Companies Still Substituting Extreme Activities for Real Team Building

I was sure that, in the aftermath of the economic downturn and the “AIG Effect”, we could finally say good riddance to companies using extreme activities as a substitute for real team building. Based on recent CNN report, this is not the case.

Here are some excerpts:

“The desert experience involves archery and a “fire walk” across hot coals. The latter activity is intended to leave participants energized and on a “spiritual high,” ready to attempt an even more cathartic challenge — having an arrow pressed against their throat until it snapped.”

“…..held in the Rockies. Participants are given snowshoes, beacons and taught alpine survival skills, before trekking deep into avalanche country. Their guides then tell them there has been an avalanche, that they will have to overnight in the snow, and they need to begin building snow shelters immediately.”

“”A day out of the office trialling the Jetlev R200 — a personal, water-powered jet pack that can propel the wearer 30 feet in the air over water — fits the bill.”

“Another option for executives seeking an invigorating buzz is to take to the skies in an Italian military training plane for an old-fashioned dog fight.”

Is this for real?

The National Post has reported that, even the Sky Tower in Auckland, N.Z. has billed its walk around its circumference, 192 metres above the ground without handrails as “the ideal corporate team-building activity”.

At least CN Tower has described it  Edgewalk attraction which involves a walk around the circumference and balancing off the tower as an “extreme urban adventure” and not team building.

What do any of these activities have to do with team building?

  • Bungee jumping off bridges in Australia
  • Controlled free falls from a 260 metres launch pad at Sky Jump in Las Vegas
  • Getting set on fire, jumping through breakaway windows or falling down stairs at stunt schools in Australia and California.

Absolutely nothing!

  • Have some companies learned nothing from the events of the past 3 1/2 years?
  • What are the benefits?
  • Where is the R.O.I.?
  • How do any of these activities contribute to the bottom line?
  • Why are some companies still spending on these extreme activities instead of real team building?
  • How can any CEO cost justify any of these activities, particularly when the economic recovery is still so fragile?

I hope that some executives will come by and share their perspective.

Photo Credit:  kate mcarthy (Flickr)

Looking for real team building that integrates:

  • safe outdoor team challenges
  • facilitated business team building exercises
  • business cases
  • debriefing and business applications exercises targeting your companies issues that impact the bottom line

Try the following facilitated team building simulations:

12 thoughts on “Companies Still Substituting Extreme Activities for Real Team Building

  1. Dr. Scott Simmerman says:

    I read James Carter’s post with some interest, since I also see a great many non-team building team building events. A real classic example is the advertisement running for that shows a paintball example —

    You CAN make anything into team building. A new company with an indoor go-kart track immediately starts advertising it as Corporate Team Building. You can win tickets for playing games — Dave and Buster’s offers team building. One might even say that the CIA, with their admitted illegal waterboarding activities was doing “teambuilding” with the administering staff of government agents.

    ANYTHING can be called teambuilding. A lot of stuff actually is. And there are a lot of people out there professing to be experts at generating fun events — yep, they may be fun but IS there any real learning generated by them?

    One can make the analogy that a survival course is team building. Yeah, maybe. But being a survival expert sure does not make you a teammate. That Dual Survival TV Show is a great example — those guys have very different approaches and a lot of conflict. Imagine if there were 6 departments full of guys like that — okay, yeah, we DO have accounting and engineering firms. My bad.

    So, we have 100 sales people, a diverse mix of 5 generations in age groups (yeah, we have that by 2020) with females, disabled and the normal diverse population. Gee, let’s do an Everest Climb (16 Sherpas were just killed last week getting things ready for the monied climbing patrons).

    Or there was Alan Alda’s whitewater team building adventure movie — remember White Mile. Heck, not everyone was killed!

    As James said, “Activities are simply tools and the format to achieve team building results. They can be used well or poorly. Many organizations are using them poorly AND calling them ‘team building’ which makes everyone in the industry look bad.”

    True. And not many of the good ones actually connect all that well to actually improving the results of the organization involved. As Juan said, “ROI? Bottom lines? That makes me a little sick.”

    Maybe not as sick as getting vertigo standing on the top of a pole (Why? That is not the question as to the pole challenge…)

    Me, I will do my individual stuff like a 130 meter bungee in NZ or a kayak trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon or an overnight solo backpacking trip in The Cascades. I’ll ride the 100 mile Assault on Mount Mitchell on my bicycle (with 12,000 feet of climbing). But I will not call it team building. There are actual team building games that accomplish that a lot cheaper, a lot more effectively, and without subjecting people for a required Liability Release form.

    I’m guessing that neither James nor Juan use those Liability Release Forms for their team building activities, right? (Did they need those to do the waterboarding?)


  2. James Carter says:

    As one of the companies in the CNN articles and the Founder of Be Legendary, I feel it is appropriate I respond to your article Anne. Your first two quotes of your article response are, in fact, two services we offer and you use them as examples of ‘fake’ team building.

    I am a co-author of two books with Stephen Covey, Ken Blanchard, Deepak Chopra and Brian Tracy. I have been running ‘extreme’ activities as well as traditional team building for over 20 years and have facilitated for tens of thousands of participants. We also have a line of 30 different group activities and I have coached over 100,000 people in their use with great group and individual success. I have a solid working knowledge of what results can be achieved through different activities, extreme or traditional.

    As you mention many times throughout your articles, playing and having fun as a team have their own place for groups, just don’t necessarily call that activity ‘team building’. Indeed they do. Extreme activities also have their place in the team environment, but it must be for the right group at the right time.

    We run hundreds of executive retreats a year and the ‘extreme’ activities are used in very limited circumstances where the function clearly shows that level of activity is valuable and has a place. There are some executive teams that truly need this level of extremity to launch them forward and there is absolutely nothing ‘fake’ about them.

    Getting an ROI on these activities is no different than any other activity and is a basic measurement. Extreme does not necessarily equal a high investment, although there is that potential. Also, if

    The reality is that I agree with your general thoughts about using the right vocabulary and not calling everything ‘team building’ and have similar frustrations.

    You can read an article I wrote called 5 Ways to Ensure Your Teambuilding Will Suck, which mirrors your frustration,

    In your examples, you are focusing on the activity itself (the format) without attempting to understand the context or the facilitation that may go along with it to achieve the clients desired outcomes (the function). Without knowing the context and the function the activity serves, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to correctly judge the efficacy and ROI of the activity.

    Let’s also assume that each company that is running their activities are running them safely. If not, it is the same as running an unsafe manufacturing facility. I believe that every company running team building, extreme or not, does everything they can to maximize the safety and minimize the potential for injury.

    For example, you run cooking team building activities. I am sure you allow the use of knives. If someone cuts a finger off during your activity because they were careless and or irresponsible with the knife, someone should not claim that ALL cooking team building is simply too dangerous and should not be run.

    One example you call “stupid” is ‘Blind Fold Rover Driving’. While on the surface the format seems silly and certainly can be with the wrong facilitation, the end result we have seen is actually quite amazing. Imagine for a moment the trust, communication and coaching skills that are necessary to achieve success in that activity. I think you and I can agree that those skills are necessary in a team.

    Are there other ways to achieve and improve those team skills outside of blindfolding someone behind the wheel? Yes. However, at the right time for the right group, blind fold rover driving is a great activity. If the return in the ROI of the organization is clearer communication, deepened trust and better coaches, then the only question for an executive is “What is the investment?” Then they can decide if there is truly an ROI. For you to dismiss any possibility of an ROI is unfortunate. You are missing opportunities that may benefit your clients through your limiting beliefs of what is, and what is not, a beneficial activity.

    You also mention paintball and the gentleman above posted his own reply. In the paintball example, you focus on the format, “firing paint cartridges at colleagues and inflicting pain is team building” and miss the function, and potential impact, of the activity upon the executives. I agree with your statement. Those two pieces of the activity do not hold ‘team building’ value. However, there is a larger picture that I did not see until I was forced to by a client.

    Personally, I refused to do paintball until a client insisted upon it and also insisted that it be used as an important part of the overall retreat and not just a bonding session (my recommendation and yours). The client challenged me to create meaning in the activity, so we went all the way to the ‘extreme’ end. We got some ex-Army Rangers to train the team how to be an effective assault team for a couple of hours and then they actually competed against the Army Rangers.

    What was the ‘paintball’ training focused on? Crystal clear communication, defined roles and responsibilities, effective and shared leadership and much more. I think you will agree with me that these are very tangible and important aspects to executive team building. The results – they saw a different way to act as a team. Some of the aspects they integrated into how their team operates and others they discarded because the paramilitary mode of operation simply did not fit. In the end, this team made a dramatic shift and were able to take their billion dollar division to new heights of productivity and profitability while enjoying work more. Can we agree this is a valuable result from a potentially ‘silly’ activity?

    Activities are simply tools and the format to achieve team building results. They can be used well or poorly. Many organizations are using them poorly AND calling them ‘team building’ which makes everyone in the industry look bad.

    The format of the activity MUST follow the function for the executives and time must be set aside to facilitate discussion about what has happened, lessons learned and what they are going to take away and use from the experience. We are extremely careful about selecting our activity, environment, venue, etc (Format) after spending time understanding the desired outcomes and the context of the executive team (Function).

    You mention our Deep Snow Wilderness Survival as an example, yet you provide a similar winter wilderness survival workshop. Two companies can run a similar service in very different ways and have two very different outcomes. Pointing out our wilderness survival and calling it ‘fake team building’ doesn’t seem to quite make sense and appears to be disingenuous. This does us both a disservice.

    We use the avalanche simulation when teams need an experience to bring them together because there is too much ego, history and other ‘stuff’ in the way. Without an extreme activity to crack their individual shells and get them to speak honestly with one another, no ‘team building’ will actually work.

    In the Deep Snow Wilderness Survival, the participants are never in any danger. It can be a little cold, but they are safe and the facilitation after the activity is incredibly deep and meaningful.

    Firewalking and arrow-breaking are also mentioned. You may be happy to hear we do not call these activities ‘team building’ nor do they have team implications other than simply supporting each other in a challenging situation. They are strictly individual building activities – a way to demonstrate person commitment to themselves, harness individual courage and take action for themselves. They are all Challenge by Choice and are simply opportunities for those who want to take advantage of them.

    In your articles you are disparaging the work of others without understanding how the activity is being used. I would encourage you to open up the conversation and try to understand how someone might be using a particular activity to build the team rather than simply call the activity ‘stupid’. You might find some great opportunities to offer a new service that you previously thought ridiculous. I know I have!

    Like going to baseball games, picnics and other activities that are team bonding opportunities, the more extreme activities also have their place for a groups of executive teams that actually need something extreme to begin a shift and work on being a team.

    Perhaps the focus can be making the team building industry more authentic and open up the discussion to how we can make it better instead of tearing everyone else and their services down.

    James Carter
    Founder & CEO Be Legendary

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

    I am thoroughly familiar with Jason Fried’s work as well as Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. In fact, Zappos was gracious enough to allow a team from one of our regular corporate client organizations interview a member of their executive team about the key elements for shaping corporate culture and providing exceptional client care. If you took the time to read the blog, you will see that I have referred to Tony Hsieh more than once and that I stress the importance of creating a vibrant corporate culture, for example:

    I am not sure what to make of your bizarre and baffling comment:

    “ROI? Bottom lines? That makes me a little sick.”

    ROI and generating bottom line results are not dirty words. If you think they are, then work for a non-profit organization. I don’t for a moment think that you don’t realize the raison d’être for business is to generate a profit for owners and shareholders by providing products or services that meet the needs of clients. Employees are valuable members of the team to generate results and they need to be treated well and, ideally, have a piece of the action. The bottom line is that businesses that don’t generate a profit, will go out of business. We have seen many instances of this in the last 4 years.

    Businesses aren’t country clubs or recreation centres. Their primary mission is not to provide social activities for employees. Yes, from time to time, social activities like company picnics, the Christmas party, or outdoor team challenges are important so that employees can relax, let off steam, and get to know each other better. However, any company that invests the bulk of their “team building” budget on fun and games has lost sight of its mission. Companies that invest heavily in recreation and fail to spend time with members of their team brainstorming and generating strategies to make the work environment a better place are using the equivalent of a placebo to replace real team building.

    As for your concern that younger workers will find real team building boring or call in sick, you have got to be kidding. Younger workers in particularly love our approach of integrating business exercises, team challenges, and activities to create powerful simulations that are then debriefed. They have a blast and they are relieved that the whole day has not been spent on fluff and frivolity while work is piling up on their desks.

    As for Paintball, is it team building? Heck no. I seem to have mashed your corn but facts are facts. During retreats, some of my clients have participate in Paintball to let off steam for a couple of hours, for example see this blog entry for where I arranged for one team to have fun as part of their retreat in Dubai:

    Hey, whatever floats your boat. By all means, play and have fun but don’t deceive companies by trying to pass Paintball off as team building. You’ll never convince me that firing paint cartridges at colleagues and inflicting pain is team building. It isn’t and neither is drumming, bungee jumping, juggling, bowling, ziplining, grape stomping, fire walking, or the latest flavour of the month. When marketed as such, paintball does belong on the list of “fake team building”.

  4. Juan Bermudez (@jbermudez5) says:

    I found your link because you included paintball in the fake team building activities.

    As someone that was involved in corporate team building events that included paintball, I can say there is a great benefit.

    People build stronger relationships as you put them in a stressful situations, you can research that yourself, as it has been studied over an over.

    On the other hand people enjoying them selves with their peers is something that any coumpany should not just pay attention to, but actually focus on, and create a great culture at the workplace.

    ROI? Bottom lines? That makes me a little sick.
    How about less turnover and attracting top talent because the company is a GREAT place to work at.

    Just by reading this: “debriefing and business applications exercises targeting your companies issues that impact the bottom line”, I feel bad. People would probably call in sick for that, or maybe just rather WORK.

    I recommend you read Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh. (CEO at Zappos)
    And aslo read anything Jason Freid, such as ReWork.

    Both have great approaches towards culture at the workplace.
    And unless you plan on having a company of suited-up baby boomers you will have a hard time hiring/retaining young talent, as these things do not just apply to Internet startups anymore.

    We are not in 1985 any more. And being creative at team building and creating a company culture is a must.

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