by Anne Thornley-Brown, Executive Oasis International

After the Wall Street Meltdown, many companies took a predictable approach and cut all team building as a “discretionary expense”. The AIG Effect was the final nail in the coffin. Afraid of possible fallout due to “optics”, even companies that were doing well felt it prudent to put team building initiatives on ice. This is unfortunate as, during a recession and its aftermath, team building is even MORE important than during good times. Why? During a recession and the fragile recovery that follows it, the margin for error is narrow. It is more important than ever to:

  • ensure that employees get a clear and accurate messages about company plans and performance so that the rumour mill doesn’t takes over
  • generate new ideas and solutions to business challenges
  • cultivate a spirit of optimism and a recovery mindset
  • streamline processes and reduce red tape
  • keep the lines of communication open
  • reduce friction and misunderstandings
  • enhance cross-functional teamwork
  • build commitment
  • resolve conflicts
  • boost morale

Expertly facilitated business team building with a solid strategy for follow-up can address ALL of these areas.

Savvy CEOs know that, sooner or later, almost every organization will go through tough times and that the solutions lie with their people. Who other than the members of your team who are familiar with your customers and processes are in the best position to generate useful ideas to cut costs and generate new business? Texas Roadhouse CEO G.J. Hart gets it. He continued to champion the bottom line value & R.O.I. of team building retreats & incentive travel during tough times. In fact, he earned new respect and, ultimately, widespread favourable media coverage as the result of his stand in the face of CNBC reporters scathing criticism and ridicule of his decision to proceed with the companys annual retreat in the midst of a recession. While other CEOs were shelving their team building and incentive travel initiatives and ducking to avoid media criticism, G.J Hart took it in the chin and won.

10 Steps to Planning the Perfect Team Building Retreat

When you’re ready to plan your next team building retreat or initiative, the following steps will help you ensure that your efforts pay off with bottom line returns.

1. Clarify your Objectives

It is important that you be clear about the reasons you want a team building.

  • Do you want to generate solutions to pressing business issues?
  • Are you attempting to foster out of the box thinking in the members of your team?
  • Is there a conflict that requires resolution?
  • Do you need to energize a team that’s tired and discouraged due to tough economic and market conditions?
  • Do you want to reward a team that has beat the odds and generated incredible results despite the challenges and then strategize for the future?

Be specific about what you are trying to achieve and articulate this clearly to the person who will be obtaining quotes from suppliers on your behalf.

2. Distinguish between “team building” and “team recreation”.

Team building and team recreation both have their place. Companies would be dreary places if no one ever smiled, laughed and had fun. It is important to remember that a half day scavenger hunt, a few hours of paintball or an evening of drumming or writing songs is no substitute for faciltiated, focused and bottom line oriented business team building. Definitely recreational activities can play a role in your team building initiatives. However, attempting to pass off strictly recreational or social events as “team building” would be like taking your team our for dinner and serving them only appetizer and dessert. A recreational event to reward a team that’s worked hard is important but it’s no substitute for team building. If you’re spending more for recreation than for business team building or consulting to boost organizational performance, it’s like the warning light on your dashboard. You’re off-track and confusing the mission of your organization with that of a country club or recreational centre.

3. Start planning WELL in advance and before you lock in your final dates.

Ideally, you should be contacting suppliers at least 8 – 12 weeks prior to your session for something local. (For foreign travel, 3 – 6 months is best especially if the destination is popular.) Allow about 2 – 3 business days to receive proposals for domestic retreats and about a week for quotes for foreign retreats. In fact, before the economy fully recovers, it’s a good time to save your company money by grabbing travel and hotel bargains. If your currency is strong, you can save even more by starting to plan your team building initiatives a year or 2 in advance. Select a provider and lock in your venue. The detailed planning can come closer to the team building retreat or initiative.

4. Fully brief and prepare the member of your team who will be contacting prospective team building consultants

More often than not, when team building consultants receive inquiries for service, some of the most basic information is missing. Be certain that the person to whom you delegate the task of obtaining quotes from consulting firms can provide such basic information as:

  • preferred dates it is always best to have 2 or 3 options
    Make sure that your dates arent carved in stone until you have determined what you will be doing during the reatre and there has been an opportunity to determine the availability of suitable venues.
  • group size, composition and degree of physical fitness
  • other agenda items to be included and time required
  • your objectives (see number 1)
  • timeframe (3 days, 2 days, 1 day, 1/2 day)
  • budget and what it should include

5. Ensure that you have clear decision making criteria and a process for timely decision-making

Preparing a targeted proposal does take time. It isn’t reasonable, to request a quote, indicate that it is urgent and then delay decision-making for weeks or even months. 5 – 10 business days is a reasonable timeframe for making a decision once you have obtained all proposals. If this isn’t possible then 2 of the first objectives or your team building retreat should be to streamline your decision making processes and improve your team’s ability to make timely decision.

6. Delegate fact finding, get input from your team but NEVER delegate finale decision making.

As the decision maker, you should ALWAYS have a conversation with the senior facilitator or event planner from the firm with whom you are thinking of doing business. This will ensure that all pertinent information has been communicated and provided. Save delegation of decision-making to a committee for recreational events, company picnics and the annual holiday party. For team building and retreats, decision by committee should always be avoided. A committee is great for exploring options and giving input but an executive should always make the final decision based on what is best for the business. Far too often, committees make decision based on what is fun or cool. They also tend to blow the budget on expensive hotels when more affordable options are available.

7. Ensure that you designate a member of your team to communicate your decision and the rationale to all consultants who have taken the time to send you a proposal.

Once you have made a decision, it is important to close the loop and communicate your decision and the reason for it to all consultants who have taken the time to prepare a proposal. It’s good manners and just “falling off the face of the earth” after you have received a proposal, makes your company look unprofessional.

8. Remember to include the key elements for effective team building

The phases of effective team building are:

  • pre-session communication to communicate goals, objectives and expectations
  • executive briefing to identify key business issues, communicate your support, and clarify how team building is relevant the business ( 1/2 hour – 1 hour)
  • context setting and team briefing by facilitator ( 1 1/2 2 hours)
  • recreation (flexible & optional)
  • simulation (3 – 8 hours)
  • debriefing (1- 1 1/2 hour)
  • business application exercises (2 hours for prep., 5 to 15 minutes per group for presentations)
  • business agenda items (flexible)
  • charity event or other opportunity to give back to the community (1/2 day to full day) – highly recommended

One of the reasons for the AIG Effect is that large corporations (particularly those on the public purse who had received TARP funding) were perceived as selfishly spending on themselves. If more organizations would include charity components in their retreats, this would go a long way to reversing that perception.

Remember, recreation is a “nice to have” and highly recommended. It will definitely help team members relax and get to know each other better but it should never be the only element or the main ingredient in your team building initiative.

9. Match your timeframe to your objectives, never pack the agenda and remember to build in buffers.

Allow ample time for transportation and transfer delays. Allocate enough time for people to settle into the venue, especially during the winter or if you are leaving the country. Remember, a late night arrival and early start is efficient but its bound to create resentment and generate a backlash that will undermine your efforts.
Make allowances for some down time even if it means adding half a day to your agenda. One of the worst things you can do is take your team to a beautiful location and give them no time to relax and enjoy it.

Team Building Timeframes: What’s Realistic

Executive Oasis International offers highly effective team building simulations that fit the following timeframes:

  • 3 – 4 Days – Full Team Building Simulation (including outdoor recreational activities), Debriefing & Business Application Exercises, Business Meeting, Charity Event or Activity to Give Back to the Community
  • 2 1/2 – 3 Days – Full Team Building Simulation (including outdoor recreational activities), Debriefing & Business Application Exercises, Short Business Meeting
  • 2 Days – Full Team Building Simulation Debriefing & Business Application Exercises, Short Business Meeting
  • 1 Day – Very Basic Team Building Simulation, Debriefing & Business MeetingUsually, 1/2 a day is only recommended for team recreation, however, Ontario based Eagle’s Flight has exceptional team building simulations for large groups that fit this timeframe and agenda:
    • 1/2 Day – Team Building Simulation & Debriefing

    10. Arrange for regular checkpoints with the facilitator or event planner and involve him or her in all course corrections.

    Discuss how things are going and come up with solutions together if there are any concerns. For example, never panic and cut the simulation or debriefing short. Remember, highly analytical learners wont get it just based on experience. Dont expect them to get it. Expect them to struggle a bit. They need time to think, reflect and process. If you want to be innovative, this will be definition involve taking some members of your team out of their zone of comfort. If you panic and cut things short, analytical learners will never have an opportunity to get value out of the session.

    Follow up, follow up, follow up!

    Team building should never be a stand alone event. Work with your business facilitator to formulate a follow up strategy. Encourage the use of the new tools introduced through team building on an ongoing basis. Give each breakout groups a project and have them provide periodic updates in the months following your team building session. In this way, you can boost R.O.I. and ensure that the tools and strategies team members pick up at the retreat are integrated into your day to day business.

Anne Thornley-Brown’s blog Corporate Team Building focuses on strategies for boosting the bottom line impact of team building.

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