Team-building exercises can teach employees to cooperate and work together more efficiently, but too often they're awkward and ineffective ways to kill time on a company retreat. So instead of running another three-legged race or doing trust falls (of course you're not going to let a co-worker fall to the floor), try some exercises that develop skills such as communication, unity and problem-solving.
The biggest mistake company leaders make in planning team-building exercises is not doing them often enough. Limiting team-building sessions to once or twice a year makes the lessons easy to forget, and it fails to drive home the message that your company is serious about cooperation among co-workers.
A good communication-building exercise is called "Back to Back." Split your group into pairs and have team members sit back to back. Give one partner a piece of paper and pencil, and have the other instruct that person on how to draw a simple shape such as a square, circle or triangle. Have that partner describe the lines and angles and properties of the shape, just not its name. Afterward, evaluate how effectively the partners gave and took directions.
Not everyone wears his personality on his sleeve, so it's possible for people to work together for years without knowing they have something in common. "Survey Says" is an activity that can show people how alike they truly are. The leader should ask each member of the group five questions about their favorite "something." This can be a favorite movie, TV show, song, band, restaurant--anything that involves subjective taste. Tally the answers, divide the group into two, and reveal them in the style of the TV game show "Family Feud."
The "Survey Says" game works best with a large group of 20 or so. If your numbers are smaller, a good alternative is to play "Do You Like?" The leader lists five to 10 objects--food items, restaurants, bands or movies. The items should be things everyone is likely to be familiar with, such as McDonald's hamburgers, pineapple or The Beatles. Each group member writes whether he or she likes each item and passes the card to the leader. The leader, in a charismatic, game-show-host way, goes through each card by asking different members of the group whether a person likes something (example: Mike, does Phyllis like ...?). Keeping score is optional; the game is less about competition and more about discovering things about one another. This is a quick game that can be done every week with new themes.
A great way to develop and analyze your employees' problem-solving skills is to simulate actual problem-solving. Choose a hypothetical problem (this can be a real problem from the company's past) and identify two to three potential causes. Give each employee a few minutes to think it over and have each make several recommendations; this can be by secret ballot or in the open, just as long as the leader knows who's recommending the solutions. A shy employee might have a great idea, but lack the temerity to speak up about it. Compare the solutions with the company's approach to the real problem. The employee who thought the same way the company did doesn't necessarily have the best answer, however, so look for innovation and creativity.
This works best when your team is a bit uneven (one employee has great critical thinking skills, but lacks in execution, while another carries out work as ordered, but lacks creativity and intuition). Encourage team members to review one another's work and recommend changes before submission. While the final word rests with the person whose name is going on the assignment, peer partnering encourages cooperation and allows employees to tap into one another's strengths for a better overall product.
John Zaremba began writing professionally in 1997. He has worked at some of the country's finest small daily newspapers, including "The Beacon News" and "The Patriot Ledger." Zaremba is a graduate of the University of Illinois.