Oh good lord, a newsletter about… team building.

Patrick Hollingworth
November 25, 2014

“Unless intended as a purely social activity, traditional team building is a waste of time. “

Today’s piece is a little overdue, but I do have an excuse: I have just emerged (metaphorically speaking) from a dark place full of uncertainty and self-flagellation! Not too dissimilar from Mordor, I’m talking about the place to where authors disappear for extended periods of time to write their books.

But at last my book is done and I’m really excited about it. It’ll be published by Wiley with its release date being March 1st next year. I’ll tell you more about it as we get closer to its release, but in short, I mount the case for the Light and Fast alpine-style approach being the new way for dealing with global uncertainty, which is seemingly forever on the increase. Although the book focuses on organisations, it’s got a bunch of ideas which can be applied across a whole spectrum from people and teams to organisations.

I’ve also just emerged (literally speaking) from another dark place… that being northern Scotland in mid-November, where it is dark (by mid afternoon). In doing some work for a cool client of mine, I applied the Light and Fast ethos to international travel, covering 28,900 kilometres in some 96 hours. Effective? Yep. Comfortable? Um, not really.

But that’s the reality of a light and fast alpine-style approach. Sometimes you just have to suck it up.

If you don’t read the rest of this newsletter, then at least watch this video, because it’s super cool! (hint: it uses drones). But if you make it to the bottom of this newsletter, there’s another, equally cool video waiting for you at the end.

Pretty much all of the work I do these days relates to people, teams and organisations, and how they can better deal with uncertainty by adopting a light and fast approach. And one of they key ideas of this is that an interdependent* team comprised of highly competent and independent* people is the core unit of enterprise for any organisation.

*More on these concepts perhaps another time, I think.

Whilst at the individual level we can focus on personal skill development and self-awareness, and at the organisational level we can focus on identifying and achieving the organisation’s meta-level purpose and cultivating an appropriate culture, it is at the team level where the light and fast approach really comes into its own, at least in the sense of getting stuff done.

The challenge, however, is ensuring that our teams are running at their best and most productive capacity in this increasingly uncertain environment around us.

In an environment which is becoming increasingly ambiguous and complex, our expectations of what is and isn’t normal, are no longer being met. This causes a dissonance to occur between how we think the world should work, and how it actually works. The end result is discomfort and stress, and when you get a team of people experiencing collective dissonance, the discomfort and stress gets amplified.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, the answer is… that there is no easy answer.

There is no one single thing that you can do to help ensure your team is able to deal with the demands of this new and uncertain world.

(There are multiple things that you can do to help your team—such as learning full-spectrum decision making and sense making, focusing on your strengths and knowing your risk attitude, and developing a growth mindset and antifragility, to name but a few—but that would take too long to describe here all at once, and besides, there’s an excellent book coming out on March 1st next year that does look at all of these and more).

But of course, some people will tell you that there is an easy answer, and that this answer is… team building!

Yes, team building.

I know, I know, that was a bit cruel, as the mere mention of this term commonly elicits the following sequence of responses:

  1. an involuntary shudder down one’s spine
  2. the crawling of one’s skin
  3. the rolling of one’s eyes
  4. a sudden urge to call in sick for the day.

At some point in your professional career you’ve no doubt been asked to participate in one of the typical team building ‘products’ such as a TV show Survivor-style scavenger hunt, mini golf or perhaps even paint-balling (‘Right, this team is not functioning well. Let’s improve the way they work together… by allowing them to shoot each other’). Really?

But from where on earth has come this belief that a good old session of traditional team building will cure an organisation’s woes?

The answer is the leadership and organisational development industry, which is a bloated, gargantuan beast of a thing—annual global investment in the industry is estimated to be in the order of $200 billion—and team building has been one of their go-to ‘solutions’.

But the problem is that traditional team building doesn’t work. In fact, it’s a complete waste of money.

Traditional team building is built on the organisational mantra that we must all get along, with the idea being that we spend so much time at work with our colleagues, it makes sense that we actually enjoy each other’s company.

And so the leadership industry has focused on helping organisations improve the interpersonal relationships and social interaction between employees, leading to the notion of team building becoming confused with team socialising. It’s the work equivalent of Happy Families. It’s all about creating harmony and removing discontent, with the core belief being that only a team working in social harmony can achieve good results.

The problem with traditional team building is that getting along and getting critical are seen as polar opposites: a team that gets along is seen as good, and a team that doesn’t get along, or one in which members are critical of one another, is seen as bad.

But light and fast teams in this new uncertain world aren’t necessarily the Brady Bunch of corporate. Team social harmony doesn’t equal effective team performance.

Why? Because concentrating on making people happy means an inability to give good critical feedback and unbiased reporting, which is essential in this uncertain world around us, where we experience dissonance and truly need to be able to leverage the power of a team to improve work quality and productivity.

Of course, this isn’t an open invitation for open and critical attacks on team-members.

Rather, they should be encouraged to have open, healthy discussion about the work they are doing together, and rather than criticising, they should be critiquing one another.

In this new world, team building should still be about encouraging people to get along but also, and more importantly, it should be about enabling one another to be question each other on their assumptions and beliefs.

Unless intended as a purely social activity, traditional team building is a waste of time.

I am stunned to see the ubiquity of these forms of team building still in practice today. Good organisations spending good money on a wasted opportunity to really improve how a team of people can work together. This type of traditional team building has absolutely no relevance in today’s VUCA* world.
* that’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, just in case you’ve forgotten.

But hold on a minute!

Do I not myself offer ‘team building’ services?

Aha, good question, and the answer is yes! But there is a difference. You won’t find any scavenger hunts or mini golf and nor will you find campfires and the singing of Kumbaya.

Having long been aware of the powerful learning environment that the uncertainty of the outdoor environment can provide, I prefer to go outside, into the unknown, where we can explore the light and fast approach.

But this is not the type of outdoor boot camp which involves high ropes courses and inevitably devolves into a chest-pounding exercise where Rambo Anti-Alphas try and outwit and outlast one another.

Rather, it is a deep immersion into the self and into the team—the natural environment just serves as a context, or a canvas, upon which (or within which) the team can explore themselves, their working relationships with one another, and practice using some of the tools—such as full-spectrum decision making, and sense making—which will be absolutely crucial to ensure the team’s success in the VUCA world ahead of us.

Given that this world is changing so quickly around us, and that there’s a growing level of complexity and uncertainty in many aspects of our daily working lives, the outdoor environment provides the perfect opportunity for us to explore how we naturally respond to uncertainty and complexity and to start to get comfortable with the discomfort that uncertainty can bring.

We learn that it’s OK, and indeed normal, to feel vulnerable and afraid about uncertainty.

We learn that our natural tendency to react to the unknown does not actually serve us or our team very well.

We learn that it’s ok to give up our desire to always be in control of our situation and our environment, and to go with the flow rather than against it.

We learn that once we come out the other side of the immersion, ourselves and our teams will be much better for it.

On the surface this might look like your traditional team building exercise. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is about a deep immersion into yourself, and your team.

There’s so much talk in the business world around the need to develop agility these days. But sitting in a half day workshop or strategy planning session in a boardroom will not help build agility into teams. Traditional team building will not do it either.

Better, I think, that we go outside, and that we go deep.

And of course, if you are enjoying this piece, please forward it on to someone else you think might like it!