How to Make Team Building Meaningful and Effective

Team building” is one of the most meaningless phrases in the English language. That’s right – meaningless. Yet the request for “team building” is the single most frequent request I receive from business executives, managers and team leaders. Almost always, leaders request team building because they cannot articulate exactly what they do want or need, or why they really need it. They just know a lot of time seems to be wasted on “relationship issues” or “we could always be more productive with a little more team work.”

“Team building” means little because it can mean so many different things in context. Most often, team building requests are about fixing or improving relationships among group members. In my work over the past 20 years, I have found that relationship issues are seldom the root cause of team problems; they are more often the symptoms. So allow me to offer a basic primer in understanding the nature of effective teams and what team building generally is all about.

First, start with an effective definition of team building. This alone will help shape a high-quality intervention with
your team. My definition is:

Team building is an Organization Development technique for improving a work group’s performance and attitudes by clarifying group goals and clarifying members’ expectations of each other.

Begin with some appreciative inquiry among team members. Consider positive qualities about your team that you can build upon. What are some of your best memorable moments? What happened or what worked that made the situation positive for the team? What kinds of actions and attitudes could you replicate from that event? What are some individual strengths on the team? Stay focused on the positive to appreciate what you have already that might be working keeping and improving further.

Consider what your team would look, feel, sound and be like in its “ideal” state in the future. What adjectives and phrases would best describe the team then? What would be the rewards to the team and to individual team members if you achieved this desired state? What would be the consequences for doing nothing – what would it mean to you as individuals if the team did nothing to progress toward this desired future?

Search for specific inhibitors to your team’s performance that might keep this team from moving toward its desired future. List all possible obstacles without any evaluation of ideas up to this point. Just record the thoughts of everyone without further analysis. List all possible inhibitors.

The “relationship issues” will come up first, but you will need dig deeper. Root causes of inhibitors need to be explored in the order listed toward the end of this article. Most importantly, team building must be an ongoing process – not a half-day activity or outing. Team building activities of that nature are effective only when used as a single element of an overall strategy for team development. Develop a customized approach depending on the context and commitment to change from leadership and team members.

Now, for each inhibitor, list possible solutions. Again, you are still brainstorming, so no evaluation of ideas; just record the ideas. Once you have discussed several alternative solutions for each inhibitor, begin to evaluate the possible solutions that could improve the team’s performance, attitudes and mutual expectations. Choose the best solution(s) for each inhibitor with some degree of group consensus. Develop an action plan for addressing each inhibitor in the event that it occurs, assigning responsibility and personal accountability for each step based on individual team members’ strengths. Determine dated milestones for when and how the team will track its progress toward the desired future.

Remember, your goal is specific: to improve team performance and attitudes by clarifying group goals and members’ expectations of one another in the following order. This requires focus, disciplined adherence to a structured process, and at least some assistance from a skilled facilitator from outside your team and organizational culture. This simple model works for any kind of team, whether it’s a marriage, a family, a church, a neighborhood or civic group, a government task force, small business or Fortune 500 corporation.

Goals

Do team members have a clear, shared understanding and articulation of the same mission, goals, vision and even values?
By the way, you might call this all-important clarification process, which is the first step necessary to get team members “on the same page”, as “The Intersection of Purpose”.
Teams I have worked with are amazed at the transformation of their attitudes, among other outcomes, just by achieving success at developing a clearly stated common mission. This is one of the reasons why I say Strategic Thinking and Planning is perhaps the most powerful “team building” activity any group can pursue.

Roles

What roles are necessary for the team to be effective and who will play those roles (individuals, Strategic Business Units, product lines, locations, departments, etc)?
Within each role, are there clearly identified goals that support the team’s overall purpose and mission?
Do team members share mutual expectations of one another (and SBUs, etc) in their respective roles?

Rules

Is everyone playing by the same rules? These include written rules like policy, procedures, regulatory issues, written core values…
This also includes “unwritten rules” – the ones that really define team and organizational culture. Typically, it is often a continuous, and sometimes very difficult and time-consuming challenge to identify a team’s unwritten rules. Team members and team leaders are typically hard-pressed to do this heavy lifting, but it can pay big dividends and nearly always requires outside assistance.

Relationships

Yes, relationship issues can produce root cause inhibitors to team success, but should only be accepted after the other three causal areas are explored and well-defined with a great degree of consensus.
Usually, when goals, roles and rules are clarified, the relationship issues take care of themselves. Conflict still exists, but is productive and exists for good reason – as the necessary ingredient for innovation. No longer is conflict about “right versus wrong” or “win versus lose”; now it’s about win-win relationships and “what is the best right answer among all our team members’ possible right answers?”
Where relationship issues still exist, now they can effectively be addressed through tools and activities like sharing behavioral style assessments (i.e. DISC) and traditional team building activities.
Now, with all this said, I do use traditional team building as a means to introduce organizations to more profound solutions. But I am very careful up front when I say “yes” to these agreements. Unless relationships are the only inhibitor to effective team development, these activities provide short-term fixes at best.
If you are a team leader, perhaps the most powerful question for you to consider before all others is, “What if I am the problem?”