Games and Activities for Building and Training Teams
by Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan and Glenn Parker
What Is a Team?
Team, unit, crew, club, gang, group, clique, panel, committee, and taskforce--these related words and their alternative definitions frequently confuse people. Our definition of a team isa group of people with a high degree of interdependence geared toward the achievement of a goal or the completion of a task.
In other words, members of a team agree on a goal and agree that the only way to achieve the goal is to work together (Parker, 1990).
Some groups have a common goal but do not work together to achieve it. For example, many management teams are really groups because they can work independently to achieve the goal. Some groups work together but do not have a common goal. For example, most people interact with one another during meetings, but everyone seems to have a different goal. So these meeting participants do not constitute a real team.
Why Learn About Teams?
Teams are becoming increasingly important in today's organizations. Following are some newer types of demands placed on teamwork
- Organizational Structures. During the past decade, traditional hierarchical structures in organizations have been replaced by team-based structures. This change has increased the demand for team-training activities, since it makes more sense to train employees in teams, if they are going to work in teams.
- Global Interaction. Technological breakthroughs in communication and travel have reduced physical distance to an insignificant variable and spawned international teams. This development has imposed new demands on teamwork, which involve multicultural participants.
- Virtual Interaction. Electronic mail, the Internet, and intranets have created new types of teams whose members have little or no face-to-face interaction. This situation has created a demand for hard skills related to the use of technology and soft skills related to interaction in cyberspace.
- Changing Workforce. Employees born in the 1970s and raised on MTV and video games have lifestyles and work styles different from those of people born earlier. Teamwork among members of this generation and between different generations has created a demand for new structures and methods.
- Increased Empowerment. Around the world, citizens want to get involved in the way politicians make decisions in local and national governments, and employees want to get involved in the way managers make decisions in the workplace. New team techniques are required to involve large masses in real-time strategic change.
- Self-Help Groups. People have rediscovered the advantages of receiving and giving training and therapy through the sharing of experiences, insights, and skills with one another. This trend has created a demand for new forms of leaderless teams.
What Are Different Types of Teams?
There are many different types of teams as well as many different words to describe the same type of team. Peter Scholtes (1996) provided an especially useful catalogue of teams.
- Natural Work Groups. People who work together every day: same office, same location, same machine, and same process.
- Business Teams. Usually a cross-functional team that oversees a specific product line or customer segment.
- Management Teams: Executive Teams. A group of managers who are peers and the person to whom they usually report.
- Management Teams: "Linchpin" Teams. A cascading network of teams starting with the executive team, in which each manager is a member of a team led by his or her boss and leads a team consisting of his or her direct subordinates.
- New Product/Service Design Teams. Usually a cross-functional group assigned to redesign all or part of a product or service.
- Process Redesign, or Systems Reengineering Teams. Similar to new product/ service teams but deals with the internal operations that create and deliver the product or service.
- Improvement Project Teams. A natural work group or cross-functional team whose responsibility is to achieve some needed improvement of an existing process; an ad hoc assignment.
What Are Games and Activities?
Games, activities, simulations, exercises, case studies, experiential learning techniques, role-plays, and active training sessions--this is another set of related words with alternative definitions that frequently confuse people. Our definition of an instructional game or an activity is
a structured process that involves participants interacting with one another to share their experiences and insights.
All games and activities share these two key elements: experience and interaction. Participants take an active role in jointly experiencing an event, reflecting on it, and sharing what they learned from it.
Why Use Games and Activities?
Since teamwork involves participants interacting with one another, it makes sense that they should also learn in situations presented by games and activities. Following are some additional reasons why an interactive experiential approach results in effective learning.
Cognitive Science Research. Studies indicate that people learn more effectively and apply their newly learned knowledge and skills more effectively through games and activities. Research on such diverse areas as stress, anxiety, creativity, and self-efficacy reinforce the generalization that we need to play more in order to improve our learning.
Multiple Intelligences. Recent studies on the nature of intelligence have eliminated traditional IQ measures as the sole indicator of effective performance. Newer frame-works of intelligence emphasize that there are several avenues to learning other than the conventional use of language and logic. Games and activities tap into alternative intelligences.
Adult Learning Theory. Most adults bring a rich store of experiences to the learning situation. The primary task of the facilitator is to help them, through collaborative efforts, to derive generalizations from this base of experience.
Emotional Learning. Events that are accompanied by emotions result in long-lasting learning. Boredom is not conducive to effective learning. Games and activities that include appropriate levels of cooperation within teams and competition across teams add emotional elements to learning.
Practice and Feedback. Learners cannot master skills without repeated practice and feedback. Games and activities provide opportunities for practicing interpersonal skills and for receiving immediate feedback from peers.
What Are Different Types of Activities?
There are several different classification schemes for training activities. In our context of working with teams, it is important to differentiate between team building and team training.
Team building increases the ability of an intact team to work together. The process of team building involves analyzing the strengths and improvement opportunities in a team, building on the current strengths, reducing the ineffective practices, and preparing a plan for ongoing team effectiveness. The team, guided by a facilitator, takes responsibility for the development of the plan and its implementation. A team-building session is attended only by members of a specific team (referred to as an "intact" team) whose members regularly work together to achieve a goal or to accomplish a task. An intact team may be a natural work group or a cross-functional team.
Team training increases the knowledge and skills of the participants in various aspects of teamwork and being a team player. The participants who attend a team-training session may be individuals or groups from a specific team. These participants take back and apply their new skills and knowledge to different teams they belong to.
Some activities are best suited for team building while some others are most useful for team training. Some activities may be used for either purpose.
How to Use Games and Activities to Build and Train Teams
Following are some guidelines to help you get the maximum effect from games and activities:
Before Conducting the Activity
- Select the most appropriate activity. Begin by identifying the activities that match your primary purpose. Decide whether you are working in a team building or a team-training mode. Then select the specific activity that best matches your available time, number of participants, and other logistic constraints.
- Review the activity with your client and a few representative participants.
- Conduct a dry run. If appropriate, walk through the steps of the activity with your co-facilitator. Make suitable adaptations to better suit the needs and preferences of your participants.
- Estimate the number of participants and collect all the required supplies and materials. Make enough copies of game materials and handouts.
- Specify the overall goals and objectives for your team-building or team-training session. Decide how to reach additional objectives that are likely to be achieved by the activity.
- Plan your briefing procedure. Decide whether to present a "lecturette" before conducting the activity.
- Plan your debriefing procedure. Prepare a list of discussion questions to ensure that participants will reflect on their performance.
- Anticipate possible disasters. Ask yourself a series of what-if questions. Brainstorm preventative steps and contingency plans with your co-facilitator.
- Anticipate a smooth flow of the activity. Visualize your participants enjoying the activity and learning from it.
During the Activity
- Get into the activity as quickly as possible. Keep your initial presentations and instructions to a minimum.
- Present an outline of the important rules and steps of the activity. Assign roles to different participants and distribute the materials.
- Warn participants that they may be confused initially. Explain that things will become clearer as the activity progresses.
- Don't interfere with participant behaviors once the activity has begun. Remind participants of the rules when necessary. Implement time limits and other rules in a fair but flexible manner.
- Move smoothly from one stage of the activity to the next.
- Bring the activity to a definite conclusion at the end of the assigned time period or when the goal is achieved.
After the Activity
- Conduct a debriefing discussion. Ask participants to reflect on their performance and share their insights with one another.
- Ask participants to report on what they learned from the activity. Also ask them for their action plans based on the newly learned procedures and principles.
- Invite participants to ask you questions about the activity and the learning out-comes. Correct any misconceptions. Add suitable caveats--conceptual material and/or lessons from your experience--to prevent participants from going far beyond the data.
- Suggest suitable follow-up activities.
Games and activities are tools to help you achieve team-building and team-training goals. Keep focused on those goals to prevent an activity from becoming an end in itself. Be flexible. Although games and activities have rules, don't become obsessed with them. An important requirement for effective teamwork is to maintain your sense of humor and to take serious things playfully.
Parker, G. M., Team players and teamwork. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.
Scholtes, E, "Teams in the Age of Systems," in G. M. Parker (ed.), Best practices for teams, vol. 1. Amherst, MA: HRD Press, 1990, pp. 229-251.