Experiential Team Building needs adoption by Asian Companies

Arun Rao, Director – FOCUS Adventure India
It is the annual Team building day! Everyone is excited — well, almost everyone. The day passes by in a blur of activities run one after the other — and it ends in a crescendo of laughter and happy emotions! It was a wonderful, fun day — and yet, somewhere amidst all that rah-rah some of the perceptive leaders in the group are left wondering, “This was great fun — but does this make us a better team really?”

No — they are not the cynics and pessimists, as some may choose to label them. Rather, they are the people who can see behind the veils and perceive the reality of team dynamics. So, are Experiential team building activities really just a sham — or is there merit in companies investing in them?

The devil as they say, lies in the details. What you went through was perhaps Team Entertainment and not Team building — and the difference between the two is quite significant. Let us dive deeper to understand the difference. A popular model to understand how teams progress in their journey towards becoming “high-performance-teams”, is the Bruce Tuckman model which defines the different stages of growth of a team as being: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. What this implies really is that: Becoming a high performance team is a journey. It can only happen when there is sustained intent shown by the leaders within the team to take their team through this journey. So, how does this journey happen?

Once a team is newly formed, it is important for the members to get the feeling of being part of “one” team. And this is perhaps the only place where “Team entertainment” finds a place. It is important at this stage for team members to have “shared experiences”. The laughter, excitement and going-through-it-together, makes members relate to each other as members of the same team. “Team entertainment” here, is an end in itself. For sure, it is an important part of the journey in becoming a better team — but, it is just the first step.

In the Tuckman model, this is where “Team Entertainment” stops & “Team Building” starts. It is good to share laughs and “fun moments” with team members. But if it stops there, this is where the perceptive leaders in the group start wondering, “Hey, that was good fun. But, how does that make us a better team?”

This is where Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle shows the path for going deeper in this journey.  Kolb’s Cycle talks about putting a team though a “Team Experience”, which has to be a concrete experience. This in our opinion necessarily has to fun and / or engaging. However the experience needs to be designed & thought through in a way that there can be clear learning outcomes. People sometimes think that learning and fun cannot go together. How wrong is that! Walt Disney showed us the path when he said, “Laughter is no enemy to Learning”.

However, once a team is put through such a “Team Experience” — it is important for the team to sit back and reflect on what happened during the experience. There is a saying that, “The way people play is very often the way they work too”. We have seen this to be true in the many workshops we conduct. Hence a very dominant team member will show the same dominant behavior during the activity too. However, unlike back at work where these become touchy issues to point out, after a fun experience — it becomes easy for members to point out the behavior of individual members seen “during” an activity. The “Storming” that Bruce Tuckman talked about often happens during such a reflective observation. It takes a good Facilitator however, to ensure this storming does not degenerate in a way that is negative. A team that is able to do this honestly — is able to talk through the problems and issues it faces in an open manner.

Once such difficult discussions are taken up though, the next important question to be addressed is, “Now what?” The discussions to arrive at norms within a team, is never an easy one for sure. There would be cynicism, skepticism and emotions to manage. There would be roadblocks of all kinds including political ones from people who would not like the status quo to change. The fact that this is not an easy journey is perhaps the reason why, so few teams take it and can be called as high performing ones. But for the ones who do, the process of testing the new norms can be done through a process of active experimentation and through methodologies like Lego Serious Play.

It takes intent and vision from the leadership to help move a team from the fairyland of great team experiences through the turmoil of storming & norming — before arriving at the promised land of being a high performance team. Don’t get us wrong – “Team entertainment” is not a wrong thing to do — infact it is much encouraged by us at FOCUS Adventure, but if it is “Team building” that you are after, it is important you know the difference. Good teams, like good families, don’t happen just because you went out together for a picnic. Think about it!

What we have talked about so far is perhaps relevant to all companies. However, specifically in the Asian context, Experiential Team building has a huge relevance. We are based in India, where the education system that people come through is largely classroom based. A popular saying in India goes:
“Padoge Likoge Banoge Nawab, Kheloge Khudoge Banoge Kharab”
It translates as following: If you read and write, you will become a Royal, If you play and have fun, you will become Spoilt!

Such prioritization of studies over play is a common phenomenon in large parts of Asia. The flip side of all this classroom experience that we grow with however is that, the minute employees are put into class-room style trainings again, the engagement levels drop down drastically. Experiential team building sessions break the mould and naturally draw in participation from employees that can be channelized by a skilled Facilitator towards very beneficial learning outcomes for organizations. Have you discovered Experiential Team building yet ?

By Arun Rao, Director – FOCUS Adventure India