A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of leading a team building workshop for the change management track of one Parker Avery’s current system implementation projects. Full disclosure, I love team building opportunities but am also fully aware of the somewhat negative stigma associated with them. Even within some of my closest team members, I could feel an undercurrent of dissension any time the words “team building” were mentioned. Therefore, while prepping for the session, I was determined to make sure everyone had equal (and mandatory) amounts of fun and relevant “aha moments.”

Knowing that a half-day away from their desks is a rare circumstance, it was important that the agenda did not feel like a waste of time. The primary purpose was to bring the core project team (business leads, sponsors, IT and external implementation partners) together and prepare them for their roles on the project. However, because we would have such a wide and diverse group of people in the room, the event began to take on competing (although well meaning) interests. Yes, we could have made the focus around status documentation or decision governance – both very important, but not quite what I envisioned.

I’ve talked before about the need to “create the right culture” and felt strongly our team building session would be an important moment to help define our project culture. I wanted everyone to walk out of the room having learned more about each other, have takeaways of how they could work more effectively as a project team, how to become better change agents to support the business AND feel energized about the project.

Audacious, I know.

When participants first walked into the room, they were randomly assigned seats. This was done on purpose; because it was essential to have the participants work with people that they may not typically have the chance to interact with. Throughout the session, they continued to be rearranged into different groups to have the opportunity to mingle and to avoid a sense of complacency.

They were given five “rules” at the beginning of the session:
1. Communicate
2. Listen to others
3. Ask questions so you really understand
4. Participate in the exercises, activities and discussions…fully
5. Have fun.

These are basic and straightforward guidelines, but surprisingly (or maybe not?) hard to accomplish under the stress of time pressures and conflicting personalities – a perfect description for both our team building exercises and almost every project in which I’ve been involved.

Of course, the first activity was the infamous icebreaker. In this instance, they were instructed to find at least five similarities that everyone at the table had in common. These could not be things having to do with work, nor could it be a body part or clothes (i.e., no cop-outs – we all have ears and most of us wear shoes.) After the allotted five minutes were up, I asked the teams to share their lists and their motivation for completing; was it more about winning, learning more about each other or just being able to complete the task? This was a relatively easy problem-solving activity; some teams were able to think completely “outside of the box” and pushed for quality while others were playing for shear numbers. This activity gave the room a glimpse of how differently individuals approach tasks, as well as provided a foundation of commonalities.

Next, we started a series of the team building exercises, which were performed between communicating valuable project information – i.e., Why am I here? Why is everyone else here? What is everyone expected to do? Where do I go for help? What are we going to be doing? Again, basic but many times overlooked or assumed that people already know the answers to these questions at the start of a project or new phase. It is important and helpful to communicate this information with all the “players” in the room; this delivers overall project expectations at the same time while also allowing the audience to have their questions heard and answers by the appropriate parties.

Each exercise was designed to introduce and prepare them for a project-related event or task. After each exercise, we collectively debriefed to talk about how each group approached the task, and it was amazing to see how they quickly pinpointed both successes and mistakes. This group was one of the best I’ve led. They were naturally competitive, and all participants eagerly embraced the objectives presented to them.

Outlined below are three success factors that I noticed as I walked around the room, which the teams also recognized during the debriefs:

  • Trust. During every activity, each group quickly came together to accomplish the task at hand; individuals stepped up when they recognized they had a skill set or an idea that would help their team. This was my favorite takeaway. For one activity, I asked for a volunteer from each group to draw an image only using their team’s description of the image. The volunteer from the ensuing winning group, immediately stepped up and offered to do it. She quickly recognized that she had the perfect skillset for the activity and her group trusted her. On projects, we’ve seen many people struggle to “stay in their lane” and trust other team members to make the right decisions. On the flipside, we’ve seen people struggle to contribute because they are unsure if it was appropriate or even valuable. This particular activity was to serve as a primer for the approaching solution design workshops and how difficult it may be to communicate or realize an idea or vision. We still had that discussion but also started to recognize how we each could support the overall process. As a project team, it is important to not only provide role clarity and expectations, but to also actively encourage and monitor participation. 
  • Communication. Teams were more successful when they came up with a plan and asked questions before acting, regardless of the time constraints. Similarly, others had to adapt or change the way they communicated so they could become more successful. For one team during the aforementioned drawing activity, they struggled to create their image. During the debrief, the drawer cited that too many people talked at the same time, provided conflicting advice and would not directly answer questions. This scenario probably sounds familiar to many – it is a situation we have all experienced at some point in our work environments. Similar to trust, sometimes the remedy is just having the ability to take a step back and understand the difference between contributing one’s voice versus contributing actual value. 
  • Simplicity. As an industry, we constantly encourage and strive for innovation but (again, surprisingly) sometimes that means keeping it “vanilla” and not over-engineered. This was particularly noticeable after an activity where teams were instructed to create the tallest structure possible, with the ability to stand on its own, using only the materials given. All of the teams were supplied identical materials and the only rules were:
    – Use the table as the structure’s foundation
    – Raise your hand if you have a question
    – Complete the task in 10 minutes

    There were a lot of materials that were tempting to use, but proved ineffective and even detrimental to the structure’s ability to stand. Additionally, something very interesting happened in the room, which I dubbed “the wave.” As one group had success (or failure) with a building method or material, others quickly followed suit, even if they had a different building approach. During debrief we could not come to a consensus if this was a result of groupthink or just the common learning curve of the room. What we could agree upon was that as individual questions were asked and answered, it helped the group as a whole. The winning team asked some of those questions and said the key to their success was just trusting each person to make the right decision and build – I promise that I am not making this up. I even noticed they were also one of the first teams to devote a majority of the allotted time building their structure’s foundation and then moved on to select the most appropriate materials for both height and strength. If you apply this concept to a system implementation, you can see the parallel. It is tempting customize and create a frankensteinian solution that seems to fit the business of today or to even rush through the prescribed, foundational project tasks; but the end-result quickly becomes cumbersome for the business of the future.

One of the reasons that I love team building sessions is seeing how people (often quickly) overcome the trauma of participating in a team building session. Secondly, I enjoy observing how people interact and tackle different challenges. Finally, I unabashedly love playing the quizmaster and revealing the missing pieces and clues – more aptly known as “aha moments.” So I would like to end with a summarization of our tallest structure debrief.

Throughout the workshop, the participants were divided into groups and during the activities they were told they had to work within those groups. They were also given fairly a fairly extensive list of rules for exercises. However, when the rules for the tallest structure exercise were given, there were only three, and there was purposely no mention of groups or teams. The participants assumed it was a competition vs. collaboration because they were initially encouraged to compete…along with a deliberate misdirect on my part. The rules had changed, yet no one knew. If the participants had asked if I had any advice to win or asked me to be on their team, I would have divulged to them to join forces and collectively use the “best” materials. Admittedly, I have never had a group ask these questions during this specific activity, nor do I ever expect them to ask. The takeaway is much greater.

Often times, we assume a competitive stance when none is required, especially based on past experiences. Furthermore, since I served as the facilitator throughout the session and never participated in the group activities, my role was firmly established in their minds – they simply assumed that I could not be a resource during this activity. The participants did not know that there was more information (from my prior experiences in this same type of setting) they could have accessed if only they asked the right question. Sometimes we simply overlook the obvious path or use any number of avoidance tactics – intentional, unintentional and perceived or real – to ask for help.

– Courtney