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Spice of the Month: Accelerated Learning E-zine

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Corporate Team Building Primer

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Accelerated Learning for Team Building and Corporate Retreats

by Anne Thornley-Brown
President, The Training Oasis, Inc.

We really would like to have your comments about this issue of the Spice of the Month Accelerated Learning Ezine. It was first printed here in April, 2006 but we had earlier version of it. You'll find updated versions of this content at our sister company's Corporate Team Building Blog:

You can add your comments there.

Why Companies are Cutting Team Building

It's simple. Too much focus on the activity, not enough focus on results, tie-in to the business, and return on investment. It's happened in organization after organization. One day the money is flowing freely. Eventually, someone in the executive suite says "Hey wait a minute, we've spent $1 million dollars (or $5 million and even more when one factors in the indirect costs like salaries for the participants) for drumming, hot air ballooning, paint ball, or grape stomping that was recently featured on the Apprentice. Where's the value? How much time was spent debriefing the activity and drawing links to our business? Were and business or planning exercises part of these sessions? How did this further the business? How did this improve performance or team interaction?" Suddenly, "poof" the money is gone and suddenly team building is something we used to do.

If you want to ensure that your budget for team building gets cut, treat it like a commodity. Give the most inexperienced person in your team the responsibility for contacting prospective suppliers. Give them very little guidance. After all you're busy right? They'll focus strictly on the activities and shortlist based on what sounds like the most "fun". They won't be able to answer questions like "What are your objectives for this session?", "What major challenges is your team facing?" and "What specific improvements do you want to see in organizational and team performance?" They'll present you with options based what's "fun" or what's cheapest. When making your selection, go for the latest fad, what's hot and the flavour of the month. Eventually, the money for team building will disappear from your company's budget as it has in other organizations. It's guaranteed. On the other hand, if you really want team building to be a value added, give careful attention to clarifying your objectives. Allow sufficient time for defining your team building strategy, planning and implementation.

Clarifying Objectives for Corporate Team Building & Executive Retreats

Before you plan your corporate team building session or executive retreat, it is important to be clear about your objectives. Remember you need the steak AND the sizzle. It's an organization you're running not a social club so keep that in mind when determining the best course of action. Far too often, companies end up disappointed in team building sessions and corporate retreats because expectations were not clearly identified and articulated.

Examples of Team Building Objectives

  • Forge stronger alliances between geographically dispersed teams
  • Fine-tune your marketing and sales strategy
  • Reduce friction and "turf wars" between organizational levels and departments.
  • Improve communication between teams and departments
  • Improve your decision making process
  • Identify strategies to reduce red tape and duplication of effort
  • Brainstorm and generate new strategies to resolve business issues and overcome challenges
  • Manage projects more effectively even within tight timeframes

Then, think carefully about whether or not team building is really appropriate. Select your programme based on your objectives not just because a particular activity sounds "cool".

There is a place for team recreation, socials, picnics, etc. The key is to be clear about what you're doing. Don't call it team building just to have an excuse to party or next year maybe that budget will disappear. Here at The Training Oasis each and every one of our team building sessions and accelerated learning programmes is LOADED with the "fun factor". However, unless someone has hired us strictly for recreation, its fun with a purpose. Why gather all of these people together, pay money to stay at a resort or rent meeting space at a hotel if your goal is strictly "fun". Order a pizza, go bowling, go out for dinner and then salsa dancing, or go to an amusement park. It's a lot cheaper.

Planning Considerations for Team Building

Once you are clear about your objectives, it is important to determine:

  • number of participants
  • level of participants
  • budget
  • time frame
  • special dietary requirements including allergies
  • physical disabilities and constraints
  • if you will require assistance with location scouting

If you are interested in using an external team building consultant, here is are some reasonable expectations for a decision making process

  • Before you contact prospective consultants, ensure that you can clearly state your objectives, identify a clear decision making process, establish decision making criteria and set a budget
  • It is also important to have an idea of other agenda items that your company is planning to include on the agenda
  • Ensure that you have an approved budget and sufficient time on your agenda for team building
  • When you contact vendors you should be prepared to share this information with them and indicate the size of the group, indicate group demographics and state your preferred dates
  • You should give vendors about a week to get back to you with a proposal
  • You should be in a position to make a decision no more than 2 weeks after you receive proposals from prospective vendors.
  • Ideally, you should allow 5 - 6 weeks, preferably 2 months for adequate planning of your session.

It is not reasonable or acceptable to:

  • Contact vendors and indicate that your request is urgent unless you know for sure that you will be making a decision quickly
  • Contact consultants on Friday afternoon indicating you urgently need information for a Monday meeting and then just disappear
  • To ask consultants to spend time preparing proposals, contacting potential venues, etc. before the budget and time have been allocated for team building
  • Take more than 2 weeks to make a decision after you get proposals or quotes
  • Disappear without contacting suppliers who have taken the time to submit a proposal and let them know your decision

It is just plain unethical to:

  • Skim off the best ideas and have the retreat using internal resources without paying a consulting fee
  • Use the location that a consultant provided without paying a location scouting fee
  • Contact other consultants and ask them to prepare proposals when you KNOW that you have already selected a supplier and you are just trying to meet your company's 3 quotes minimum requirement. Instead, Google the words team building and use information from company web sites.

Download and Print Chart with Tools to Assist
with Planning Your Team Building Session
and Summary of all of our Programmes

Selecting the Right Location for Team Building and Corporate Retreats

Your choice of location can make or break your corporate team building session or executive retreat. Let your objectives and theme drive the location selection decision and not vice versa. I recall a time when a prospective client contacted me. They had blown most of the budget on a top of the line location and there was little left for a facilitator. Determine if you will require assistance with location scouting. An experienced team building firm should be able to help you find a location to fit your budget. However, it does take time to call around, check availability and come up with just the right fit. It is not kosher to expect consultants to do your location scouting for free or to do the event on your own or use the location suggested by one team building service provider (for free) and give the business to another. For this reason, location scouting is now a service we provide as a stand alone or to organizations that have decided to engage our team building services. If your budget is limited, scout around. You may be able to find some unique and cost effective locations for your events. You can stretch your budget by using children's camps during off-peak season, amusement parks, acting studios. the catering department of community colleges to save on the cost of refreshments, movie theatres, camp sites, and conservation areas. 3 looking to save money on location, it is important to book your session WELL in advance.....3 - 4 months in advance. To book a group camp site and shelter, you would need a 5 - 6 month lead time. For location suggestions:

View Our Corporate Team Building Directory

Choosing Your Theme

One of the best strategies for "spicing up" your team building sessions and corporate retreats is to come up with a theme. Based on your theme, you can select an appropriate venue, energizers, session starters, music, video clips, graphics for slides and handouts, and menu items. The key is to let your objectives and content drive the theme. To come up with your theme, create a mind map. Put your content and topics in the centre and come up with as many themes as possible that relate to your topics. If you want to fine-tune your sales and marketing strategy or prepare your team for "uncharted territory" and change, one of our Survivor team building sessions would be the most appropriate choice. If you want to hone your team's project management and leadership skills or help them improve their effectiveness in pulling projects together within tight timeframes, we recommend You're the Boss, Our Apprentice team building session. The executive version of this programme is Visexecutaries: Apprentice Team Building for Executives. You can now view video footage from a recent executive retreat . For teams that need to unleash creativity and think outside the box, Igniting Creative Sparks or Over the Rainbow: Joy and Laughter in the Workplace, our Wizard of Oz themed interactive session. If your team needs to improve its ability to cope with a fast paced environment, our surprisingly affordable polo teambuilding sessions would fit the bill.

Selecting Your Teams

There are a number of factors that you should take into account when you select your teams:

  • mix departments
  • mix geographical regions
  • mix organizational levels
  • form team based on learning styles
  • give team members who don't get along with each other an opportunity to work together
  • give the newer or more junior members of your team an opportunity to serve as team leaders

Our Season to Taste issue will give you some ideas for analyzing your group and assessing their learning styles so that you can make decisions about team composition and a number of other key elements for your session.

Corporate Team Building Pitfalls

To ensure that you get value from the time and money invested in each session:

  • Clarify what you want to get out of your team building session or corporate retreat BEFORE you contact prospective facilitators or vendors

  • Don't schedule your session to end on a Friday. Like it or not, focus will become a challenge as the day wears on.

  • Do allocate more time for your session if your group is highly analytical. They need more time to debrief and apply the session to your specific business challenges or they will leave feeling frustrated and that the session was a waste of time. "What was that?" will be a frequent comment on your feedback forms.

  • Don't splurge on food and accommodation and scrimp on facilitation fees. You need an experienced facilitator to execute a session successfully. I remember a company that contacted us in a panic. They had blown most of their budget for a top of the line conference facility with all the bells and whistles. They had little left to pay a facilitator. We suggested a couple of cost affective facilities for accommodation and meetings but eventually had to pass on that booking too as they insisted on the high end facility and could not afford a facilitator.

  • Don't just go through the motions of team building. Team recreation is important. If your goal is a day off work, then schedule a picnic or recreational activity.

    Luxury Corporate Events

  • Get your priorities straight. We thought we had heard it all when we were asked "Can you cut your simulation down to half a day so that we can have more time to go shopping?"

    Tough Crowds: Dealing with Difficult Participants gives more details about this incident and other incidents involving difficult participants

Alcohol: Don't Let it Flow Freely

Speaking of tough crowds, watch the booze. Again it comes down to priorities and liability. I remember doing some location scouting with a prospective client. I should have known we were in trouble when one of the first questions they asked was "Will there be a fridge where we can store our beer?" It was downhill from there. We discuss this case in our Tough Crowds issue. Many companies are not aware of the fact that if they allow the liquor to flow freely before an activity that involves physical exertion, your company could be held liable if there is an accident.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with a glass of wine with dinner. However, if participants will be driving after your corporate event, hire a smart serve bartender who is trained to detect potential problems and turn off the tap when appropriate. You might also want to have a backup plan and provide a taxi or hotel accommodation for any participants who do become inebriated. This discussion of Employer Liability for Employee Accidents is a real eye opener. Here is a quote:

"....courts throughout the country, including Connecticut, are carving out exceptions to this rule when an employee negligently consumes too much alcohol at a Company-sponsored event or party and then causes an accident after leaving the event or party. Under these circumstances, Courts have concluded that the Company should be held responsible for the negligent acts of its employees while driving under the influence. The Courts have reasoned that the party or event was of benefit to the Company, because the attendance of the employees was either implied or expressly required, or because these events boost morale and foster communications between co-workers. A Company which provides alcohol at such events is presumed to believe that the alcohol in some way contributes to the success of the event or the purpose for which the Company brought the employees together. Accordingly, the Courts are imposing liability upon companies on the theory that the Company is in a position to control employees' consumption of alcohol, or to control the activities of its employees, and to give greater assurance of compensation to victims, and to impose the risk of such accidents upon those, including the Company, who derive benefit from the event which gave rise to the injury."

Some corporate retreat facilities now prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol due to concerns about safety and skyrocketing insurance premiums

More About Alcohol and Team Building Retreats

Avoiding Holiday Lawsuits: How to protect your company so the partying doesn't get out of hand

Even if there are no legal consequences to allowing things to get out of hand, the negative publicity would not be worth it. Here are some examples:

Put a Leash
on the Libido

During some corporate retreats, excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to poor judgement and sexual indiscretions. Some companies don't realize that they are skating on thin ice when they turn a blind eye to dirty jokes, sexual innuendo and employees skinny dipping in the pool on a corporate retreat or at a sales rally. If even one employee decides to file a sexual harassment suit (US) or human rights complaint (Canada).

Astra USA, the American subsidiary of Astra AB, a Swedish pharmaceutical company, agreed to pay nearly US$9.85 million to approximately 80 former employees complaining of sexual harassment and retaliation on the job and at corporate retreats and sales rallies. They admitted to fostering a hostile work environment, including requests for sexual favours in exchange for favorable treatment on the job. Business week covered the story - Part 1 and Part 2

Office Parties - The Good, The Bad, and the Embarrassing

Corporate Team Building: Setting Expectations

To avoid scenarios like the ones we have just described and the possible legal ramifications, develop a code of conduct and make expectations clear. Have every employee review and sign off on it as part of your hiring process. Review it at orientation and in management development and diversity training programmes. Some banks have employees review and sign off on the code of ethics and conduct once a year as part of the performance management process. Make it clear to managers that they put the company in jeopardy when they participate in or overlook certain behaviour. They may think about it twice the next time they are tempted to head over to a local strip joint or laugh along when a team member pops a porno flick in the DVD player and watches it with "the boys" on the evening of a corporate retreat or sales rally. If a company is found to foster a "poison work environment" (Canadian Human Rights terminology) a tribunal of court could rule against it in the event of a complaint or lawsuit. If there is a breach, management must deal with it immediately and decisively so that there is no perception that the company condones what has happened.

Another way in which you can promote the responsible consumption of alcohol is to have a wine tasting (or wine and cheese reception) and gourmet cooking class as part of your corporate retreat. You can show the DVD Best Practices for Special Occasions. An experienced facilitator can guide your team in a discussion and exploration of responsible consumption of alcohol at company functions. (This DVD would also be appropriate for your orientation or management development programme.)

Setting a Realistic Time Frame

Sometimes, companies are totally unrealistic about the time frame for a retreat. It is surprising how many people think that they can do a full blown simulation with debriefing, application exercises, and a presentation by a member of the senior management team in half a day. Let me stress this in bold. A half day simulation with adequate time for debriefing and business application exercises is just not doable. The only way that it can work is if the simulation or activity is very simple, short and focused and you have one very clear and specific objective or core message that you want to convey. A facilitated and focused brainstorming session is also doable in half a day. Of course, you can always find teambuilding companies that will take your money and promise you the moon within a half day or even 2 hour timeframe. Buyer beware. Of course, if your goal is strictly recreational, that is doable in half a day or two hours.

To determine an appropriate time frame, you also need to consider if there are other items that you need to include in your agenda. A number of the companies with which we work have included vendor and client presentations, departmental presentations, and presentations about plans for the upcoming year into their corporate retreats and team building sessions. The key is to determine the content THEN select the appropriate timeframe, venue and recreation, not the reverse. So, what are some realistic time frames and formats for teambuilding? Here are some ideas:

Weekend or 2 1/2 - 3 Day Sessions
If you want to devote more time to outdoor recreational activities, add other agenda items, lengthen the time for the simulation, or give people more time to prepare for their application exercise, a 2 /12 - 3 day format would be highly recommended.
Examples of Half Day Team Building Format

With this format you will likely receive feedback from analytical learners that the session was rushed and the debriefing/application exercises much too short. You would need at least another hour if your group is highly analytical.

  • 1 Hour - Briefing Session Including Senior Management Presentation/Preparation
  • 1 Hour - Mini-Simulation or Recreational Activity
  • 1/2 Hour - Debriefing Preparation Exercise
  • 1/2 Hour - Debriefing Panels
  • 1/2 Hour - Preparation for Short Application or Brainstorming Session
  • 1/2 Hour - Breakout Group Presentations (Maximum 2 - 3 Groups - 10 - 15 minutes each)
  • Lunch - Facilitator provides wrap up over dessert

TOTAL = 4 Hours

1/2 Day Brainstorming Sessions
1/2 Day - Strictly for Recreation

I am also pleased to let you know that Eagle's Flight, a HIGHLY reputable company, now has FIVE 2 hour simulations that are perfect for conferences.. Their sessions are always highly engaging and followed by a short debrief. You can also try some of these programmes from Eagle's Flight. In fact, I was recently their guest at their Toronto showcase for Redline Racing. It is a fantastic 2 hour programme with high production values. It's perfect for sales rallies and conference. The minimum group size is 300. The debrief consists of just a few key questions that participants discuss at their table and a brief presentation by one of their top facilitators. The other 2 hour team building sessions they offer are "The Bridge", "Coral Banks", "Jungle Fire", and "Windjammer". I will soon be attending the showcases for "Windjammer" and "Coral Banks". I will report back. If you can increase your time frame to 3 hours, this will allow for a longer debrief. When you call them, be sure to tell them that Anne Thornley-Brown from Executive Oasis International sent you.

Corporate Team Building: The Bottom Line

Team building sessions and corporate retreats can be enjoyable. Teambuilding simulations, accelerated learning programmes and corporate events can be loaded with the "fun factor" but there has to be value in terms of bottom line results. We don't subscribe to the philosophy that one has to get wasted or tell off-colour jokes in order to have a good time. There is something to be said about relaxing around a bon fire, getting to know your co-workers while you pitch a tent or start a fire, cooking your meals outdoors, learning a new sport like polo, and the many other activities that we make available to our clients. From where we see it, THAT'S fun.

Other Team Building Articles and Tip Sheets

The Training Oasis, Inc. is regularly featured in media publications about team building.

Other Articles:

The Training Oasis, Inc. is a Toronto based consulting firm specializing in team building and accelerated learning for rapidly changing organizations in Canada (Toronto, Ontario), Jamaica, Dubai, and Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, India, Thailand). When the pace of change accelerates organizations need strong and effective teams that are all pulling in the same direction and it's time for accelerated learning. Our teambuilding simulations range from You're the Boss, our Apprentice teambuilding session and 3 Survivor team building simulations to Inc. Inc.: Breaking Down Silos and Over the Rainbow which helps teams unleash their creativity. Clients of The Training Oasis, Inc, have included CIBC, Telus Mobility, Manulife Financial, Wurth Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada, and IKEA. Anne Thornley-Brown has toured Asia 13 times and offered seminars to over 1500 executives, managers and HR professionals in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Penang), Singapore, Thailand (Bangkok), and India (Mumbai). Petronas, Malaysian Airlines, Digi, Mobil/Exxon, Perodua, and Dell Computers are among the organizations that have sent delegates to her sessions in Asia. Anne is available as a facilitator for team building and seminars, keynote speaker for conferences, and instructional designer.

View Our Corporate Team Building Programmes

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