What I learned from creating a global distributed team building exercise for thousands of people with no budget

Think back to the last team building exercise you were involved in. It probably involved bringing your team together for a challenge of some kind, maybe with food and drinks during or afterwards. Even the best team building exercises can both expensive and at least a little bit awkward.

That’s because a lot of team building rests on the idea that time spent together in a work-adjacent, fun-oriented context is required to make teams more cohesive. It works outside of work, so it’ll work at work, right?

That type of team building certainly has its place, but it isn’t the only way. Here is what I’ve learned from 7 years of running a global distributed team building exercise for free during my company’s culture week.

Team building is about making life at work better; not turning everyone into friends

A big part of  what some organizations get wrong about team building is why they’re doing it. It seems to be aimed at turning colleagues into friends by seeking to recreate the things that friends to together (games, food, drinks),

In all honesty the people at work who become friends probably did so without organized team building exercises. Those experiences are lovely and not to be taken for granted but may provide diminishing returns.

What team building should really be about is strengthening the ability of the organization to fulfill its purpose.

Build your team around what you all show up to do

Almost every organization has some norms that allow it to survive, adapt, and grow. Sometimes those norms are called “culture”.

You may have an agreed upon set of values or mission. There may be certain behaviours that are elevated and reinforced. There might be a sense of craft craft or way of working that is common across teams.

You might be used to thinking of these things as boring. I think of them as building blocks

Tip #1: Pick something about the organization that is generally agreed upon as “good”: Start with whatever it was that brought people to the organization in the first place; if you can find some activity that clearly amplifies what already appeals to people about the organization you’ll be making a strength stronger.

Tip #2: Build on something that people were going to do anyways: Find a twist or a layer that can be added to business as usual that makes it more enjoyable or rewarding somehow. That way you’ll be taking advantage of momentum rather than fighting inertia.

Tip #3: Suggest specific actions: Make it really clear what the objectives and actions involved in participation are; ambiguity can be a barrier to participation whereas specificity is an enabler of action.

Relying too much on highly structured, expensive “bring ‘em all together” types of team building means your organization is missing simple, effective opportunities to make life at work better by building on strengths.

If you take part in group action to make life within your organization better, you are building the team.


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