Given the varied personalities, communication skills and personal agendas everyone brings with them, getting your team to work cooperatively can be a challenge.
Experiential team building was hot awhile back. The team would travel off-site for a "fun" day of rope games and unusual problem solving, typically at an outdoor education center. But there was little follow-up and any lessons learned never made it back into the workplace. Today, the emphasis has shifted to in-house team building exercises that can be accomplished at the beginning of a meeting.
Follow these key steps to plan a productive team-building exercise:
- Keep it simple. It should be quick and easy to set up in a typical meeting room.
- It doesn't need to be expensive. Use basic office supplies or items from your kitchen pantry.
- Team members should be able to wear normal office clothing or be told ahead of time to dress appropriately.
- Divide the team into small units of 2 to 6 people. This breaks down barriers and creates partnerships within the small groups.
- Instructions must be easy to understand, especially by non-native English speakers.
- Limited instructions may be part of the exercises. Forcing people to figure out what or how to do something helps team members identify skills and abilities among the group and define their roles on the team: leader, facilitator, problem solver, communicator, etc.
- It should present a problem that has multiple solutions to allow for creativity, but can only be solved through collaboration and cooperative action.
- You can increase the difficulty level of any exercise by adding a complication such as "no talking," or speed things up by asking, "How can you do it faster?"
Here are ten easy team-building exercises to try:
- Scrambled Jigsaw. Before employees arrive, place a jigsaw puzzle on each table (use large-piece children's puzzles of 100 pieces or so). Remove 5 pieces from each and move them to another table. As people arrive, assign them to tables. Instruct each table to fully complete their puzzle in the shortest amount of time possible. As teams realize pieces are missing, they will be forced to negotiate with other teams to complete their puzzle. This exercise promotes flexibility, communication, negotiation and cooperation.
- Creative Assembly. Purchase 3D punch-out wooden dinosaur puzzle kits. Divide the team into groups of 2 to 4. Without comment or instruction, give each group the unpunched puzzle pieces, one complete puzzle per group. Don't let the group see the boxes, pictures or instructions or in any way identify what you have given them. Instruct each group to assemble its project, telling them they can only use what's in front of them. You'll get some interesting and creative constructions, a lot of laughter and some good-natured frustration, particularly with the winged dinosaur kits. In this exercise, creative thinking, brainstorming, problem solving, cooperation and consensus will get a workout.
- Sleight of Hand. Divide team into groups of 4 to 6. Hand each group four tennis balls. Tell them each person must handle all four balls in the shortest time possible. Do this several times, each time asking, "How can you do it faster?" This exercise will progress from the obvious passing of the balls down a line, to around a circle, to some interesting ball drops and hand swiping. Your team will practice cooperation, quick thinking and creative problem solving.
- Going Up. Divide team into groups of 2 to 6. Give each person one 8 1/2" x 11" sheet of paper and one 5" strip of masking tape. Instruct each team to build the tallest possible freestanding structure. This exercise promotes cooperation, creative thinking, problem solving, consensus, leadership and division of labor.
- Gnome Dome. Divide the team into groups of two. Give each group 20 gumdrops and 12 toothpicks. Instruct each group to build a dome. This exercise promotes problem-solving, creative thinking and cooperation.
- Poisonous Web. Attach two pieces of rope across a door frame, one 3 feet off the ground, the other 4 1/2 feet off the ground. You are creating an 18-inch "window" that you describe to the team as a "poisonous spider web." The team must work together to get all members through the opening without touching the ropes. This exercise builds cooperation, leadership, creativity and problem solving. It also forces team members to trust and depend on each other.
- Hang Ups. Hand each person a wire coat hanger. Instruct them to make something useful from their coat hanger. Set a time limit of 5 to 15 minutes. Ask each person/group to describe his "tool" and its use. This exercise will indicate which of your team members are natural leaders, born socialites or those who are shyer and need to be drawn out when working with a group.
- In the Picture. Another puzzle game: Divide the team into groups and give each one a jigsaw puzzle from which you've removed one piece. After each team completes the puzzle but for one piece, ask each team what this represents in terms of the team. You'll probably get answers about the importance of individuals to the successful accomplishment of a team goal, but you may also get responses about proper planning, supply and quality control.
- All Aboard. Another physical game: Depending on the size of your team, mark off a 1-foot to 3-foot square on the floor with masking or duct tape. Draw numbers, one for each team member. As each person's number is called, they must stand in the square. As the number of people in the square increases, members will have to work together and get creative to fit everyone in. This exercise practices cooperation, problem solving and leadership.
- Bridge the Gap. Divide the group into teams of 2 to 4. Give each group a small ball of modeling clay and 12 toothpicks. Instruct them to build the longest cantilever bridge they can. Award points for speed of construction, length of bridge, ability to stand without tipping over and ability to hold weight. Team members will practice creativity, problem solving and consensus.
At the end of each exercise, a facilitator should lead the team in reflecting on what happened, the choices made, and how they interacted with each other. Team members should discuss what they would do differently next time. Reflection is critical to identifying and reinforcing learning.