Done well, team retreats and team-building activities focus on how business gets done, not just what needs to be achieved. And when this happens, these activities can have a powerful and lasting impact.
However, we've all heard the nightmare stories about, or even personally attended, poorly planned events that ended up being more about undermining the team than building it up. If this is you -- if you've had to endure the "trust fall" or some other "fun-fun-fun" activity that had no connection to the real world or the business goals to be achieved -- you'll know what I mean. A lack of thoughtful planning often means that team-building and team retreats end up getting a bad rap.
Here are six things to consider when planning your next team retreat to ensure a lasting and positive impact for all who participate.
1. Allow sufficient time.
The best team retreats balance business discussions (what needs to get done) with the team-building discussions (how the team will work together). My experience is that if you short-change the latter, you will struggle to achieve the former.
So, if time is tight, take something off the agenda -- and that doesn't mean simply skipping the team-building. Just because you could do a quick activity or cram the "soft" skills into a one-hour time slot doesn't mean you should.
I guarantee that rushing the team-building will not not do you, or the team, any good. A quick fill-the-time activity will invariably just scratch at the surface, be perceived as “fluff” and further undermine the credibility of any future teamwork efforts. My guess is that it took you more than 45 minutes to get into the situation you want resolved, so be prepared to invest the appropriate amount of time, care and attention to get yourselves out of it.
2. Know that there is no silver bullet.
There's no one single intervention that will solve the team’s challenges, or take it to the next level of performance. If there were, you would have done it by now. In my experience, a one-size-fits-all approach to team-building invariably fits no one. Whether your team is successful or struggling, create a team-building solution that meets the specific needs of your team members and reflects the unique context in which your team is operating.
I was discussing this concept with a team leader recently who acknowledged that his team needed less of a silver bullet and more of a silver BB gun… several little steps which, put together, would transform the team and accelerate its impact.
3. Don't over-engineer it.
Building a high-performing team is not rocket science, it's good old-fashioned common sense. Becoming a high-performing team starts with getting very good at the fundamentals: understanding the goals and measures of success, communication, conflict, roles and responsibilities.
Ask your team members to share their experiences of high-performing (or underperforming) teams and list the characteristics and qualities of both. Everyone can then discuss where your team is hitting the mark or missing expectations and create an action plan.
4. Don't use a hammer to crack a nut.
We were recently invited to work with a senior level team. When we conducted our due diligence (interviews with team members and key stakeholders), we found that the most pressing issue was the toxic behavior between, and attitudes of, two team members. A group meeting to resolve such issues between team members likely would have done more damage than good.
Don’t use a hammer to crack a nut. If the problem lies with one or two members of the team, design a solution that involves coaching, mediation or use of other tools with just the employees involved. Don’t make innocent bystanders participate in their drama.
5. Use a professional facilitator.
The first two cars I owned were a Citroen 2 C.V., followed by an MGB Roadster, and I spent many hours under the hood (bonnet) working on the engine or replacing the exhaust. Cars were simpler in those days; today it would never cross my mind to work on my current car. I hire a professional to do that.
Yet when it comes to team-building, it seems like many of us are "experts" and are then surprised when performance falters immediately after a self-facilitated event.
Instead of doing it yourself, hire a professional faciltator, an expert in leadership development and high-performing teams. That way, you can participate with your team and grow together. As you and the team gain confidence, develop a common language and tools that work for your team, then you can start to self-administer the ongoing interventions and conversations.
I promise, you will reach high performance more quickly and with less stress with a professional facilitator to guide you at the outset.
6. Steer clear of all talk, no action.
A team-effectiveness session will result in powerful conversations, new understanding, a common language and a framework to discuss and measure success. All great stuff. The team members will leave feeling good about uncovering some of the “un-discussable topics” that may have been holding them back.
However, all this is a waste of time (and money) without action. A team that shares stories of past team-effectiveness workshops but has nothing to share about possible decisions, actions or results that followed is a red flag. Make sure you end your team retreat with a clear summary of your commitments and next steps.
I love the work we do with teams at all levels in an organization. Done well, team retreats can be an outstanding experience. Done poorly, with little thought or planning, retreats are invariably a waste of time and money. If you're planning a team retreat, make sure you don't fall into the six traps I've described.