Google the term ‘team building’. On the day of writing this article I got the response, “302,000,000 for team building. (0.08 seconds)”. Over 300 million web pages and articles devoted to team building.

My observation is that the more pages Google gives you, the more complex is a topic. Many more people have different ideas and hence they publish them.

Is it really that complex? I have no doubt that the execution of building a team is complex as it involves the gamut of human emotions. What I do not see as complex though are the building blocks.

My observation is that there are only three major building blocks.

Common Goal

Teams develop around a common goal. They do not grow because we want them to. We cannot instruct a team to form and expect it to be so. Groups of people, who individually pursue their own agendas whilst paying lip service to the declared goal, do not form teams.

If the goal is prescribed for a group of people and they neither were part of its development, nor understand their part in delivering it, they will not form a team. The forcefulness of their leader may still deliver the goal but less efficiently and less effectively than if the group of people believed it was their goal.

Respect for Difference

Teams develop as people get to know one another and develop respect for their differences. The best way to develop the respect for differences is to experience a journey together. The obvious journey to use is the one required to reach a challenging goal.

However, at times, it is necessary to short cut the journey to build a team early in the timeline to reach the goal. Team building activities such as outward-bound programmes, hiking the Kokoda trail, week-long mental and physical team challenges can and do work in helping to build a team. Properly constructed, they not only discover the differences between people but also the value that the different characteristics bring.

What also works in short circuiting the team building cycle are assessments that help us understand our differences. I do not mean assessments such as Myers Briggs which people tend to use to pigeon hole themselves and others. I mean assessments, such as thinking styles, which help understand how others think and why that may be valuable to us. Or some EQ profiles which help us understand how people interact with others without putting a label upon them.

What I find rarely works, even on the surface, are team building activities which last for a day or so. One type of these include low level introspection which discover issues but rarely give enough time for people to work through them and learn. Another type include “fun” activities which give a short term lift to morale which then disappears within two days of being back at work.

In either case, the team building effort has to eventually centre on the component parts of achieving the goal. Otherwise, the team building activity becomes a distraction from which myths and stories are told, reinforcing personal rather than team agendas.

Respecting difference is, in my experience, the strongest correlation with a strong team. People who cannot respect difference should be removed from groups of people that need to develop into a team. This is true even if they bring great technical expertise to the group.

Competence, Information and Authority

Groups of people with a common goal and respect for difference can become great teams. However, without the proper tools, they are still likely to fail due to unnecessary frustrations being put in their way of achieving the goal.

Any single person needs the right level of behaviour skills and knowledge (competence), the right information and the right authority to execute their job well. So do teams.

If a group does not have required collective competence they will fail to form a team. They will not respect the difference of a group member who is assigned tasks but not competent to do them, even when no-one in the team is competent to do the task and, therefore, could not do any better.

For example, putting a group together and affixing the title of project manager to one of them without providing them the appropriate training to manage a project will restrict the development of a team and is just downright dumb. In many cases, training is not enough. It is experience that is required, even from an external source.

Having insufficient information to make decisions holds back all but the best teams, as too many people are not comfortable working in ambiguity. Information may be insufficient in many ways. One that is often overlooked however is that whilst copious amounts of data is available, it is without context. In those situations whilst data is available, information is sadly lacking. Group members will add their own context and thereby create unnecessary difference of opinion.

Groups of people without authority to act to reach the goal, even if it is a common goal, will struggle to form a team. Not having the necessary authority to act to reach a goal is no different in its impact on people than not having a common goal in the first place. Goals must be real and achievable by the team. They must have the necessary authority.

Team building exercises which concentrate on fun and frivolity are just that, frivolous. They do not build teams. They may raise morale for a moment but they do not build teams. Spend your money on building competence, creating a common goal and building respect for people’s differences.