How many golf balls do you need to learn trust? A team-building case study

team-building free jump

The importance of team-building is universally acknowledged, but it is often hard to find time for it in the stream of everyday activities. On one hand, there’s the eternal dilemma: invest or save? On the other hand, more specific concerns need to be addressed, regarding the time we spend together as colleagues outside the workplace. When is the right time to plan team-building activities? Right before or after a corporate dinner? As part of a travel incentive? On your coffee-break? All of these are viable options, but the ideal solution can only be found by taking the time to know your team and understand everyone’s individual and collective needs. There are instances in which all you have to do is get creative and opt for low-budget, DIY team-building sessions, like going for a walking tour of your city together or simply sharing a good home-made meal to get to know each other better and try to get along as smoothly as possible. Sometimes though, hiring a professional firm and setting some time aside for your team-building project will allow you to experience something truly memorable and out of the ordinary. The team-building games we organised for Accenture belong in this category.

Team-building goals

When you book a massive sports centre for the whole day, it may feel weird to tell yourself “this is not for fun”. You might be tempted to argue that it actually is for fun, since sports and outdoors activities can be safely described as “hobbies”, meant to be entertaining and pleasurable and to allow adults to reconnect with their inner child and let it play, as an alternative to the dreary everyday routine we all experience at work. Right? Partly. Fun definitely comes into the equation, but it is a means, not an end. This is not incentive travel, nor is it just a dinner with colleagues. The activities involved are complex and often challenging, designed to be fun, but with set goals to aim towards. We strive to create situations in which team members are forced to focus on mutual interaction and collaboration. There are tasks that simply can not be carried out without effectively working with others as a team, often involving a certain degree of trust or a clear distribution of roles. Each “game” is an exercise in something. Much like a workout routine at the gym, the games were designed to help team members flex different “muscles” in turn, albeit not the same kind of muscles that you might want to show off at the beach.

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Location and resources

On this occasion, we picked a large and well known sports centre near Milan as the location for our games. This was due partly to the sheer size of the project – involving 100 participants and requiring a spacious environment for each activity, including meals, training courses and the actual team-building – and partly to the physically demanding exercises we had scheduled. The project, aptly named Jeux Sans Frontières, required a very specific type of facility. When sports are involved, it is essential to select a venue that is at the same time adequately proportioned, safe and well equipped. It was also essential to have an indoors option: despite having planned a full day of outdoors fun, we were well aware that the weather might conspire against us – and it did. Another perk of the venue we hired was the fact that it allowed us to transfer the full program indoors in a matter of munutes. Finally, the props we sourced ranged from everyday objects, like tennis balls, tarps, tubing and lilos, to less common ones, more exclusively related to specific sports, such as archery.

It’s not all about entertainment

There was a time, in the 80s, when tv shows about ludicrous sporting activities were all the rage. Jeux Sans Frontières was very popular in several european countries and it mostly involved contestants engaging in “sports” that no gym known to man had ever catered for, but mostly doing so with a playful, healthy and daring attitude. There were also several tv shows, particularly in Japan, involving tasks that were not only nearly impossible to complete, but also completely ridiculous or grotesque. The contestants in JSF were endlessly fun to watch, but they also inspired the kind of weird admiration we reserve for someone willing and able to jump on each of a row of giant rubber spheres covered in soap, dodging water bombs and giant pillows. The japanese variety had much more to do with wild, nonsensical fun and much less with anything remotely sport-related. Let me be clear on one thing: when planning a team-building day, we are going for neither of the aforementioned effects, but we are aware that our games might contain an element of both. There will be the captivating challenge of engaging in an unusual and difficult task (such as carrying water in a tube in a tube that has holes all along its length as well as its ends). But there will be also the light-hearted attitude that ensues when competition is lively but not fierce and that allows everyone to let their hair down and enjoy the funny and weird twists that the day will bring, building the kind of banter-based camaraderie that can only exist between people who have played a corporate and slightly trickier version of Twister.

Team Building: why it works

Team-building is not an exact science, but it is reasonably close. It is not, like many seem to think, about resolving conflict, but about creating an environment in which conflict is unlikely to ensue. If two people don’t get along, making them do trust falls will not make them become friends all of a sudden. If, however, two colleagues don’t know each other well, but they are expected to work together and trust one another, it might be a good idea to pair them up and assign them tasks that require one to trust the other entirely – such as following instructions while blindfolded. While designing the perfect exercise for each goal, it is essential to have a clear view of the specific aspects of the interaction that we are looking to improve. Do we want team members to get to know each other better? Are we interested in promoting adaptability, strategic planning or asset management? It is a little known fact that Jonathan Swift made the connection between games and certain professional roles in his masterpiece “Gulliver’s Travel”. In his satyrical portrayal of the Lilliputians, he described how those wishing to apply for public offices were expected to show athletic prowess with tasks such as tightrope walking. The analogy was meant as a critique of those politicians who are willing to metaphorically bend over backwards in order to cover up their wrongdoing. The basic principle, however, applies to a wider range of options in real life. Balance is a transferable skill: learning to ply it with your body means stepping closer to doing the same with your mind. Much in the same way, a group of individuals that can successfully coordinate a physical effort, will be better equipped to do the same with an intellectual one.

Playing by the rules

The hardest thing about team-building planning – as unlikely as it may look to the untrained eye – is designing the rules of the game. Managing logistics is undoubtedly complex, but not strictly speaking difficult to anyone with event-planning experience. What sets a first-rate professional organisation from a glorified DIY endeavour is the effective and unique design of the tasks. In some cases it will be possible to fall back on ordinary sports, such as canoeing or archery, with just a few minor adjustments to the overall context. In other cases it will be necessary to come up with entirely original activities that work just as well as real sports. Seeing creative and team-building potential in a length of rope or rubber tubing, a tarpaulin or a plastic ball is not something you can learn overnight. These are no random examples: we used all of the above as props (as well as a few other, slightly less commonplace objects) in our team-building project for Accenture. How do you make a rubber tube into a tool that will encourage your team members to coordinate a joint effort? How do you use a tarp to build trust? How many golf balls do you need to teach 100 people about the benefits of teamwork? How long does a rope have to be, in order to make a leader emerge from a group of ten people? We asked each and every one of these questions and the answers we came up with were, as always, the basis on which to create a fun, surprising and inspirational experience for our client.

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Angela

She is a part-time digital nomad. She would go full-time, if only she could stay away from Berlin for long enough without pining for a Pretzel. She was born in Italy and she enjoys life as an expat, but visits home often enough and can still remember how to bake a perfect lasagna. She is passionate about writing, marketing, languages and the systematic demolition of cultural stereotypes.

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