Why Teams and Team Building?


I have mixed emotions when it comes to team building.  It would take a corporate Grinch of gargantuan proportions to say, categorically, that team building is a bad idea. The philosophy behind team-building is, essentially that:

  1. In corporate settings, people work in teams more often than they do not.
  2. High-performing, well-oiled teamwork don’t happen by accident.
  3. Teams can accomplish FAR more than individuals in almost every case.
  4. Some conscious thought must be applied in order to ensure that teams are working together in ways that maximize creativity, productivity, effectiveness, and sustainability – i.e., people aren’t burning out as a result of being on the team.

The premise makes sense. Given the kind of world in which we live, groups of people don’t necessarily automatically come together in peace and harmony to produce something wonderful and impressive together. Some do, of course. And some do not.

So in theory, team building – if one defines team building as creating an effective, humane group of people working towards a common goal – is a good idea. Anyone who’s ever been on a team knows that each team is different, and that it takes awhile for the personalities to mesh. So far so good.

The problem with team building usually does not occur during the actual activities, which can often be fun, effective, and even helpful.

The problem occurs when the team building is over and we all have to go back to the office.

The problem is that most team building exercises, by their nature, are temporary. The challenge of effective team-building exercises often comes during the Transferability phase, where people determine how the things they’ve experienced in the team-building experiences can be transferred back to the office.

Or the problem arrives when the matter of sustainability is raised. In a good team-building exercise, everyone comes away feeling good about themselves, each other, life, and the universe. And then the grind of being at work wears down that enthusiasm, and the inertia of the office gradually weighs in, until a year has gone by and things are, perhaps, not as different as one would have hoped.

So. What to do? Team building skills need to be learned, developed, honed, practiced; but the learning and the doing take place, literally, in two different areas. How can a company get a return on its investment from a team building exercise? More importantly, how can a company create a team building experience that is ultimately valuable because it lasts beyond a week or two after the experience?

The problem reminds me of the Big Bang Theory.

When faced with the problem of the origins of the universe, physicists developed a theory called, creatively enough, The Big Bang. This theory states, roughly, that the universe “began” with an enormous explosion, and has been expanding ever since. A very complex theory is the Big Bang.

But I have it on very good authority that it explains why the universe is constantly expanding, even as we speak. It is the momentum of the Big Bang.

Team-building exercises need to be like Big Bang events. It’s not the end of something; it’s the beginning of something. Team building must be a component of an overall plan.

A plan has a goal, steps, measurements, and reassessment; then more steps, more measurements, more reassessment, steps, measurements, etc.

To conduct team building exercises as stand alone events doom them to failure, because they have no momentum beyond their own existence. But taken as part of an overall plan for an organization, they maximize their power. The organization’s business direction feeds the momentum of the team building exercise. The team building becomes a step in a plan, not a stand-alone event.

Let’s take an example:

  • An organization may feel that its feedback mechanisms are poor and must improve if vital creative energy is to be preserved.
  • As a first step, that organization would determine a clear sense of where it wants to be in the matter of feedback.
  • It would then select a team building exercise that focuses on issues of trust, tact, and a studied willingness to be open to receiving feedback. (After all, if one isn’t good at receiving feedback, it doesn’t matter how skillfully that feedback is given, right?)
  • It would then determine what policy or procedural changes might be necessary to support the lessons of the team-building event.
  • It would then determine how to measure an improvement in feedback. It will figure out how it will know when feedback skills throughout the organization have improved, and when there is a culture where feedback is given and appreciated easily and often. The goal of developing an organizational culture doesn’t have the stigma attached to feedback will be clearly articulated. They will essentially build a bell that rings when substantial improvement in feedback has been achieved.
  • And that organization will do all that before it has even scheduled a single team building exercise. It will have planned how to modify policies and procedures, how to modify its unwritten cultural norms, how to reward and incentivize feedback, how to penalize problems that arose because team members refused to engage in productive feedback. That organization will have mapped out its cultural approach to feedback, including goals and metrics, and then determined a team-building exercise that fit into that overall strategy.

Team building events as fun and wonderful as they are, are valuable only insofar as they are Big Bang events; i.e., momentum creating events, the energy of which fuels further efforts.

Without that level of planning, team-building events will have a hard time delivering as much value to the organization as perhaps they could.



Written with Les McKeown

When we’re asked to help refresh or rejuvenate mentoring programs that are struggling to make an impact, the most common underlying problem is lack of clearly defined program goals.

The second most common problem is lack of buy-in by managers and supervisors.

Here’s the top three reasons why this happens:

1. Managers are too busy already

The last thing they need is another set of responsibilities, or another process they have to adapt to.

2. Mentoring is a threat to a manager’s sense of self-esteem

“Why should my employee need a mentor if I’m doing a good job as a manager?”.

3. The managers weren’t consulted

at the outset of the mentoring program design process, which means something is being imposed on them, rather than asked for by them.

The good news is that in our experience, dealing effectively with these issues isn’t rocket science, although it does require a little bravery…Here’s how to make sure your managers ‘Deliver The Mentoring Promise’:


ASK your managers what they would like out of your mentoring and coaching program – at the outset.

Ask most managers “Do you think a mentoring program would be helpful to you as a manager?”, and mostly, they’ll say “Yes!”. Conversely, TELL them: “Here’s a mentoring program that will be helpful to you as a manager”, and they’ll feel imposed upon and that you’re being presumptuous about their skills.

It’s a very small step from asking “Do you think a mentoring program would be helpful to you as a manager?” to asking “What SPECIFICALLY do you think a mentoring program could best do for you?”. Involving your managers in agreeing the OBJECTIVES of the mentoring or coaching program is not just good commercial sense (it grounds the program objectives in reality), it also starts the whole process of achieving buy-in.

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Does this mean you have to get all the managers in a room, endure a four-hour debate and try to accommodate everyone’s point of view, before getting the mentoring or coaching program off the ground?

No – here’s how to achieve the result you want (manager input) without hours of fruitless discussion:

  • Set aside a time – an hour or so, maybe over a lunchtime -when you will make a presentation regarding the proposed mentoring program and seek input on its objectives. 
  • Circulate details to all the managers and supervisors affected, offering them the opportunity to come and contribute to the discussion. If folks are spread around the country, offer to set up a conference call for them to hook into (call you phone operator for details – it’ll cost about $30 to set up for an hour).
  • About 7-12% of the folks you circulate will actually agree to join in the meeting. Of that, about two thirds will actually attend.
  • Those who don’t attend will appreciate the offer being made, and will acknowledge that a consultation process has occurred, even if they didn’t personally participate.
  • The smaller numbers will make for a more manageable, focused meeting. Who knows, you might end up with some evangelists for the program!


Take time to explain to everyone impacted, that your mentoring or coaching program is not being introduced because of any perceived management weaknesses on the part of managers and supervisors.

Make the distinctions between mentoring, coaching, managing and supervising very clear.

Even if your managers are already aware of the distinctions, they will appreciate YOU making the distinctions clear to their employees. It’s hard for a manager to say to her

employees: “Please understand you have not been allocated a mentor because I’m doing a poor job.” It sounds better coming from you.


The protégé’s managers are your key to measuring the impact and effectiveness of your mentoring or coaching program.

The mentors and protégés themselves are too close to the process to be objective.

You can’t personally appraise every mentoring or coaching relationship yourself.

So why not ask the managers help in setting up a simple, non-time consuming mechanism to monitor how well protégés are developing in their mentoring relationship? You can use the consultative meeting outlined above to discuss the best ways for this to happen. For example:

By using a ‘control group’ – some employees who are being mentored, and some who are not, and getting the manager to help you measure the difference in progress between the two, you’ll not only involve the manager, you’ll get her strong approval for the program, as she sees the differences between the two groups. (You ARE going to have a very successful program, right? So this part can’t go wrong…)

J. Leslie McKeown, is the President & CEO of Predictable Success.

Untangling Complex Group Dynamics

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Written with Andrea Corney
Acorn Consulting

One of the factors I talk about in “Getting Traction” is the difficulty in working through complex and abstract issues. In the paper I briefly mention a management team that had spent more than a year spinning on one issue without getting resolution. This is an in depth look at this case study and how the situation was resolved.

At almost every management team meeting an argument developed over what to do about the key competitor. The CEO wanted to buy them out, while others thought this was a waste of resources and would distract the company from the effort to keep innovating ahead of the market. Typically a few members of the team geared up for a fight and the others sank in their seats trying to stay out of the line of fire. The arguments were the same every time and after more than a year the team had yet to make a decision. The argument ate up time and seemed to stymie progress on a number of related issues. The team had split into opposing camps and had started to tune out anything that the other side had to say, even on unrelated issues.

After witnessing several “rounds” of the battle I wrote up my best understanding of the two opposing views. I met with individuals to walk through the issues and make sure I fully understood what they thought and why they thought it. The “why” included all their data points – conversations with customers, past experiences, news reports they’d read, market data,
analogies they’d drawn with other industries, and any other assumptions they had made in reaching their conclusion.

After the one-on-one meetings, I outlined all the issues including data points, assumptions, lines of reasoning and conclusions. I identified and broke out 3 sub-issues that had been shmushed together in previous discussions. (Yes, “shmush” is a technical term that the experts use – don’t try this at home. Some practitioners prefer “shmurgle”, but I think
that clouds the issue.) The sub-issues were (1) the power of a particular competitor, (2) the business model used by a number of competitors, and (3) how much value customers put on different bundles of products and features.

Once I’d fully analyzed the issues, I met for a day offsite with three of the key players. I had put each idea, data point and

assumption on a separate, over-sized index card. At the offsite I mapped out all the arguments on a large “sticky wall” – a piece of parachute silk coated with artist’s mounting spray. This format allowed us to move ideas around and identify connections as our thinking developed.

At the offsite, we started by clarifying our goal: the company had a 3-year growth target that the whole team had agreed on. They had also agreed on the product direction that was most likely to achieve that target. We then looked at each of the 3 sub-issues and talked about how they might impact the larger goals. Throughout the day, whenever the discussion got off track, I returned to the shared goals and asked how the discussion was related to these goals.

We walked through one issue at a time, one index card at a time, and focused first on understanding rather than agreement. As we surfaced the assumptions, people talked more about what had led them to these conclusions – data points, assumptions, lines of reasoning. As they started to understand the different perspectives, they were able to let go of rigidly held ideas and come to agreement on a number of points. This focused the debate on a few narrow issues that could be talked out.

We also identified competing assumptions that needed to be resolved. For example: the competitor boasts that it has over 700 customers. How much does each customer buy? What features do they value? Are they large enough to buy our more expensive product? We narrowed these questions down to a few critical ones that needed answers. The next step was some focused market research and informal discussions with partners and customers to answer these questions. Once that data was gathered, the team was able to reach agreement.

The conflict was resolved. The management team was able to agree on the exact nature of the threat posed by the competitor. They identified 3 potential responses and were able to agree on the one that made the most sense and went ahead with implementation. They then turned their attention to other issues that had been ignored while they were spinning on this area of conflict.

In addition, the team now has an approach that it uses to resolve other sticky issues.


1. Created a Setting for Open Discussion
We met on a Sunday with just a small group. Without the usual audience there was very little grand standing and people felt free to “think out loud”. It was also easier for them to open up to different points of view without losing face.
2. Focused Everyone on a Shared Goal
We started with a shared goal that everyone agreed on. This made them partners in solving a common problem, rather than opponents in a zero sum game. The simple structure of seating everyone in a semi-circle facing the sticky wall put them mentally on the same team with the wall being the problem to solve. Rather than beating each other with competing ideas, they worked together on a single problem.
3. Depersonalized the Debate
Breaking everything down into units of thought on index cards served to neutralize the discussion. We could move around, combine and revise the cards. The discussion was around the ideas not which person was right or wrong (or stupid or pig-headed). In addition, once the ideas were in writing and up on the wall, the individuals stopped making repetitive speeches – their ideas were legitimized and preserved. They could let down the vigilance they’d had about being heard and remembered.
4. Increased Listening and Understanding
As I presented all the cards and arguments, everyone heard their ideas spoken out loud by a neutral party. I was careful not to promote one idea over another. Because I’d prepared with one on one interviews, I’d captured all the ideas and was able to feed them back to the group. The group listened without the usual interruptions and arguments. I encouraged questions for clarity and understanding. So we started the day with everyone having the feeling of BEING HEARD AND UNDERSTOOD. This immediately increased their willingness and ability to understand and consider opposing views. In “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” Stephen Covey says “Seek first to understand, THEN to be understood.” I find the book a bit hokey and even simplistic, but this single statement is THE secret to resolving conflict.
5. Broke the Debate Into Manageable Pieces
When I was in law school we called this “slicing and dicing the issues”. On exams we’d be presented with a complex set of facts and be asked to identify and resolve the multiple legal issues involved. To do that we had to separate out the relevant facts for each legal issue and develop separate lines of reasoning. You failed if you shmurgled them together.

The cards helped us break things out and then group them into the relevant issues. This also helped depersonalize the discussion. As we “see” the debate mapped out, we start to understand and “own” it. When we don’t understand something, we simplify and label it – usually as “John’s stupid idea”.

6. . Surface Unspoken Assumptions
As the discussion progressed we challenged each other to get clearer and clearer on why we each believed something to be true. This surfaced assumptions that had not been articulated before. Once they were made explicit we could share multiple data points that both supported and contradicted these assumptions. Unspoken assumptions can’t be resolved – the first and most important step is making them explicit. We also set a norm that no assumption was stupid, but also that no assumption was sacred – everything was open for debate.
7. Explore Multiple Options
The discussion loosened up rigidly held ideas. This paved the way for considering multiple options. Research has shown that the quality of decision making rises dramatically when teams consider more than just 2 options. Multiple alternatives leads to a richer and more creative discussion.
Untangling complex issues is hard work, both intellectually and in terms of team dynamics. The approach described here is one way to create a space for doing this difficult work.


FOR THOSE WHO WANT MORE: Resources on Conflict

One of the classic books on conflict is “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It sets out some of the basic groundrules that I find very helpful whenever I do conflict resolution. It is available from Amazon through the link below.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement

The technique of breaking down beliefs into underlying data points, assumptions and reasoning, is captured in a concept called The Ladder of Inference. A good description of this concept is found in “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” by Peter Senge, et. al. It is available from Amazon through the link below.

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook

One of my favorite articles from Harvard Business Review is “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight” by Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, et. al. The PDF is hard to find now, but check the HBR website:


How Do I get Started with My Own Team?

GETTING STARTED: Untangling a Current Issue

Identify an important issue that your team seems to be stuck on. Ask individuals to pick an opposing view and describe it as fully as possible so that the person holding that view feels fully understood. Keep going until all the views have been fully articulated TO THE SATISFACTION OF THE PERSON HOLDING EACH VIEW. If even one person doesn’t feel fully understood, you need a more in-depth process to surface and validate all the assumptions.



Written with Les Mckeown

Julie and I just returned from a great few days in San Jose. While there we had an opportunity to work with some folks who wanted to REFRESH a mentoring program that wasn’t getting the results.

The more we looked at it, the clearer it became that the reason the program wasn’t ‘getting the results’ was because the mentoring program had no CLEAR GOALS to start with!

It’s hard to ‘get results’ if no-one knows what the results should be…(As my mother used to say: ‘If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it.’ Typically Irish – it’s not really meant to make sense, but it does…).

How do you make sure your program ‘gets results’?

1. Make Sure You Know Your Mentoring Or Coaching Program’s Primary Function.

There are 16 potential Primary Functions your program could have – choose which one (or two, at most) applies to your program:

  1. Enhancing Recruitment Activities
  2. Enhancing Retention
  3. Getting over a learning curve
  4. Dealing with major organizational change
  5. Bridging competency gaps
  6. Converting training to results
  7. Encourage personal individual growth
  8. Facilitate internal hiring and transfers
  9. Accelerate the development of high performers
  10. Increase the representation of minority interests
  11. Help low performers improve
  12. The development of management
  13. Provide succession and for the development of emerging leaders
  14. For new hires
  15. Help re-vitalize mid-career executives
  16. Assist employees obtain formal qualifications

2. Set Clear, Quantifiable Objectives For Your Program

By setting quantifiable objectives, you will end up with very clear, identifiable and above all, realistically achievable goals for your program.

Relate all of your objectives to the program’s primary function and to a realistic time frame.

Added bonus: by doing this, you will be able to prove the validity of your mentoring or coaching program should one of the ‘powers-that-be’ threaten to pull your program and its budget…

3. Tell The Mentors And The Protégés Why You’re Doing This

One of the ‘Duh…!’ moments we had in San Jose was working out how best to communicate the program’s goals to the mentors and the protégés.

Many companies don’t even consider this step – the program is designed and implemented without sitting down with the mentors and protégés and clearly explaining:

‘This program is aimed at increasing employee retention from X% to Y% over a three year period – we’re doing this to keep you here.’


‘This program is designed to increase the percentage of jobs we can fill by internal hiring from c% to d% over 18 months. We’re doing this to broaden your skill set, so we can offer you a broader range of career options within the company.’

(Or whatever specific objective you’ve set.)

Think about it…how can the program participants help you achieve your program goals – if they don’t know what they are?

4. Ask The Line Managers

The people best placed to tell you if your mentoring or coaching program is working are the LINE MANAGERS of those involved in the program…

…not the mentors, or the protégés (although their views are invaluable in other respects), and not, you’ll be pleased to know, you (the program coordinator is too close to the program to give a wholly independent assessment).

Give your line managers the written objectives of your program (as arrived at above), and agree a simple mechanism by which THEY will monitor and report on the program’s success in achieving its objectives. Make it simple to ensure their involvement.

J. Leslie McKeown, is the President & CEO of Predictable Success