Teams turn to new tunes

Com­pa­nies love team build­ing, but what was good years ago is out of favour to­day, writes So­phie Toomey

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.’’

Pic­ture: Bob Fin­layson

Mak­ing mu­sic: Andy Sharpe be­lieves in the power of songs

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