Teams turn to new tunes
Companies love team building, but what was good years ago is out of favour today, writes Sophie Toomey
YOU’RE standing next to a river, wet, bedraggled and embarrassed in front of your work colleagues. You’ve just been beaten in a kayaking showdown by James who sits at the desk next to yours. What, you ask yourself, is the point of this? The point of this is team building’’, the moniker for pretty much every activity engaged in by companies with the broad mandate of bringing the team together and bringing out its best. Many a day of fun and games has been had in the name of building teams — and in the opinion of some experts you might well be better off staying home.
Team building can take the form of anything from bush boot camps to boardroom talk fests, all with the general aim of bringing the group closer to peak performance.
Peter Wilson, national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says the idea is to make the whole work better than the sum of its parts. Companies might use out-ofoffice experiences, or do meetings in-house, but the aim is basically to get people to lift their performance.’’
Karl Treacher, CEO of Brand Behaviour, says there have certainly been trends in team building, and an evolution of the genre over decades to what he hopes is now a more realistic and genuinely helpful approach.
The late 80s and 90s were all about physical initiatives that served to create bonds on a more primal platform. These included survival exercises, or ropes course, or rafting or abseiling . . . the list goes on.
Then the fad was for communication, where companies threw millions at behavioural consultancies to ensure teams were built around effective communication.’’
Treacher says today’s team building exercises are dominated by tools’’ which are used by facilitators to achieve the end of better understanding the team. Treacher says some of those tools are more effective than others.
People use everything from Myers-Briggs personality tests and Jungian Types to Disc Profiling and more recently the Enneagram,’’ Treacher says. While conceding that all of these tools are at times helpful, he says any tool could also be a waste of time when it results in misunderstanding.
Margot Cairnes is a corporate strategist with Zaffyre International and has travelled the planet to work at bringing some of the top global business teams together. Cairnes does not believe in the usefulness of activity-centric team building.‘‘I particularly dislike team building that focuses on physical prowess. I have encountered executives who have been traumatised by activity team building days in the outdoors. One female executive I recall took weeks to recover from an exercise where she was asked to do physical activities she simply wasn’t up to.’’
Cairnes says that combat-style team building quite simply ignores the way that the contemporary business world operates, based as it is on the idea that physical prowess or competition is of contemporary relevance. ‘‘ We are definitely in a world where our capacity to think logically, creatively and laterally is of far more importance than our capacity to climb to great physical heights.’’
Wilson agrees that, in isolation, team building days are unlikely to achieve much by way of longterm business benefits. Macho, redneck activi- ties where team members gather medals can be a grand waste of time and money. They can actually pull people apart.’’ Wilson believes, however, that the more astute versions of activity-based team building can have remarkable benefits. Some of the more intricate exercises really are designed to make you think outside the square, to co-operate to achieve a common goal where the objective is impossible to achieve without that co-operation.’’
Wilson says such activities can help people see their work differently. Wilson cites the example of an exercise based around building a complex structure with a Lego set. ‘‘ Everyone has a role: architect, council representative, builder on the job. What they soon learn is that the only way to finish the project is to consult and get everyone involved.’’ Wilson says such exercises can be revealing of people’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as challenging the way they work as a group. It can be a real breakthrough and break down defensiveness.’’
Andy Sharpe is mananging director of Song Division, a company that uses song writing as a team building exercise in Australia and the US. He says that getting a team into a creative environment can change their focus and trigger a more creative attitude to their work.
‘‘ We restore people’s faith in their ability to be creative. From a very early age we are unjustly categorised as either ‘ creative’ or ‘ not creative’, and by helping people write and record an original song, teams discover that they can be creative both individually and collectively.’’
Sharpe says the experience of song writing has the added benefit of getting people away from an environment where communication may not be paramount. ‘‘ It allows for conversations that wouldn’t normally happen. In a recent Australiawide event with one of the big four banks, teams of 10 people were formed consisting of senior executives, call centre staff, marketing coordinators and sales reps.
‘‘ Over the course of three hours the teams wrote and recorded a song together with the help of amazing musicians from bands such as The Divinyls and Icehouse. They created something together where rank, age, gender and culture weren’t a barrier, had a few drinks, lots of laughs, and the opportunity to have invaluable conversations that would not take place within the normal work environment.’’
Sharpe concedes that there are limits to what a day of song-writing can achieve for a business.
Getting a team to write a song for an afternoon isn’t going to prevent insolvency or boost the stock price. However, as part of a program that supports a creative culture it does contribute to the well-being and, ultimately, profitability of a business, and who knows what long-term benefits the candid conversations between the GM and customer service rep might have?’’
Sharpe says the feedback he has had has been overwhelmingly positive. After their second Song Division session, The Spastic Centre’s program director Peter Horsley told us that Song Division achieved in six hours what would normally take them six months.’’
Sharpe says as part of an ongoing and comprehensive team-building strategy, an experience like theirs can’t be underestimated. Our experience is that the successful companies are the ones that know the value in good team building activities and use them as part of a culture of creativity and effective communication.’’
He says he has seen the other side of the spectrum and it is not pretty.
I have seen environments where teams are overworked without recognition, morale is on the decline and there is no budget for fun things at the moment’. It’s a vicious and ultimately very expensive cycle.’’
Cairnes has worked with top multinationals to help them through troubled times and massive internal upheavals, and says that in order for team building to be effective it must be related to the real context of the business and not be separate from dealing with strategy and current business issues.
If you work in a paint company that is going through a merger and someone takes you gokarting so that you get on better, it isn’t dealing with what is actually happening and how you really feel about the takeover. It might be fun, but that’s it.’’
Cairnes assisted mining giant Pasminco when it collapsed and re-emerged as Zinifex. The global teams went through a 50 per cent turnover of staff and then further internal splits. In that context you have to be giving people skills and relationships that will travel with them. That requires you to give individuals the capacity to relate outside their immediate environment.’’
Treacher agrees that any real team-building must have a focus on meaningful connection. He adds there must also be a focus on long-term and sustainable benefits. ‘‘ When we do team-building we structure our intervention on two things: what is real or authentic to each person and what can be feasibly retained and translated into consistent behavioural and attitudinal modification.’’
Treacher says that team-building can have great results. ‘‘ If it is done well, people feel understood and appreciated. People have the opportunity to express themselves and connect with other in a more meaningful, not task-driven manner and that is a huge positive.’’
Making music: Andy Sharpe believes in the power of songs