts. “Once you have agreed the purpose of the event (e.g. improve communications between team members) then you need to agree how they will determine a) how communications have changed and when by and b) whether that type and amount of change is worth the time, money and effort.” The second part is about individual development, inter-team working, job satisfaction, stress reduction etc, he adds. “The only way to evaluate these things, without a considerable and disproportionate effort, is to ask folk.”
At Sandstone, evaluation focuses on three areas: the original key performance indicators (KPIs) of the business, along with the two mentioned above - response from participants (i.e. asking folk) and an intermediate measure to determine how well the purpose of the event has been achieved. “It comes back to what you want out of the event in the first place,” says Hunt. The first and most important measure for Sandstone is the most problematic, however. “Judging what effect team building played on KPIs is difficult, and they are only measured once a year, which is why we have an intermediate measure,” he explains.
Kathleen Harrison-Carroll agrees that gauging the long-term impact of team building events is a very difficult thing to evaluate, but it’s an area that companies using these events need to work on. “How do you measure something like this in isolation?” she says. “You don’t have control groups who didn’t go on the event in order to compare performance. And someone might easily argue that taking people on an away day just to have a bit of fun might have had the same result!”
Leadership Resources: www.leadershipresources.co.uk
R&A Consultancy & Training: www.raconsultancy.com
Symbiosis Consulting: www.symbiosisconsulting.co.uk