How to win at team building exercises

Building towers out of spaghetti, marshmallows or paper, creating paper airplanes, crossing water with a man made bridge, changing Nascar tires, designing clothes with paper – we’ve all been exposed to team building exercises, and they just keep coming. They are generally designed to teach a certain issue, but they are also often designed to be gamed, and they should always be designed to be fun.

Above all though is the mandate to be yourself and to enjoy the process and the learning. So without further ado, here are:

The top 10 ways to succeed at team building exercises 

1: Check the team

Look at the team around you. Are they genuine colleagues or are there some ring-ins? I was exposed once to the peer pressure experiment, and some juggling was required to fool the participants into believing that the team was random, when in fact the participant (me) was the only new factor each time. So keep an eye out for where they come from, and retain that suspicion through the exercise (I guessed almost immediately).

Look for hidden and open assigned roles. Sometimes certain or all team members will be given roles to play, perhaps aiming to deliberately disrupt the overall team progress. Keep an eye out for people being tapped by organisers and given a sheet of paper, and hold a suspicious mind during the exercise itself. If you have a role assigned, then turn on your acting skills and become that character. It’s an amazing learning experience to be in role, especially when the lessons are successfully applied to you and your character is motivated to change behaviour.

Check for observers, and find out or guess what are they looking for, and if it’s being videoed then take that into consideration as well.

2: Check the rules

All of these games have a set of rules. Take the time to learn them, and ask a bunch of clarifying questions to the organisers – perhaps quietly so others can’t hear. Talk to each other in the team so you are all clear. Try flipping the rules around and asking yourselves ‘what is missing?’, and think about ways that you can work within the rules while also being outrageous.

Check especially for the competition clauses. Are you competing against the other teams, or are you all in this together and competing against the organisers? One game called “win as much as you can” is set up so cooperation amongst the teams is by far the best strategy for everyone, while for others there really is no team competition at all, except in your mind.

3: Play

Play with the materials before you make decisions – do this at the same time as you are talking. Think like a child. Kids instinctively get how to play and build, so unleash yourselves and try a bunch of random and playful things. Often the answer is unintuitive, and playing around is a great way to find the answer.

4: Take a role.

Take on a role quickly, whether as doer, the leader or just an observer. If a lot of repetitive work needs to be done, then get started and lead by example. The key is to get the team working fast, and a team needs team members. During the exercise the roles often change, and that’s a good sign. Let it all flow naturally.

5: Have fun and keep your head up

These exercises are usually set up as competition, but they are also only exercises for your to learn from. So the best approach is to adopt an attitude to enjoy the process while learning and also trying to game the result. Keep your head up, eyes and ears open and be aware of what’s going on around you. Keep the team conversation and the team dynamic light, and make sure it’s an enjoyable experience

We decided, for example, to combine teams part way through a marshmallow and spaghetti exercise, as it wasn’t explicitly banned, and so we were able to use more materials and win. That meant double the number of winners, a lot more satisfaction and yet the same lessons were learned. We could, for example, simply have asked for more materials, as apparently children usually do.

6: Iterate and learn.

Ask “what did we learn” to each other after each change in a process. This is remarkably powerful question which immediately focuses everyone on improvement. For events where you have to improve over a number of iterations, try to change only a few things each time so you can manage your learnings. If it’s a big job, like changing a tire, then each sub-team should agree what they are going to change, then communicate that to the rest of the team. And for competitions like the tire change, keep the number of changes, if any, to a minimum once you are through the learning stages.

7: Cheat

Cheat by copying other teams, checking the internet, asking for more supplies, using other props and anything else that is not explicitly prohibited. Assign someone to watch other teams and bring back information – ask them “what did you learn”, just like everyone else.

8: Try to finish early with an ok solution

Finish then iterate from there. Just producing a compliant product is often all that’s required to do well in tower building competitions, so make sure you steadily build to the end and not just aim to have something appear in the last minutes

9: Manage the mood.

Be conscious of your own role, and that of other team members. Self observe to make sure you are being a great team member and contributing to the whole. Observe the team to make sure all roles are filled, and fill that role yourself or nudge someone else to it if you can. Observe your other team members – are they happy, working in the common cause and at maximum output? Are they pondering a different approach, or, worse, are they simply demotivated? Try to understand their concern – asking what are you thinking, what are you feeling – and you need to use both words unless you know whether they make decisions with their heart or head. The power of language is such that “I feel it would be great if we folded these planes together” and “I think it would be smart if we folded these planes” elicit vasty different responses from different people. This I know from experience. Oh – and screw the paper planes up and throw them in the last stage – you’ll know what I mean when you are there.

If someone is being actively disruptive in the team then take the time to sort it out. Either solve it or send them away, or perhaps walk off with them so the rest of the team can get on with the job. Panicking is always inappropriate and disruptive, so look for signs of that and actively calm the whole situation.

10: Keep the T-Shirt.

It could be useful for business times in the future

Published by Lance Wiggs