Is there value in extreme team building?

I have addressed the topics of extreme team building and frivolous team building a number of times in this blog and in guest posts on other blogs. I am careful not to identify the companies that provide it. My criticisms are not personal. Just business.

I wasn’t planning to return to this topic but I recently had a comment on my Companies Still Substituting Extreme Activities for Real Team Building post by a gentleman who identified himself as being connected with one of the companies mentioned in a CNN article called Extreme retreats: Fire walks & snow survival with your workmates.  There was some depth to his comment so I thought it was important to address his concerns and devote some more quality time to these issues.

First, I’ll cut to the chase. On this we can agree:

“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).”

The comments ended with an important and really valid point:

“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.”

First of all, at no time have I “torn everyone else and their services down”. I have,  at times used, an irreverent approach to highlight what I perceive as the height of stupidity in team building and the height of frivolity in team building.

If that is the concern, I confess. I admit it.  I am guilty as charged. I am one of a number of team building specialists who has become increasingly frustrated by the continual dumbing down of the industry. I deal with it through humour. While I realize this approach may not appeal to everyone, it does make a point.

For example, thanks to Brandt Krueger for commenting on Even more Really Stupid Ideas for Team Building and sharing this one. Honestly, is there any bottom line value in this?

If there is, I don’t see it. Is there a problem with me saying that? Reminds me of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. What is wrong with telling the Emperor that he is naked or blowing the lid off frivolous activities that are being marketed as team building.

I agree that there is a need for authentic and open discussion. How can this even begin when the industry has reached the point that activities as frivolous as painting tea cups are being labelled as “team building”  and pitched to corporations for $15 a person?

The end result is to confuse corporate clients and gradually bring down the expectation of what real team building costs. It’s called commoditization.

At the other end of the spectrum is what is dubbed “extreme team building” that can and has lead to accidents.

“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.”

Really? A quick Google search turned up the following accidents from extreme activities:

  • Carton House chef sues over ‘team-building’ injury
  • Plaintiff raised argument in work/team building situation that they were forced to sign release
  • Wife sees ‘horrific’ fatal fall
  • ‘Extreme’ sport accident in Russia sends 2 men over cliff, killing 1 (I didn’t realize till this went live that it was captured on video.) Watch….

Is it worth it? In Duty of Care: How Team Building Days can go Wrong, Thompson Law reviews a number of similar cases. Extremists testing the limits of team-building is also an interesting albeit disturbing read.

Aside from the danger, how can any company cost justify this type of activity when the economy still has not emerged fully from the downturn? At the end of Q1 this year, 111 of S&P 500 companies issued profit warnings. Now more than ever there is a need for companies to re-boot with targeted team building focused on delivering bottom line results.

With respect to the specific concern that was raised about one of the programmes discussed by CNN. I have noted the comment:

“…..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.”

The CNN article gave the impression that participants were basically stranded in the back country for an extended period. I have visited the website and I was relieved to find this:
“However, the(y) DO NOT stay the night. After 60 to 90 minutes we pull everyone out as snowcat arrives to take them to a nearby lodge and a warm evening by the fireplace. However, they believe they will be staying the night. This is how we achieve authenticity.”

How does scaring people out of their wits achieve authenticity?

The writer also took exception to my criticism of extreme outdoor team simulations.

….. 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.

First of all, I never referred to the wilderness survival as “fake team building” In fact the word fake was not used in the text of that blog post. I referred to taking a group into snow covered backcountry where there was risk of a an avalanche as “extreme team building”.  As for our programmes being similar, here is where I will disagree.

My company does offer outdoor team building and some of it involves overnight outdoor stays. We are careful to never take the group so far off the beaten track that they are in danger. Whether it’s Winter Team Building or Desert Team Building, the groups are not far from civilization. In fact, by skilled trekking through a green space, participants may have the impression that they are far from the resort or hotel when they have not, in fact, left the property. If anyone becomes ill or needs to return to their room because of discomfort, this would be easy to do. At the end of the simulation, participants are surprised to discover how close to the original base they were.

Here is where we definitely differ. The goal of our outdoor team building is never to make anyone feel that they are at risk or in danger. The experience is a metaphor for surviving and charting a course in a tough economic climate and teams leave with real tools and strategies. There is no need to strand anybody on an iceberg to achieve these results.

I just don’t understand why it is necessary to place participants in situations where they feel they are in danger in order to generate bottom line results.  Did I miss the memo that indicated that corporations have become para-military organizations? Are we about to ship corporate executives and managers  off to Afghanistan en masse? It not, why is there the need for danger and when did danger become a key success factor for effective team building? Clearly I am missing something.

The writer was particularly disturbed by my criticism of blindfolded Land Rover driving that is being promoted for “team building”. The TV show The Mentalist did a send up of this activity. It starts at 1:20:

As I asked in Even More Really Stupid Ideas for Team Building what’s next, blindfolded show jumping? Why don’t we put the horse on a lead line and have a team member guide the blindfolded rider over the jumps? Will this produce effective team building?

Why stop there? What about blindfolded bungee jumping or sky diving? I perceive blindfolded Land Rover driving to be as just as ludicrous.

“In your articles you are disparaging the work of others without understanding how the activity is being used. “

Perhaps but, a paragraph earlier, he levied his own criticisms:

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.

So, why is it okay to criticize these programmes and not okay for me to sound the alarm about programmes that I perceive as extreme, dangerous or just plain “snake oil”. As members of an industry, if we don’t speak out who will do it?

What is the alternative? Are we to continue the downward spiral in which any activity in which a team participates is dubbed as “team building”? Companies eventually will put all team building on the chopping block? Some have already done so.

 Image: Chris Hartman (Flickr)


Updated – Stop the Press:

I have to watch what I say, there really is such a thing as blindfolded sky diving. Who knew?

What’s next? Perhaps this has potential. After all, it involves the whole team:


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