I had a frustrating, but familiar, experience recently. The head of training of a large international client called me. She was planning an off-site day for the leadership team and wanted some help to design and facilitate it.

As usual, I asked her a number of questions about their context, people and the purpose of the event. Alarm bells started ringing as her answers revealed that the objectives of the day were far from clear. The only thing she was clear about was some items from the HR agenda – and she had little idea what business benefits the CEO wanted to achieve.

She did, however, have a number of clear requirements about the design. It was to be a single day and she wanted ‘creative outdoor exercises’ to be central to the approach.  She explained that team members had been disengaged at past such meetings so they wanted to ‘liven it up’ to keep people’s interest! She didn’t know why they might have been bored at previous past events…

Calls like this are surprisingly common. Many teams run sporadic events like this. They know they aren’t working well and that the dynamics of the team are getting in the way of delivering the changes and results they are seeking. Sadly, the majority of such sessions are poorly conceived, badly executed and deliver little as a result.

5 Reasons why teambuilding fails

Sadly, ‘teambuilding’ events like this have bred a generation of team development sceptics. Almost every leader I meet has been on at least one event of this type and, whilst some of them have been enjoyable, none have made a lasting impact on the way the team works or the results it gets.

The reasons are quite simple:-

  1. It’s hard to transfer any learning to the work.  There are hundreds of ‘exercises’ that can be used – from building a raft to wargaming. The idea is that these provide a laboratory in which participants can see the effect of their interactions. The problem is that even useful insights are difficult to apply amongst the pressures and the very different environment back at the office.
  2. Behavioural changes decay rapidly.  Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, give up smoking or take up exercise knows that changing our habits and behaviours takes time. Forward progress is mixed with backward steps – so continued effort and support is required to embed and sustain changes. Without this, good intentions at the end of the event become excuses and regrets within days or weeks.
  3. People get little help to make personal changes. Team effectiveness (and ineffectiveness) is a combination of team dynamics and each individual’s contribution. Each person, therefore, needs help to understand, reflect on and make changes to how they participate in order to make a difference to the whole team. This simply doesn’t happen in the limited time available (and public forum) on a team ‘awayday’.
  4. The real business outcomes and issues aren’t addressed. Every leadership team is wrestling with important and difficult problems. They can ill afford the luxury of a whole day talking about things other than the central business priorities. In any case, the sorts of dynamics and issues that arise when resolving a product launch, cost programme or other business issue are different to those that happen when dealing with an artificial exercise.
  5. Results aren’t measured. An old business adage says that what gets measured gets managed. The time cost of a day spent out of the office with the most senior members of the organisation is huge. Without measuring the effect of the event, no one is held accountable for ensuring that there is a return on that investment.

How team development is different

Team development is different to ‘teambuilding’. It’s sustained over time, focussed on the real business issues and involves support for individuals as well as with the team. Results are measured before, during and after the programme.

Few teams are ready to begin a serious programme of team development (or to make a commitment of that size) when we first talk to them. They see the problem but are less clear about a solution. That’s why they call us. So how do we respond?

It starts with creating a ‘Launch Pad’

We always begin, therefore, with a single event that we call the ‘Launch Pad’.  It lasts a day and a half and, together with its preparatory work delivers:-

  • A detailed understanding of the perspectives of each of the team on its goals, issues and the changes needed.
  • Engagement of every member in the purpose and objectives of any development.
  • An objective assessment of where the team currently stands – benchmarked against a database of both high and underperforming teams.
  • Clarity on exactly how improving team effectiveness will drive the key business issues.
  • Alignment in the team about the deliverables and results required of the team development.
  • An agreed plan for how to deliver the changes.

Armed with all of this the team is ready to make a shift in how it works – and which will drive real changes to bottom line results. The CEO can make an informed decision on whether to make the investment required.

Launching transformational team development

A couple of years ago I had a call about facilitating a ‘teambuilding awayday’. After discussing their context, issues and needs we set up a meeting with the CEO to talk more about what he wanted from the event and why.

He was very clear about the issues. Interpersonal antagonisms and poor working across the organisation had to be overcome if they were to meet the twin challenges of revenue growth and cost control. He knew the team had to be brought together but didn’t know how to unlock the blockages and find a path forward. We set out the principles of team development and when we described the Launch Pad process he quickly realised that was exactly what was needed.

We spoke to every member of the Leadership Team and used their input to shape an agenda for the day and a half. The event was a huge success. He opened it by speaking with great passion and clarity about where he wanted to take the organisation and the things he saw that would have to change to get there. The rest of the first day was spent building trust and getting everyone engaged and energised about the challenges ahead.

Over dinner we talked about the best teams each person had been a part of. As well as further building mutual understanding and trust this introduced a number of powerful ideas for how great teams were formed. By day two the team were really flying. They spent most of the second day working together, across functional boundaries, at redefining and working through the priorities.

By the end of the event they described themselves as being like a different team.  The changes to the way they interacted were very clear and they had a new and refined set of priorities – together with a plan that involved them working together to accelerate their delivery. They also left the room with a clear commitment to continuing the work to embed the changes and further develop the team.

Making a change in your team

If you’re considering an event to develop your team, the three key questions you need to answer are:-

  1. What are they key priorities that the team need to deliver together?
  2. What changes in the way the team works will be needed to deliver those priorities?
  3. What would each team member need to become engaged in team development?

Armed with these you can begin to create a design for an initial event.  This should include an element at the end which creates a plan for how you will develop the longer programme required for real and sustained development.

If you don’t have answers to all of these questions, our Launch pad process will provide them.  It will also create a design for the event that will deliver real progress on your key issues, a clear shift in the way the team works together and support from the team for the further work required.

To understand more about the Launch Pad, please email or call on 0845 519 7871.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of
which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.

For more on Miles’ thinking see his book The Transformational Power of Executive Team Alignment 

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or
to arrange a free Strategy Session


Chris Henderson