Teamdays: valuable or valueless?

A regular part of organizational life are those events called 'off-sites', 'retreats', 'teambuilding' or sometimes 'jollies'. I've been on my fair share of them ranging from outdoor experiential stuff in Dorset where we had to build rafts, scale walls, wade through water and so on to indoor hotel conference rooms, in places close to airports, with no daylight where we indulged in co-counselling and revealing our innermost thoughts to team members while sitting in a circle.

The Dorset thing was fairly early on in my career. I was a novice at that stage and when the trainer asked what activity we would least like to do given a choice of things like potholing, rock climbing, and white water rafting I naively said 'potholing' thinking we would be allocated to something we would like to do. Not the case. I spent a long terrifying day crawling underground in the darkness through wet mud. The trainer thought it would help me face my fears. I've never been near a pothole again.

One of the sitting in circle ones I remember, also early in my career, was where the trainer chain smoked throughout the day. (You can tell how long ago that was). As the room filled with smoke I asked him if he would stop smoking or smoke outside. He lashed out at me for stepping on his 'rights' and said if I didn't like him smoking I could leave the course. So much for a 'safe environment'.

What I learned from these early career experiences was to treat teambuilding events with a certain skepticism. I don't think that was the intention of them. But I was never quite clear what the intention of them was.

This is one of the difficulties with teambuilding events. Getting to some reliable assessment of their value or any return on investment is extremely difficult. This may be because the objectives and intended outcomes are not spelled out in a way that then facilitates effective measurement. This problem came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I was a participant in a two day off-site with my colleagues. This was an event designed to promote … what?

Well there were laudable words 'enhancing rapport and relationships between team members', 'building trust', 'developing joint problem solving capability', 'knowledge sharing', ' improving team communication' and 'increasing collaboration', and Day Two which was working with a non-profit on a particular issue they were trying to address seemed designed to achieve the intent of the words. But still a doubt remains in my mind. How will we know that the two days was a good return on investment? Day One, in case you're wondering was spent in one of the office conference rooms – with windows – discussing meeting protocols, marketing collateral and other operational stuff.

The direct costs of the two days included flights for some team members, hotel accommodation, and a couple of team dinners. I don't know what the exact dollar amount for this was. Then there were the indirect costs of the whole team being unbillable for two days (or maybe more if flying/travel time is factored in).

Of course, having asked the question – how will we know if the return on the two days was worth the investment I got the task of finding out how we would find out! But I can't say this was an unexpected assignment and two team members are joining me in the adventure of finding a response that few academics and/or practitioners have been able to answer satisfactorily.

There is very little research or guidance that really tackles return on these types of teambuilding events in terms of improved business performance. There are some frameworks that point a direction. Kirkpatrick's well used model of training evaluation – that some have dismissed as 'magical thinking' – describes four levels of outcomes:

1. Reaction: trainees' perceptions of the quality and value of training
2. Learning: whether trainees have learned the skills, knowledge, or attitudes that were intended
3. Behavior: whether the acquired skills, knowledge, or attitudes, affected behavior on the job
4. Results: the impact of the training on business results, for example productivity, quality, or customer satisfaction

Charles Jennings, in a thought provoking blog around the standard models of training evaluation makes the point that a lot of planned learning activity is "sub-optimal to the extent that it provides little value to participants and their organizations" and suggests five barriers to effective learning.

But both Kirkpatrick and Jennings make reference to the point that training and development activity – including teambuilding events – need to have a positive and measurable impact on business performance. However, there is just no really satisfactory way to make the cause-effect link although some experiments have shown that there is some relationship between behavior changes and business results: for example, Level 3 behavior change like better leadership, higher team cohesiveness, better interpersonal communication, better problem solving and higher levels of trust (though it is not mentioned how these are measured) leads to Level 4 results – lower employee turnover, lower absenteeism, higher productivity, higher quality, better overall job performance

Having briefly discussed methods of evaluation we have decided to pick up more or less at the Level 4 and take a different tack. My colleagues and I are considering using a balanced business scorecard approach as our framework for measuring the benefits of the teambuilding event we participated in last week. We think we could usefully measure in the four quadrants of

Customers, Business Processes, Financials and Learning. (The standard four), but it will probably behoove us to real the primer by Paul Niven Balanced Scorecard Step-by-Step: Maximizing Performance and Maintaining Results before launching into an evaluation process. However, this will be a bit of a retrofit as the subject of evaluation came up after the event and so wasn't a front of mind consideration in the original design. (Should it have been? Would the evaluation outcome be more or less valuable if we had thought of evaluation as part of the design?)

Anyway, here are my first suggestions on the measures we could consider:

  • Customers: The non-profit we worked with implement some of our suggestions and measure their own business performance improvement as a result of this implementation.
  • Business process: We action our talk on the marketing process and collateral, send it to potential customers, win business as a direct response to this marketing and measure the value of the win
  • Learning: We use what we have learned about each other to develop a new service offering that draws on our collectivity of skill sets. We successfully sell this to one or more clients in the coming year (and it measurably improves their business performance as well as ours).
  • Financials: We tot up the direct and indirect financial costs of the two days. Knowing these and also knowing the financial benefit of winning business and improving the performance.

Any further thoughts on how to measure the business value and ROI of teambuilding events would be most welcome. Do you use the Kirkpatrick model, business scorecard, or some other method?

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