Instant Team Building: What’s up with the 30 Minute Debriefs?

It’s happened before and it seems to be happening with increasing frequency. It’s the focus on instant results.

“Hurry sickness” is a disease that is now plaguing corporations all over the globe. It is not surprising that this has been showing up in team building sessions in North America for well over a decade and it’s not getting any better. It’s spreading. Yes, it’s important to adapt and to be responsive to the client’s needs but when the thinking is flawed, is this the most prudent course of action?

Scenario 1: One of my Canadian clients expected instructions for a complex team building exercise to be provided in 5 minutes instead of the 20 minutes that I had recommended. My goal was to provide instructions, give groups an opportunity to review them,  formulate questions about anything that was unclear, and get answers.

In this instance,  I provided the client with the instructions and suggested that a member of their team deliver them. I wasn’t going to be the black lady at the front of the room screaming out rapid fire instructions to a 99% white male, senior executive audience. We all know how well that would have been received.

The instructions were rushed and people were confused. I was glad that I had made the right call and I wasn’t the person at the front of the room to be blamed for this fiasco.

Scenario 2:  Even though 1/2 day had been allocated for full debriefing at the end of a 2 1/2 day team building retreat, when we assembled for debriefing, the CEO demanded “Let’s wrap this up in 30 minutes and get back to the hotel.” I reviewed with him and the group the process that we had agreed to and the timeframe that had been allocated for the debriefing and application exercises. The CEO insisted on the ridiculously short timeframe. I let the group know that I would do my best with the time I had been given. I apologized in advance as there would probably be loose ends and unanswered questions at the end of the session.

On the fly, I simply skipped the debriefing questions and asked the groups to:

  • identify one specific thing that they had learned or 1 tool that they had found useful
  • identify one specific way in which they would apply it when they returned to work

After the session, one of the VPs whispered in my ear “See what I mean. We face this every day.” I felt for him and gave the CEO private feedback that, by taking such an approach, he was setting the members of his team up for frustration and failure. He listened but I doubt that he will change. This was not a North American client by the way.

Scenario 3: I met overseas with my foreign client to plan their team building session. (They had flown me half-way across the world and put me up at 5 star hotels to do this.) They had requested a 1 day design and I had let them know this wasn’t possible for the simulation they had selected. I had designed a 3 hour briefing session to set the context and do some targeted business exercises for a group of executives. This was to take place the day before the outdoor portion. (I wanted to ensure that the executives did dismiss the outdoor simulation as fluff and a waste of time.) There was push-back and resistance and it was a fight to even get the client to agree to 2 hours.

Scenario 4: The same client was also resistant when I proposed a highly condensed and targeted 2 hour debriefing. I wanted to have the teams:

  • answer 4 – 5 targeted questions in their groups (30 – 45 Minutes)
  • select a spokesperson
  • use a panel format to go through the questions and give the teams an opportunity to share their responses to each question and identify best practices. (30 – 45 Minutes)
  • analyze a specific business issue using the tools from the simulation (30 minutes – the optimal timeframe for this is one hour)
  • use a provided storyboard format to prepare a short mini-presentation with their results(15 minutes – the optimal timeframe for this is one hour)
  • present their mini-presentations to the whole group and identify next steps (30 minutes – the optimal timeframe would have been an hour)

For scenarios 3 and 4, my alliance partner (who would be doing the outdoor activity, transfers and meals)  took me aside and advised “Just do whatever they ask. There is a lot of money to be made here. Why should you care whether or not they learn anything? Just take the money and run.” Sounds drastic but that is exactly what many team building companies are doing. I am the only one who has a problem with this from the point of view of ethics. I somehow have a problem with taking money and not delivering value. (I would love some reactions from executives and team building consultants.)

At the end of the day, who wants to wade through a pile of evaluation forms with a sea of comments like:

  • That was too rushed.
  • Sorry I didn’t get the point.
  • What was that?
  • I didn’t have enough time to think and process the experience.
  • The timeframe for the group exercises was much too short.
  • The facilitator was harried. Gee! I wonder why.

Who wants to wear the blame after they have repeatedly cautioned the client that the timeframe was too short?

I am attempting to resolve the situation by doing something I haven’t done in about 20 years. I provided the client with a detailed agenda with timeframes for every minute activity and exercise. I indicated that the timeframes for the individual components were realistic and could not be condensed any further. I asking them to review the agenda with the CEO and delete all topics, exercises and content they felt did not add value for the executive team. Only time will tell if this is an effective strategy.

These scenarios are puzzling.

  • Why spend a fortune on team building and allocate a timeframe in which it is virtually impossible to achieve results?
  • Why pay top dollar for an expert team building consultant, fly them half way across the world and ignore their advice?

(It might be better for some companies to save their money and get an internal rookie employee who will just take orders to deliver the team building.)

Companies are pushing and burning out employees and expecting them to produce results in ridiculously short timeframes. When team members try to set realistic boundaries, they are branded “inflexible” and “rigid”. As a result, companies are losing some of their best people and experiencing alarming short-term disability costs due to the number of people on stress leave. It is not surprising that this is showing up in the approach to team building. There is absolutely no need for this. I hope that every CEO reading this who expects “instant results” from their people will seriously re-think their orientation.

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Photo Credit: ztephen

7 thoughts on “Instant Team Building: What’s up with the 30 Minute Debriefs?

  1. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. @executiveoasis says:

    I definitely agree. Self-paced instruction will have to be the way to deliver some of the content. The challenge is to do it in a way that is interactive and engaging. (We all know how people hate to do pre-work.)

    Sure if money is no object, there are a range of options from shooting real fast-paced videos to using platforms like Second Life. When budgets are tight, it becomes a challenge. I have teamed up with university and college film students with great results for clients with tight budget and it looks like this may be the way to go. No amount of coaxing or persuading seems to be effective in getting more time on the agenda.

    Eagle’s Flight came up with some really incredible 2 hour simulations for large groups. The production values are very high so it wouldn’t work for a small group. I guess we’ll have to explore strategies for delivering programmes like that on a smaller scale. It’s so frustrating though as we do know how to deliver team building properly but the handcuffs are on and it’s going to take a ton of out of the box thinking to come up with something that will work in a short timeframe.

  2. michael cardus says:

    You made your point and this sound like and seems to be in some way the Voice of the Customer. I have also hearing this same need from my college programs wanting Hybrid (internet and face 2 face learning). Where almost 1/2 the lessons are offered in a self-paced on-line format. The other half is face to face. Does the learning stick? No.
    We need to do a better job integrating ourselves into the existing meeting structure. Through facilitation, framing the meeting, offering consulting and integrating experiential learning that way.
    I have also been squeezed by exex wanting to “get this done in 30 minutes” or I am the thing between the group and the bar or going home or “getting back to real work”. This trend (as we have spoken about) has been happening and shows little signs of stopping – I think it will increase. This is why we need to develop solutions for this time crunch. Integrated real-time feedback and application of lessons, 1 on 1 coaching, small team meetings where real-problems are solved in real-time, Finding ways to work with the C-level to explore systems and process ideas.

  3. Anne Thornley-Brown, M.B.A. @executiveoasis says:

    Wow 40 minutes? What magic wand did you take out of your laptop case to accomplish that. It’s even hard to do an interactive keynote in that time. I really would like to hear from some of these decision makers and event planners with a short order cook approach. Do they not realize that even to do a short group or paired exercise, you have to give the instructions, give people a chance to reflect and ask questions, settle in, do the exercise and debrief it?

    I agree, it’s imporant to have the same rate for 1 hour, 1/2 day and full day sessions to discourage clients from using short cuts to try to save money.

    I am now incorporating debriefs throughout my sessions (which really does cut down on the experiential nature of a simulation and giving the participants the opportunities to fully immerse themselves in it). It’s the only way to avoid these constant battles with planners who try to force you to do debriefing and application exercises in ridiculously short timeframes. At least if you debrief as you go along there is some hope that people will “get it”.

    I just love it when they give these assignments to rookie planners who know nothing about facilitation or group process and who weren’t even born at the time we started facilitating. They tend not to be very open to advice either.

    You’re right, it frustrates the participants and it DOES make the facilitator look really bad. It’s always easier to blame the facilitator who you don’t see every day than to blame the CEO or the event planner who came up with the crazy short-circuited design in the first place.

    I hope you’ll add your comments and any tips you have to a related blog:

    Tips for Facilitating Meetings and Presenting Content When the Time-frame is Too Tight

  4. Adrian Segar (@ASegar) says:

    Anne, I completely agree with you. I was just flown to Barcelona solely to lead a “participatory” 40 minute session. (I did my best, but there’s only so much you can do in such a short time.) I see the same issues with my workshops on incorporating meaningful participation into conference sessions. Some potential clients don’t understand that experiential learning cannot be compressed into the same time frames as traditional presentations. Many are simply unwilling to dedicate the time needed for effective, targeted, customized learning to take place.

    The tragedy is that when clients insist on grossly abbreviated schedules everyone loses. Participants learn a fraction of what would have been possible (assuming they don’t tune out completely from frustration), the facilitators look bad, and participatory learning gets another strike against it.

    These days my strategy is to have a fixed daily fee to be present at an event and offer to do as much as I can while I’m there at no extra charge. And I, reluctantly, turn down requests from potential clients that, in my judgement, simply won’t work.

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