Is Team Building a Waste of Time?

team buildingMention the words “team building” to a group of senior leaders and you can feel the collective groans, sighs and various other forms of displeasure. Most senior leaders feel traditional team building is a waste of time. This might seem curious coming from an executive coach, but I agree with them. Except for the social benefit of bringing the team together, most team-building sessions are a waste of time. The good news?  There are meaningful ways to build a high-performance team that are effective, engaging, and avoid that sense of dread.

The reason most leaders are cynical about team building is most facilitators pull various activities from their bag of tricks and call it team building. Some examples include:  ropes courses, cooking classes, scavenger hunts, or a Myers-Briggs assessment. My two personal favorites are closing one’s eyes and falling backward into the arms of a teammate and wrapping various materials around a raw egg to see which group can drop the egg from the greatest height without it breaking. Understand why leaders are cynical about team building? Junior team members may find these activities fun, while senior leaders are counting the wasted hours away from their “real job.”

The problem with these approaches is that they are merely activities. They do not fundamentally alter the way the team functions when they go back to work. That’s because these techniques don’t take into account how the team is currently functioning, don’t establish a plan for ongoing team development, and don’t identify a destination for future team functioning. I’m fond of saying to my clients that “team building is an event, building a team is a process.”

In order to effectively build a team, I’ve found this process to be very effective:

1. Collect information about current team functioning.

It’s surprising to me how many consultants conduct team-building sessions without a baseline assessment of current team functioning. If you don’t know where the team is knocking it out of the park and where they are in the doghouse, you are merely applying activities. Various types of team assessments are available. I use an initial structured interview of all team members. Instruments are also available which produce percentile rankings on various aspects of team functioning and allow comparisions to other teams. I find it most effective to begin with an initial interview method and later, after the team has focused on development, follow up with normative assessments that allow comparisons to other teams.

2. Summarize the findings and discuss with the team.

Share the results of the assessment with the team. This has multiple benefits. Disclosure creates an atmosphere of transparency. Most teams are highly engaged in discussing the results of the team assessment. Team members feel their opinions have been heard and valued. It also establishes a disciplined process around measuring team functioning. As the business adage says, “What gets measured gets done.”

3. Create the Team Development Plan.

From the results of the team assessment, areas of opportunity will be identified. Goals, action steps and the ultimate vision for the team should then follow. These goals are separate from the business results the team needs to deliver. They are goals which improve team functioning in pursuit of the team vision. Each goal should have a team sponsor who is responsible for successful delivery of the goal. When these goals flow from the assessment, the appropriate activity or technique to best improve the team can be selected. Following this process, team building is data-based and systematic rather than the hodgepodge of activities resulting in so much justifiable skepticism around the concept of team building.

4. Consistently monitor team progress.

Building an effective team is an ongoing, continuous process. Most teams make the mistake of having one (or several) team-building sessions and failing to consistently follow through. High performance teams devote time every year to team development. They always find something to improve and consistently assess their progress and functioning. Team development becomes a fabric of the organization rather than a series of disconnected events or activities.

If you take the time to thoughtfully and systematically develop your team, you can be the leader who fundamentally changes the view of team building from cynicism to enthusiasm!

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