Why Team Building Could be a Waste of Money

Chris Atkinson - BLM columnist

The training market has seen a steady, continued growth in the area of team building.  More and more companies are committing their three most precious assets – time, money and resources to these events. Why then, in these challenging times with so many cuts being made, are we wasting so much resource on ineffective ‘team days’ that serve no useful purpose to the long-term health of the organisation?

The annual team build has become a calendar event, which takes on many meanings. For the holidaymakers it promises the prospect of a day out of the office, fresh air, lunch and possibly even a decent evening meal plus generous drinks tab. To the hostages the fear being held against their will, outdoors, tied up with ropes and facing feats of both physical and mental agility that seems to contravene the Geneva Convention. The saboteurs in organisations will take the opportunity to show how pointless the entire activity is, how inaccurately it reflects the real world and, more often than not, how much more astute they would be had they been in charge.

Where then are our genuine participants?  Where are those who seek the opportunity to develop new skills, learn new things and develop stronger relationships?

My fear is these people have been lost into the other categories by a process of attrition through years of disconnected, irrelevant activities on so called ‘team-building’ events. I believe that the industry needs to change in order to survive and remain a part of the annual budget.  Having worked as a trainer with many global organisations I have seen an ever increasing focus on training effectiveness, as well as an increasing cut back of ‘irrelevant’ training activities that are not seen to be part of the overall strategy or effectiveness. With the training market saturated those of us that have built successful, thriving training organisations are those that have connected their programmes with the real-world issues and held participants accountable for application.

Let’s therefore consider a new possibility in terms of definition:

Reward/Incentive Days: Fun, lively days, enjoyable and varied in style and activity. They deliver increased morale, the possibility of better relationships (note that many ‘team’ days serve to reinforce divides and further ostracise people and teams) and a bonus ‘thank-you’ to team members for their efforts.

This is by no means to belittle the valuable role this type of day can represent but rather to clarify what one can hope for as a result. Our challenge is really the expectation of the client. As a result of this day, can we really hope people will transfer the learning into productive and profitable business activities? Team build companies proudly declare feedback comments as evidence of success; “great day”, “better than I expected” and “found the day very useful” but, in reality, getting positive feedback like this really should be a case of minimum standard – compared to a day in the office it really isn’t a challenge.

Team Building Events: Aspirationally fun days, enjoyable and varied in style and activity. They deliver learning and insights relevant to the real life business environment of participants. They create organisational context and link activities, task and games to the overall objective of the organisation.

They look pretty similar at the surface level, but fundamentally these are two very different events. A large majority of team building is sold to industry as the latter but in truth is the former. This is evidenced by the lack of tangible change once back in the workplace. Great team building days recognise the activities are just analogies and as such are simply a vehicle to create learning. On a team build who wins or loses is irrelevant against what is learnt as a result and how that relates to business. The events should be upbeat and positive but they are also just as likely to involve challenge or tough conversations. Since performance improvement is the objective the day one cannot afford to avoid the business reality which needs to be dealt with openly, facilitated by credible business professionals.

I consider myself a business person working in training rather than the other way round, as such I believe reward and incentive days are becoming an increasing financial luxury. The danger is that if team building becomes synonymous with what are actually little more than reward days, organisations will fail to see tangible benefits and simply dismiss them as a waste of time and money. The future of the ‘team day’ market depends on its ability to deliver both what is expected and what is needed – with the strong focus being on result and business relevance.