Team-building breaks out at climate conference

I heard a news item on the radio the other day reporting that delegates at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen were dividing into “breakout” sessions. I immediately recalled way too many days during my corporate career spent in seminars listening to motivational, team and quality trainers spouting endless tripe while waving their markers in the air and pawing at their overhead projections.

At some point during these affairs, participants are inevitably broken up into smaller groups and given childish assignments that, if nothing else, wake them up. These “games trainers play” give the presenters a chance to go on the internet and look for a better job while their hapless audience makes paper airplanes and/or a beeline for the emergency exit.

Perhaps not the “breakout” organizers were intending but still a chance for team members to get creative and think outside the box or, in many cases, outside the local Hilton.

As a former corporate trainer myself, I wanted to find out more about these sessions. I wanted to sympathize with the government officials from around the world who not only had to endure a mind-numbing symposium but also Scandinavian winter and Danish food which, as I understand it, is woefully short of actual Danish. However, when I searched online for “climate change breakout,” all I could find were stories about the violence that had broken out among the thousands of protestors in attendance outside.

So I decided to dig out a manual from my old training days to figure what they might be up to in Denmark. “Team Workout” describes itself as a trainer’s sourcebook of team-building games and activities. It contains 50 recipes for getting seminar attendees on their feet and involved in activity — “icebreaking,” as it was called in those days before global warming, when such a thing was necessary.

The following are a few of the exercises that could play a role in saving our precious planet from greenhouse gas emissions which might otherwise doom us all:

Activity 6: Creating a Team Logo — The purpose of this activity is to initiate a discussion of team purpose and values employing an easel, flipchart, markers and push pins. At the end of the 45-minute session, the team presents its logo along with its rationale to the larger group. Other teams can ask questions for clarification, such as “what were you thinking?” and “can you believe they’re making us do this?” The book says “the team may elect to take the logo back to the workplace and use it in some fashion,” but that hardly seems likely unless there’s some type of spill that needs to be cleaned up. Variations include creating a team slogan, song or name, or selecting a well-known song, movie or television show that reflects the team’s values. I might suggest “Lost” or “So You Think You Can Team-Build?”

Activity 14: Get SMART — Six to eight people sit around a rectangular table learning the SMART protocol for preparing team goals. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Individuals suggest goals for the group, then 7 minutes is spent reaching a consensus. (Plenty of time to figure out how to undo a century of environmental abuse). A sample goal that meets all five criteria is “by the end of the third quarter, 90 percent of all requests from customers will be handled within 48 hours.” A goal that might not be exact enough could be something like “try not to die.”

Activity 16: How’s Your Team’s Vision? — This one gives employees the opportunity to learn about the “strategic planning process,” from “visioning” and “culture alignment” to “planning a plan” and “gap analysis.” A monster of an endeavor clocking in at 4 hours, this workout ends with the team evaluating how close they are to realizing their vision: on a scale of one to ten, one means “we are nowhere,” five means “we are halfway there,” and ten means “we are there.” Or, the facilitator can simply choose one of the listed variations — “have the team members evaluate their effectiveness in advance” — but then the lunch break would come at 10 a.m. and the boxed sandwiches and stale cookies won’t be arriving till 11:30 at the earliest.

Activity 26: Rhyme Time — This game provides an opportunity for the team to work together on a joint task while sitting in a cluster of chairs. A deck of cards is prepared in advance, containing questions that will have a pair of rhyming words as the answer. The rules are that “there are no rules,” except of the course that the answers contain two words which rhyme. For example, a cause-and-effect diagram prepared by a team of well-to-do members is a “hightone fishbone.” An informal recognition given as a natural part of the regular work day is an “herbal verbal.” An ironic acknowledgement a team can give a manager who shows little interest in them is a “bored award.” You get the idea.

Activity 36: Tell-a-Story Teaming — This activity helps team members enhance their creative-thinking skills, works well with large groups and introduces the concept of 5×7 index cards. The facilitator instructs the group to develop a short story that includes eight suggested topics — a person, place, object, animal, activity, food, occupation and mood. “Some dude went to the store wearing a mask and carrying his cat. He stole some Slim Jims from the clerk, and felt good about it. The end.” In the debriefing portion of the session, the team is asked how this activity will help them back on the job. This is when team members really get the chance to be creative.

Activity 50: Yea, Team! — I think this is supposed to be pronounced “yay, team,” but the sarcastic inflection (as in “yea, right”) is probably more accurate. This “energizing” activity requires a minimum of 20 people unfamiliar with each other and, perhaps not surprisingly, “a large enough room to allow participants to move around.” Prior to the session, the organizer has to learn information about people in the group — hobbies, interests, past experiences or unusual facts. There’s an elaborate description of the process for this activity, but it seems to boil down to having people mill about, eventually standing on large grid squares containing a trait that applies to them. Examples given include “likes to tie flies,” “survived an earthquake” and “has a rich fantasy life.” Every time you encounter someone who shares this characteristic with you, you write the letters T, E, A or M on a smaller paper grid, and at some point, somebody yells out “yea, team” and is declared the winner, usually of a t-shirt or hat with corporate logo. Variations include having a cow plop on the winning square, having Bob Barker serve as master of ceremonies, or having Bob Barker plop on a square.

…and this last bullet point proves I’m an idiot

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