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.

A Funny Thing Happened the Other Day on the Internet…

This past week, I spent two days in Tiburon supporting my former colleague and bootcamper, Dana Reynolds, who was facilitating the Code for America staff retreat. Any time spent with the good folks at Code for America is going to be inspiring time, and I couldn’t help expressing this sentiment on Twitter after the retreat was over:

Total time spent tweeting this: Maybe 30 seconds.

Then a funny thing happened. Someone named Jang from Korea responded to my tweet with a question:

I didn’t know Jang, so I glanced at his Twitter profile, and I saw that my friends, June Kim and SeungBum Kim, followed him. That was a good sign, so I responded, resulting in the following exchange, each message less than 140 characters:

I was planning to send an email to some folks at Code for America to follow up, but it wasn’t necessary. Conversations on Twitter happen out in the open, and Cyd Harrell, Code for America’s UX evangelist, saw the thread and responded. This is what happened:

I don’t know what’s going to emerge from this whole interaction, but something good will. At worst:

  • I learned something new about an issue I care about in a country I care about
  • I made some new connections
  • I facilitated some new connections
  • I strengthened some old connections

All from simply tweeting how I was feeling one evening.

This is what can happen when you have ways to communicate with lots of people transparently and with very little friction. But it’s also critical to recognize what underlies the technology that makes this sort of thing possible: people, trust, relationships, and literacy.

Bottom line: This sort of thing makes me very, very happy.

Fuse: Connecting Your Car to the Rest of Your Life

I just backed my friend Phil Windley’s new Kickstarter project, Fuse. Everyone with a car should go back it now. Everyone who cares about data privacy should also go back it.

Every car has an on-board computer with tons of data: your mileage, your average speed, even your tire pressure. When you take your car into the shop, mechanics plug into this computer to access that data so that they can diagnose your car.

I’ve been wanting to access that data myself forever, and it’s not just because I’m a data geek. As someone who travels a lot for business, I track my mileage. Not only is it a royal pain to do manually, it just seems wrong, given that your car already has this data. But until recently, I had no ability to access it.

Fuse unlocks that data, and gives you access. It consists of a device that you plug into your car’s diagnostic outlet and a mobile app that gives you access to that data.

That alone should make you want this. But I’m going out of my way to blog about this project because of what Fuse does under the hood.

The problem with most of the emerging apps in this space is that they essentially trade convenience and coolness for ownership of your data. Most of us don’t pay attention to that. We’re too pre-occupied by the coolness. Some of us feel vaguely uneasy about the trade-off, but we do it anyway. Coolness is a powerful motivator.

Phil has been a leader in the digital identity space for a very long time. He literally wrote the book on it. He’s part of a community of folks who thinks that you — the individual — should own and control your data. Enabling this is a hard technical problem, but it’s an even knottier social problem.

Fuse is built on top of a trust and privacy framework that my friends, Drummond Reed and Andy Dale, have helped evolved. Fuse is cool, compelling, and socially responsible. These are the kinds of apps that will help create the kind of world that I want to live in.

If you’d like to read more about these nitty gritty aspects of Fuse, go check out Phil’s blog. If you’d like to read more about the bigger vision behind technology like this, start with Vendor Relationship Management (VRM).

Don’t forget to back the project!

Networks and Enrollment

Los Angeles Union Station

I spent this past Wednesday with some of my favorite colleagues talking about networks and social change. Garfield Foundation had brought us together to surface our collective mental models about networks and to see where they overlapped and where they diverged. The day was rife with wonderful twists on familiar topics, and I learned a tremendous amount exploring different nuances with the others.

One of the important themes that emerged was enrollment. The classic careless way to approach design is to say, “Let’s just get everybody into a room together and see what happens!” There’s an element of openness here that should be encouraged, but beyond that, this approach is likelier to create more problems than solve them. It’s critical to think through the following questions:

  • Whom do you want to engage in your process?
  • How do you enroll them?
  • At what stage do you enroll them?
  • How do you want them to engage with each other?

Taj James shared a wonderful metaphor for how to think about enrollment: Picking people up at the train station. Do you want to pick people up at the first stop? The second stop? The third? What would happen if you had picked up the people from the third stop at the first stop instead? What if you want to pick up a group of people at the first stop, but they’re not ready to travel? Maybe they’re not packed yet, or maybe they don’t want to travel with people they don’t really know.

Here are three examples of how I dealt with issues of enrollment in previous projects:

Wikimedia Strategic Planning

The purpose of the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process (2009-2010) was to build a movement-wide set of priorities through a bottoms-up process. We had to navigate around two conceptual myths:

  • “We have to work in small, closed groups before we can open up the process. Otherwise, it will be too chaotic, and we’ll never get anything done.”
  • “Once we have something to show people, we’ll put it out there, and thousands of volunteers will magically start working on it.”

The first myth is a common one. It is easier to get things done and build relationships when working with small groups. But should the first stage of a process like this be about “getting things done”? Who gets to be part of that initial small group, and what will be the impact of the people you leave behind at that first station? Also, is “closed” truly a prerequisite for working in small groups?

When I came on board, the team had already drafted a plan that did not open up the process until three or four months into a 12-month process. I immediately changed that, and two weeks later, we were engaging with the community in an open, large-scale way. My reasoning was this:

  • The end goal was co-creation and broad-scale ownership of the strategy. If you don’t give people the opportunity to get on board early, then it won’t be co-creation.
  • Even if you gave people the opportunity to get on board, why would they? Wikipedians are overwhelmingly young (in their teens and 20s, many of them students). Most of them had never heard of strategic planning, much less participated in a planning process. Many of them didn’t even know what the Wikimedia Foundation was or that it even existed. They were there because they liked writing carefully crafted, thoughtfully researched articles about areas of interest. Why would they spend time participating in a strategy process?
  • We already had a small group of people who were committed to working on strategy, and we had some norms and relationships in place. Given that core, I was confident in my ability to open up participation while maintaining a high-level of productivity.

We engaged our core community immediately around questions that mattered to them, and we listened. The initial question we asked was, “If you had the opportunity to change anything, what would you change, and why?” The “why” question pushed people to start thinking strategically, because it forced them to connect tactics to purpose. It helped everybody — not just us — understand what people were seeing and thinking, and it also surfaced people who were already thoughtful and engaged whom we could more actively target in later stages of the project. Because it was many-to-many conversation as a opposed to something like a survey, people were building relationships with each other while they worked through these questions.

We also continued doing our preparation work, but we did it openly, inviting others to jump in and participate. The deluge of distracting volunteers that people feared never came. Instead, the people who did come helped shape and improve the work that we were doing, and many of them became critical leaders later in the process.

Delta Dialogues

With the Delta Dialogues (2012 and still continuing without me), we were dealing with the wickedest of problems: California water issues. One of the ongoing dynamics was the lack of inclusion in existing planning processes. People involved in planning feared disruption, and so they would either exclude stakeholders from early stages of the process, or they would try to control their participation through a set of discouraging ground rules. That simply reinforced the rampant mistrust that already existed in the region, especially when the resulting plans felt one-sided, which made those stakeholders even more disruptive. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We originally proposed a joint small-group / large-scale engagement process, but for a variety of reasons, we ended up focusing on a small, representative group of stakeholders. It was a network leadership play. Our goal was not to “get things done.” That approach wasn’t working, because people were not taking the time to listen and understand to each other. Our primary goal was shared understanding.

Once again, our biggest challenge was going to be enrollment. There was severe planning fatigue in the region, and the people we were targeting were extremely busy. The exact timing (beyond our control) was even more challenging, because it came in the heart of harvest season, when farmers in the region were literally working around the clock, seven days a week. How were we going to get people into the room? How could we keep them coming back?

We played a number of cards:

  • We focused on people, not just organizations. People didn’t really know much about our organizational client, the Delta Conservancy. But everybody knew, liked, and trusted its Executive Director, Campbell Ingram. People came the first few times because of their relationship to him. It was our responsibility at that point to keep them coming. If he had not already been such a trusted network weaver, we probably could not have gotten this process off the ground.
  • We bet that participants would buy into the goal of shared understanding versus something like planning.
  • We invested a considerable amount of time creating a space that was safe, inviting, and transparent. Instead of hosting the conversations in a “neutral space,” we rotated locations among the stakeholders. That deepened empathy and relationships, because people were not only talking to each other, they were immersed in each other’s worlds. It was also far more inviting to spend a day on a farm or in a nature preserve than it was to be stuck in an office building.
  • We thought explicitly about people we wanted to bring on board at future stations, and we tried to set the stage for that. We produced artifacts that people could easily share outside of meetings, all centrally located at a public website that anyone could point to. We assigned each other buddies, and we encouraged people to talk to their buddies between meetings. We also had a leadership development component to encourage people to have these same kinds of conversations outside of our process. (This part of our process wasn’t working, and we quickly scrapped it. We were trying to do too much.)

Our ongoing challenge was making sure people kept coming back. And, at each meeting, people would consistently say that they had felt swamped and had considered skipping, but that they were glad they came and that this was their favorite time of the week.

Organizational Change Initiatives

I don’t really differentiate an “organizational approach” from a “network approach” in my mind, because an organization is simply a type of network, and the same principles apply. I’ve been in a few large-scale organizational change efforts, and enrollment was always a huge, sometimes overlooked challenge. People don’t necessarily think this is the case, because if you’re working with C-level leadership, they can essentially “force” people to “participate.” The power dynamic here is similar to what many foundations experience. They can easily get people into a room. However, getting people into a room is not the same as enrollment.

Many organizational consultants make  two mistakes in their processes. First, they spend all of their time with leadership, which simply reinforces both a narrow perspective as well as a power dynamic that gets in the way of broad participation. Second, they focus entirely on the meetings. Again, you can leverage power dynamics to get people to a meeting, but your success depends on what people do outside of those meetings.

I always apply the same principles of participatory processes to my organizational work, and I invest just as much time building relationships with people at all levels of the organization. Those leaders are critical in getting other people on board at future stops.

Leadership Lessons from Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly

Notre Dame has a proud football tradition, but for the past two decades, it’s been a tradition of futility. It last won a national championship in 1988, and it hasn’t been in the running for one since Lou Holtz retired. That finally changed this year under coach Brian Kelly, as Notre Dame will be duking it out against Alabama next week for the title.

Kelly had two mediocre years before turning things around this year. ESPN.com had a nice article about what led to the turnaround. One of his problems was that he was not spending enough time communicating with his players, building trust. After a bad loss to USC late last year, he challenged his players, but they did not react well. He took responsibility for that.

“They didn’t know me well enough,” Kelly said. “Not their fault. My fault. You’d want a response to my comments [like], ‘That’s Coach. He has high expectations. He’s demanding this.’ No, it was the other way. ‘Coach doesn’t trust us. He didn’t recruit us.’ That made it clear to me I was not doing a very good job with our players.”

He decided he needed to spend more time with his players, so he made a number of changes this past year to create that time.

Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.

“It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us,” offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “[Before the meetings,] I don’t think it was something that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had this.’ After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it’s nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field.”

Kelly no longer works his quarterbacks the way a position coach would. His assistants sing from the hymnal he wrote. It is a slight exaggeration to say that this is the first season in which Kelly didn’t need name tags for the guys on defense.

“He’s there as a more familiar face,” safety Zeke Motta said. “It’s great for the team because you not only have one focus but you have a focus on the entire team itself. That lends itself to a team that plays together and plays for each other.”

Kelly hops from meeting to meeting, drill to drill, watching, listening, reinforcing.

“I could be the guy who wasn’t jumping on them because they didn’t run the route the right way,” Kelly said. “I could be the guy who said, ‘Hey, look, if you step with your outside foot on that. That’s what Coach is trying to tell you.'”

It’s a new way of coaching for Kelly.