On Loathing “Team-Building” Activities, and When They’re Appropriate

When I first got into this business almost 20 years ago, I quickly adopted a mantra: “No trust falls.” Most people’s experiences with trying to help groups collaborate more effectively — especially in corporate circles — falls under the category of “team-building activities” — rope courses, escape rooms, cooking classes, and yes, even trust falls. More often than not, I find these entirely misplaced.

Having fun together is a wonderful intervention. I personally love these kinds of activities. I think games in particular reveal so much about human nature and about group dynamics, and that they’re a fantastic and fun way to develop collaboration muscles.

The problem is that, with most groups, there are often simpler, more straightforward, higher-leverage interventions that people should be addressing first, things like having real, sometimes challenging conversations about roles and agreements. You can even do these in dynamic, dare-I-say fun ways! However, when you avoid doing this work in favor of team-building activities, the latter can come off as corny, irrelevant, even harmful.

All that said, if you’re doing the necessary work, a good team-building activity can be a wonderful complement. My friend, Pete Kaminski, has a saying for remote teams, which his friends jokingly refer to as The Pete Rule:

Time together in person is too important to spend working.

What he meant was that a lot of work can easily be done remotely, but developing deeper bonds is much easier face-to-face. When spending time together, people should prioritize accordingly.

I’ve been coaching a client on developing good team habits and was recently advising him on an upcoming offsite. Over the course of several sessions, we talked through his goals and walked through a number of possible exercises and scenarios. Finally, I sat back, thought for a long moment, then said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think you all should just spend a day doing something fun together!”

So-called “team-building activities” have their place, but only when designed with intention. Always start with the work first.

The Joys of Making

I started playing with sketching and watercolors back in July 2018. I had been curious about watercolors for several years, and I happened to be having a terrible month, so I decided it was finally time to play. I signed up for a Bluprint online class, and I bought a sketchbook, a portable water brush, and a tiny set of watercolors.

A year and change later, I’m finally on the last page of my sketchbook. I decided to celebrate with a little value study:

My book is filled with terrible drawings. I’m not being falsely humble either. Earlier this year, I went to an urban sketching meetup and noticed someone painting a beautiful landscape. I struck up a conversation with him and asked him lots of questions, which he pleasantly answered. He then asked if he could see my sketches, so I opened up my book and showed them to him without comment. The expression on his face was hilarious. There was a flash of disappointment on his face, a long pause, then he offered me some tips, which I happily accepted. I truly enjoyed that moment. He didn’t try to pretend that I was anything more than the beginner that I was, and he helped me by giving me frank feedback. It was honest and kind, and it helped me get better.

The first time I sat down to draw something in my book, I was paralyzed with fear. I had to psyched myself up to apply that first pen stroke. I finally got over myself and started to draw, and the fear became concentration and curiosity almost immediately. It was wonderfully meditative, and I was happy with what I created. That was followed by several clunkers, which demotivated me for a few months, but I picked it up again, and I haven’t stopped since.

Filling my book has brought me peace and joy every time, and it’s also brought me closer to friends and family. Most of my friends ignore me when I draw with them, but some get curious, and I’ve even been able to persuade a few to join me. My favorite has been painting with kids, including my nephews. They are fearlessly creative, and I always have tons of fun and walk away inspired. I haven’t bought a single card or postcard this year, choosing instead to paint them when the opportunity arises. I always enjoy the process, but I still get pangs of fear of being judged. Unlike the urban sketcher, I think my friends often give me plaudits for my skill that are slightly exaggerated, but I can tell that their appreciation is real, and it really touches me to see them moved. It reminds me of how simple and wonderful it is to gift someone something you’ve made with your hands, regardless of how good it is.

My sketchbook also serves as a record of my learning journey. Signs of my stubbornness abound, which amuses me. It’s clear from many of my drawings that I have no idea what I’m doing, but those are often followed by several (mostly failed) attempts at figuring it out. I’m only marginally better than when I started, but the paralysis and fear and self-consciousness have disappeared. I just try things when I’m struck, and I don’t worry too much about how it turns out.

A few months ago, I went to a Leadership Learning Community gathering to meet their new Co-Executive Director, and I ended up spending most of the evening talking to an artist who was friends with her. He told me that the best way to learn watercolors was to do a value study with a single color. He also told me to look up Anders Zorn, who famously created stunning paintings with only four colors (Lead White, Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and Ivory Black). I never knew any of this before, and it’s opened up entirely new worlds for me.

There are so many fantastic resources for learning how to draw and paint. I discovered the aforementioned urban sketching meetup in my neighborhood, and they have been friendly and supportive. I follow a number of artists on Instagram and on their blogs, and I’ve especially enjoyed Suhita Shirodkar’s work. And then there’s YouTube! So many instructional videos! It’s not only been a great resource for me, but it’s also inspired me to explore different ways for sharing knowledge about collaboration, which is my day obsession. In general, I find myself playing with ways to incorporate this little practice into my everyday work. I can’t help myself.

I see everything differently now — from everyday objects to art. It slows me down, and I’ve gotten better at noticing things — light, color, contrast, little details here and there. I’m still pretty bad at painting, and I think it will be a while before I improve significantly, but it’s already made me a better photographer, a better learner, and a better person. Most importantly, it’s been relaxing and fun. Making stuff rules!

My Target Audience for my Work

I have a new online workshop offering at Faster Than 20 (Good Goal-Setting Peer Coachingregister today!), and I’ve been in the process of getting the word out. My friend, Danny Spitzberg, asked whom my target audience was. I figured I’d share my response here, as others might be interested in my answer.

Here’s a rough approximation of my target audiences:

In general, I’m targeting “collaboration practitioners” — anyone who:

  • Thinks effective collaboration is productive and fulfilling
  • Is motivated to improve their group’s collaboration, regardless of their role

The vast majority of collaboration practitioners do not self-identify as such. It’s sometimes in their job descriptions — any leadership and management position, for example — but often is not. It often ends up being invisible work by people who do not necessarily have positional power and that others may or may not value or even see (and hence is often uncompensated), but is nevertheless critical. Much of my strategy is about helping people recognize that being a collaboration practitioner is indeed a thing, that a lot of others think and care about doing this well, and that a community for this exists if people want it.

Good collaboration practitioners care about performance. Great practitioners care about the intersection between performance and aliveness. Truly high-performance groups both perform and feel alive.

My sweet spot audience is the intersection of collaboration practitioners and changemakers — people who care about making change in their respective groups. Not all changemakers have a broader or explicit social mission (which is where my heart is, personally), but I suspect that most changemakers have this implicitly.

“Unemployables” is a cheeky category (coined by Gwen Gordon) that came up at a dinner party the other night to describe independents who probably will never (and perhaps can’t) work for another person’s organization. There could be many reasons for why one might be an “unemployable,” some not necessarily good, especially in the context of collaboration. But when I use it in this context, there’s an implied (admirable) quality of being very values- and systems-driven.

I included this category mainly as an observation, not as a particular focus area, although I definitely care about these folks and count myself among them. They tend to be radically motivated, the folks who are most likely to take my public domain material and use it to learn and practice on their own.

What do you think? Are the categories clear? Do they resonate?

Party Waves Are Critical for Learning and Growth

The other day, my friend and colleague, Catherine Madden, was telling me about her and her husband’s forays into surfing. Apparently, some surfing communities are more territorial about their waves — especially toward beginners — than others.

It’s understandable. Surfing is already challenging without worrying about a newbie blindsiding you while you’re catching a wave. But if everyone were like this, how would anyone new get to learn?

Apparently, surfers in Bolinas tend to be more inclusive. Catherine told me a story about how she was on a wave there, and someone else yelled at her to get out of the way. Another surfer went up to her and said, “Don’t worry. You’re welcome on this wave. It’s a party wave!”

Here’s what Surfer Today says about party waves:

A party wave starts with two surfers and could end with half a dozen enthusiastic party animals. And that’s when surfing becomes a team sport.

How do you run a party a wave? It couldn’t be simpler. Just be kind, shake hands with strangers and have fun at the same time.

There’s room for everybody – on top of the wave, riding near the whitewater section, carving on the face of the wave, stalling on the shoulder, or performing a relaxed bottom turn in the flats.

As a collaboration practitioner, I’d like to see more party waves in my field. I’ve heard from many of my more experienced peers that they only want to work with experienced practitioners and that they don’t have time to “train more junior people.”

I understand this. When you’re doing high stakes work and when your reputation is on the line, you want to be surrounded by other folks who are skilled.

At the same time, I think there are several mindsets that are challenging here. First, I question what most people define as “experienced.” Collaboration is something that everyone experiences in many aspects of their lives, not just professionally. I find that those experiences are equally important as professional experiences, if not more so. Just because someone has less experience working formally as a facilitator, for example, does not mean that they’re not incredibly experienced.

Second, when you’re doing high stakes work, everyone makes mistakes, not just “junior” people. I’ve often found that working with emerging practitioners provides a fresh, broader perspective that often helps prevent mistakes that I, with my narrower perspective, might make. Furthermore, part of being a skilled practitioner means that I’m creating a safer, more resilient space for mistakes in general. If no one is making mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

Finally, it’s become trendy for collaboration practitioners to explicitly mention “equity” as one of their skills. This makes sense. Both collaboration and equity, fundamentally, are about power, and if you haven’t been thinking explicitly about equity, you‘re not going to be able to do your work effectively.

However, if you truly care about equity, you should be thinking about equity in your own field as well. So much of equity is about lifting up others who are less privileged than you, often for systemic reasons. How can we, as collaboration practitioners, do more of this for other practitioners?

One way to do this is to adopt more of a “party wave” mindset about our own work, finding ways to bring in and support more emerging practitioners. Not only would this be better for the field, I think it leads to better quality work. And, like party waves, it’s more fun for everyone!

A Happy Information Hygiene Moment (and a Great Explanation of the Backfire Effect)

Yesterday, my sister shared this Oatmeal comic that wonderfully explains the backfire effect, the phenomenon where seeing evidence that contradicts our beliefs hardens those beliefs rather than changes our minds.

I love The Oatmeal for its engaging and often humorous visual explanations of important concepts. (XKCD and Nicky Case are also brilliant at this.) My sister knows this, and asked me if I had seen it before. Even though I loved this one, it didn’t ring a bell.

So I did what I try to do in situations like this. Rather than just file it away in my Evernote (where I have thousands of clippings that I almost never see again), I went to record it on the human perception page under “Confirmation Bias” on the Faster Than 20 wiki. To my delight, I found that I not only had seen it before, but I had already captured it on my wiki!

It’s a practice I call good information hygiene (a term coined by my colleague, Chris Dent). When we do it well, we’re not just filing things away where we can find them, we are continually synthesizing what we’re consuming. The act of integrating it into a larger knowledge repository is not only good information hygiene, but is also a critical part of sensemaking. Doing it once is great, but doing it multiple times (as Case and my colleague, Catherine Madden, have also explained beautifully) makes it more likely to stick.

Here’s another, simpler example that doesn’t involve a wiki and may feel more accessible to folks tool-wise. In my late 20s, I met Tony Christopher through my mentor, Doug Engelbart. We had such a great conversation, when I got home, I wanted to make sure to enter his contact information immediately into my contact database. When I opened it, to my surprise, he was already in there! I had very briefly met him at an event a few years earlier, and I had recorded a note saying how much I had enjoyed that short interaction.

I love when moments like this happen, because it shows that my tools and processes are making me smarter, and it motivates me to stay disciplined. I wish that tool developers today focused more on supporting these kinds of behaviors rather than encouraging more fleeting engagement with information.