Thursday, June 25, 2009

Team-building exercises

Team-building exercises, or what we can learn and what we can’t

Most of you have probably participated in a team-building exercise sometime in your life. I seem to recall having them in grade school, and we certainly had them in boot camp, though the Drill Instructor used different language and the goals, while still generically to build a team, were a bit more easily defined. Nevertheless, they all fit under the general heading of team-building exercises and they all accomplished more or less the same thing: they helped break down social and communications barriers, and allowed everyone to work a bit better together.

So, what can we learn from the exercises?

Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in an executive team-building exercise and I came away with a several key observations, though not the ones I think they wanted. I won’t reveal the name of the team builders because I think they actually have a good program, but it misses on several key points.

Executive Team-building exercises are situations in which people are taken away from their normal environment and given a completely different environment in which they find they are, by design, unable to accomplish their tasks alone. Whether it is rock-climbing or white-water rafting, etc., the point is to bring a group of people closer together by placing them in a situation where they must more-closely cooperate if they are to simply make it through the program.

While there is no question that a small degree of physical stress, normally spread over several days, in a completely different environment than work, will not only allow people to forget work for a while and focus on other things, as does golf or skiing, it will also allow them to learn more about their office mates, and will allow them to learn a little bit about their own and each others decision-making.

But, therein lies the problem. Because what it will demonstrate is how you already make short-term decisions and will assist you in improving short-term decisions. Despite all the talk about how it will help people integrate their decision-making process at work, there is no reason that it will in fact do so. There are several reasons for this.

First, decision-making is something that only can be improved through a process of both experience and deliberation. That is, decision-making improves by both making many decisions, and then deliberately reviewing each decision and its outcome, and then carefully evaluating what happened and why, both why something succeeded and why something failed. This review and ‘debrief’ process, which is never easy to do well, is more difficult the larger and more long-term the decision. (It also requires a willingness to leave your ego ‘at the door,’ something that is very difficult to impose on any group of people, and which is essential for its success. But, that is a subject of a future discussion.)

While team-building exercises will provide the opportunity to review what went wrong on the last cliff you climbed, there is no real mechanism to translate that review into a deliberate process for reviewing decisions, particularly long-range decisions, in your organization. But, that is what is really needed, not the team building.

The fact is that we are social animals and we want to coalesce into some sort of team, we want to help and be helped by the people we work with, we want them to be our friends. Pointing that out doesn’t necessarily improve any specific team.

As for the issue of trust, which most team-building exercises stress is necessary for any team to come together, trust in one situation rarely translates into trust in others, unless the trust has been earned under the most extreme of conditions, not those found in a team-building exercise. I trust my doctor to operate on me, but not to manage my finances. Team-building may build friendships, but they won’t build that level of professional trust.

Second, tactical decisions, that is, short-term, narrowly focused decisions that can be corrected tomorrow are much simpler both to make and to assess and learn from. But, we already knew that. Taking a dozen people through an obstacle course that you can’t possibly get through on your own will in some small way improve your decision-making, but mainly for getting through obstacle courses. What it teaches you about the people around you may, in fact, be counter-productive, demonstrating that the general counsel has a weakness in white-water rafting doesn’t tell me anything about his legal skills; he may be the best lawyer in your industry, but everyone now has a negative opinion of him because he can’t execute a J-stroke.

Third, while team-building exercises stress communications, and then usually deliberately make communicating difficult to further stress the point, which is productive in making people come up with a quick ‘work-around.’ But what most companies need isn’t a quick ‘work-around,’ they need a long-term solution.

Every day, around the world, there are millions of people focused on the here-and-now. They watch the market indicators move every hour. When one market closes they follow another. They hawk monthly and quarterly earning projections, they watch the monthly Treasury reports and the monthly Labor Department reports, and they ravenously consume the daily oil and gold market figures.

But, while there are a few companies that can make their fortunes grow by watching these numbers, the bulk of companies both today, and in the past, and most certainly in the future, are not going to be ones that focus on short-term decisions. Short-term decisions are important when the wolves are at the door, but long-term decisions will prevent the wolves from ever getting to the door.

Inadvertently, team-building exercises generally stress the wrong thing: they stress the short-term. It would be interesting, though no one would ever pay for it, to set up an exercise that required serious planning and rewarded making the correct long-range decision. Then, if you made the wrong long-range decision you would be pushed into a situation of having the opportunity to make many short-range, tactical decisions but still see the other team pull away from you and, throughout the several day exercise none of your decisions would make up for the strategic error.


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