WT* is Team Building?

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WT * is Team Building?

The term “team building” gets thrown around a lot in organizations, and means a lot of different things to different people. It runs the spectrum from a boss bringing in pizza for her group to a long-term, focused development program that has the intention of developing a high-functioning, high-performance team. In doing internet searches for definitions of team building, I found dozens (at least). So the short answer to the question ”WTF is team building?” is “It depends on who you talk to”.

When I first studied organizational consulting with Metasysteme in France, to them team building was an approach using systems analysis tools to transform teams into high-performance units, and usually done in the context of a larger systemic consulting project with the division the team was a part of, or the whole organization, with the systemic work going on in parallel with many teams. This always started with the leadership team, which is the “organizational DNA” for the whole organizational system.

When I brought my training back to the US and started working with groups, teams, and organizations with MetaSystem Integrated Strategies in the American culture, I quickly realized that the connotations of what “team building” meant was much different. People thought of ropes courses, ice breaker exercises, river rapid runs, team games, a company picnic, casino nights, murder mysteries, scavenger hunts and the like. Although we use some of those tools (no murder mysteries or scavenger hunts…), the difference is in the context and how the exercises are used. We ended up changing our offer to “team development” to distinguish what we did from the mainstream paradigm of what constitutes team building.

In general the common meaning in the US is more about teams having some fun together, doing something outside their normal work activities, and having a chance to interact in a different way and learn new things about co-workers. The exercises are usually followed up by a light debrief—“What did you notice…?” “Who took what roles?” “How was communication?” “How would you do it better next time?” Sometimes there is no debriefing at all.
Systemic team building is characterized by deeper debrief where the participants delve into the dynamics of their current operating system, developing a deep self-awareness of patterns and processes. They gain insights into the strengths that they can build on—what are we good at that we can leverage going forward? They become aware of limiting assumptions that they are making collectively that may not serve them, and develop new, more encompassing possibilities. The process is results based, and looks at things like decision making processes, changes in the work environment and processes, operational interfaces, and attaining breakthrough goals.

Though it might be coming across that I have a preference for deeper work in this area (I do), what kind of team building a leader engages in with their team depends on the desired results, objectives, outcomes. Where is the team now and where do you want to go. Is it a break from the normal routine and having some fun and laughs, is it working on continuous improvement, is it addressing persistent unsolved issues, improving results, or is it a transformation needed to manifest a bold vision?

What is the appropriate level of engagement? What wants/needs to emerge, and what will be the most fulfilling for the people and serve the shared purpose best? One thing to beware of is hoping for change or transformation from low-level engagement—that taking the team out bowling will somehow resolve discord or poor communication or dissatisfaction; that a motivational or fun experience will translate into a change in the team culture, or resolve pervasive dysfunctions.

Deciding what to take on to build the team calls for the leader to be self-aware— knowing their own strengths, predilections, and personal style, and how that is evident in how the team is operating. It also requires a strong vision and the courage to lead and confront what’s actually going on, challenging the status quo, current assumptions, and accepted reasoning.

So there’s team building, and then there is team building. The next time someone suggests that we should do some team building, dig down into that: “What does team building mean to you?”
Japanese and Western Teambuilding: Different Paths, One Destination

As I was running a workshop on intercultural awareness, one of the participants, a Japanese expatriate working for a European subsidiary, asked “What do you actually mean by team building”? Team building, like any other business activity has a strong cultural dimension and his question led to an animated discussion.
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