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Play To Win

Author: Alexandra Russell
April, 2008 Issue

Corporate team building doesn’t have to mean dry-erase boards in a hotel conference room.

    One bright-but-cold day last December, a small bus pulled up outside the NorthBay biz offices. Soon, the entire staff was sipping mimosas (or, in many cases, just Champagne) en route to River Rock Casino for the first stop on a company-wide “day of fun.” Following lunch and gambling (thanks to prearranged credits and bonus cash), the troops were transported next to Safari West for a chilly-but-spectacular sunset tour. There were no games of trust or collaborative discussion groups, but the whole adventure—planned in secret by the magazine’s awesome trio of owners—solidified the close-knit loyalty of our merry band of players.

    Now, while it’s certainly true that not every company can treat employees to such an extravagant surprise, the benefits of shared out-of-office experiences are well-documented. Numerous studies by leading universities and other credible research sources have concluded that the way people work together is an important ingredient in a project’s (or company’s) overall success.

    John Springer, owner of Sonoma County’s Four Winds Teambuilding and Leadership Training, agrees. “The work of a team is to gather information and make decisions in such a way that a specific task gets done,” he says. “But on those days when the task doesn’t get done and the team fails miserably, if the process was positive and clean, they’re all willing to get up the next day and try again.

    “On the other hand, if the task is completed in a dictatorial or otherwise forced way, then even when the team succeeds, nobody really wants to come back.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why team building is so important. According to Britain’s Team-wise, a successful team building experience will:

    • Develop working relationships;

    • Create a shared positive experience;

    • Reveal strengths and talents;

    • Enhance teamwork; and

    • Reward participants.

    A variety of local companies offer team building experiences, ranging from gentle nudges toward camaraderie to fully facilitated adventures. But despite their wildly different approaches, all share one crucial element: They’re fun. Because once you have fun with someone, it’s a lot less tempting to undermine them.

Develop working relationships

    According to The Team Building Directory, “In terms of corporate development, team building exercises are important not for the immediate experience of the activities performed by the team, but also for the group skills, communication and bonding that result.”

    This means it doesn’t seem to make much difference what a group does together—be it the ropes courses, wine tasting, scavenger hunts or cooking classes featured in this article or something else entirely—as long as there’s a positive attitude (or at least open minds) going in. Basically, if a team wants or needs to bond, they’ll find a way.

    “A while ago, two fairly large banks merged, but I don’t think it was an entirely amicable merger,” remembers Lisa Lavagetto, culinary director of Ramekins, a mixed-use cooking center in Sonoma. “The new, joined company brought the head players from both banks to Ramekins. Amid some grumbling, we mixed the teams and began. Truthfully, they were different people when they left at the end of the day. They were laughing together and embracing….”

    Founded in 1998 by real estate developer Suzanne Bragham, Ramekins’ campus near the square in Sonoma combines a commercial kitchen and event center able to accommodate up to 150 guests with an avocational cooking school that offers both public classes and private sessions, including corporate team building; there’s also a six-room bed & breakfast upstairs. “To try and exist on any one of these concepts alone would be very risky,” explains Lavagetto, “but by housing them under one roof, we have something for everyone.”

    At Ramekins, large corporate groups are split into teams of about eight. Working from a pre-selected menu, each team, led by a trained chef, prepares a dish large enough to serve the entire group. When the cooking is done, the whole group retires to the onsite dining room, where they enjoy their feast. All participants receive a personalized packet that includes the day’s menu and all recipes.

    “Food is a great equalizer,” Lavagetto continues. “It goes part and parcel with togetherness. It’s fun to see a CEO working with someone from the mailroom. It doesn’t matter where these people are in relation to each other at work. Here, they’re part of a small team with a specific task. And cooking works across generations, too, because doesn’t everyone love to eat?”

Create a shared positive experience
    “We’re the Wine Country partner for our corporate clients,” explains Keith Himmelman, executive vice president of Viviani, a 28-year-old Napa-based destination management company. “All destination management companies offer some kind of team building, even if that just means the camaraderie of an offsite. Many companies consider that enough team building, and it is—just doing something together for a day—especially if it’s company-only, no guests or clients.”

    In addition to working directly with corporate clients (many from out of state) to arrange travel packages including transportation, lodgings and activities, Viviani also fields requests from local hotels hosting groups that have requested a team building event. Although the company can work with groups as large as several hundred, 30 to 40 is much more common.

    Designed by company founder Linda Viviani, the company’s corporate games include Wine Roulette (participants are given clues and asked to identify presented wines), a Competitive Blind Wine Tasting, Who Wants to Be a Winemaker? (a trivia and informational quiz about winemaking) and Cabernet Chaos (an intricate, problem-solving challenge that starts with a grape stomp), which Linda created in conjunction with a local games company.

    Do you sense a theme? That’s because Ms. Viviani is also a winemaker and lectures throughout the country on wine, food and health. “All of our games were designed as educations first; they only morphed into team building activities later,” says Himmelman. “Linda often acts as facilitator. She enjoys being in front of the group and is very knowledgeable about the subject.”

    All the games promote interactions and consensus building, and almost all (with the exception of Cabernet Chaos) can be conducted as a break from a formal meeting (instead of a coffee break, for example, meeting attendees are led through a 45-minute tasting game); can be centered around a meal service (and more components can be added to incorporate food); or can replace a pre-meal event (instead of a formal reception, for instance). Viviani’s games are usually conducted on hotel grounds, though some wineries will also welcome select events.

    Speaking of interaction and consensus building, consider The Go Game, described by co-founder Ian Fraser as “‘Amazing Race’ meets Cranium on YouTube.” In it, teams of five are provided a Web-enabled cell phone, a digital camera and a map of the game zone (inside a casino or a specific neighborhood, for example). A series of missions and challenges are delivered to the phones one-at-a-time, and it’s up to teammates to complete or solve them to earn points and learn the next mission.

    There are three types of missions: sneak and snoop, which are pop-culture based and require teams to decipher clues to solve a riddle (the answer will sometimes lead you to the site of the next mission); creative, wherein the group works together to create a solution to a posed challenge (and document it via video or pictures); and street theater interactions with actors posing as part of the neighborhood (a fake delivery man, or bride sitting on church steps, for example).

    The Go Game is based on a dream Fraser had. In 2001, a technically adept friend named Finnegan Kelly helped Fraser complete six short versions that could be run in his hometown of San Francisco. Fraser and Kelly used friends as test pilots, and the feedback was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. In addition, Fraser says, “almost every one of them said, ‘You should do this for companies.’”

    After pursuing it as a consumer game for a while longer, mounting debt made the pair rethink their audience. Their first corporate client was Yahoo in 2002. The Go Game ran 10 times that year; in 2008, Fraser estimates it will run between 50 and 100 games per month. To execute games across the country, the company has expanded to small field offices in Los Angeles, Austin, New York City and Orlando. Locally, it’s run games in Santa Rosa, Napa and Mill Valley.

    “We’ve done games for North Bay companies,” says Fraser. “But also, the North Bay is a big destination spot. Many companies will bring their global sales force or management team to Wine Country as a reward or for a conference, and they’ll want to add a team building element to the week.

    “So many people don’t have the chance in their day-to-day lives to just have fun,” he continues. “When people are playing The Go Game, random stuff happens—it’s funny and unexpected. Sometimes, things happen that people think are part of the staged game, but they’re not. Since we use reality as our backdrop, a lot of what happens is spontaneous and genuine.

    “The Go Game is about being smart and creative, not physical. Our challenges are balanced to hit different intelligences and talents, so all team members can contribute.”
Upon completion of the missions or conclusion of the allotted time (usually about two to three hours, in which Fraser estimates most teams can complete between 15 and 20 missions), all groups gather to view the documented evidence and tally the points. All clips are then uploaded to a website so employees can relive the experiences. “We monitor that site,” says Fraser, “and in the days after a game, it’s unbelievable how much time people will spend with the pictures. It must be all they’re talking about!”

Reveal strengths and talents
    Housed on 15 acres at Ocean Song, a privately owned, 340-acre environmental education center located in the coastal hills west of Occidental, Four Winds Teambuilding and Leadership Training facilitates between 200 and 300 programs every year. In addition to corporate clients, the company welcomes students (fifth grade through graduate school), professional organizations, law enforcement agencies, government employees, at-risk youth groups and sports teams.

    “We’re outdoor, adventure-based experiential trainers,” says John Springer, who bought Four Winds in 1992 after working as its director of marketing for two years. “I answered a blind ad in the newspaper for a director of marketing for an ‘experiential training company.’ I asked if that was a typo—did they mean ‘experimental’ training company? They explained ‘experiential’ means you learn by doing.”

    The idea was instantly appealing. Springer, a self-proclaimed, “old pirate and a cowboy,” explains: “A lot of corporate team building is done in a room. But that’s like sitting in a classroom to learn to dance. We watch movies of other people dancing, we talk about dancing, we have guest speakers come and inspire us to want to dance, but we never get up and dance! You can study the footprint diagrams all you want, but…. What we do here is provide people with situations where they can practice the skills they want to learn.”

    Among those skills, he continues, are consensus building and conflict resolution. Divided into groups of about 10, each with a dedicated facilitator to oversee and moderate the day’s activities, participants are then presented with a series of “simple and elegant challenges.” And while the course is outdoors (with sweeping views of Pt. Reyes and the Farallon Islands) and many ropes, nets, ladders and pulleys are involved, the solutions are actually more about critical thinking and teamwork than physical prowess.

    “We’re most interested in getting the group involved in a process of gathering information, making decisions and trying things until solutions are reached. It’s all about paying attention and noticing the details,” says Springer.

    “From kindergarten through college, we’ve had about 4,607 tests, quizzes and exams, and the one constant has been that there’s been a right and a wrong answer—and we stop when we find the right answer. Here, there are multiple right answers, so you have to decide which is the best answer for your team. Twenty years later, I still have a ball out here, because every once in a while, I see a new solution.

    “We’re all about ‘Challenge by Choice,’” he continues. “We ask, ‘How many people, by a show of hands, agreed to climb trees when they signed on with XYZ company?’ No one. So it’s fine if you don’t want to climb…but will you hold the rope that lets other people climb? Now they’re still contributing and participating —they’re actively engaged in the ultimate success of their team—but at their own level of comfort.”

    Throughout the day, Springer says, coworkers interact with each other in a creative, problem-solving and challenging environment. And as a result, even people who’ve worked together for 10 years end up discovering all kinds of new things about each other. “No two people will have an identical experience,” he says, “but it’s about learning how they’re different as much as it is about learning how they’re alike.”

Enhance teamwork
    What group of professionals knows more about—probably thinks more about—the importance of teamwork than any other? Athletes and coaches.

    Tom Mitchell is a former Santa Rosa Junior College basketball coach who, among other pursuits, is also team psychologist for the Golden State Warriors. Over the years, he’s worked with the team’s management, players and a succession of coaches to enhance cohesion. Mitchell is also a business coach, who’s worked with many high-level executives and teams to improve performance. About six years ago, Warriors General Manager (and former star player) Chris Mullin introduced Mitchell to Joe Montana, who after retiring from football, had become an in-demand motivational speaker.

    In 2004, Mitchell and Montana teamed with marketing and publishing executive Hilleary Hoskinson (whom Mitchell had coached when Hoskinson was part of to form the MVP Performance Institute. Based in the North Bay, MVP conducts full- and half-day onsite workshops and hosts offsite performance camps at select venues in the region (Vintner’s Inn, Meadowood and Madrona Manor have all hosted).

    “One of the first questions we ask our clients is, ‘How important is teamwork?’” says Mitchell. “In most cases, there’s an agreement that strong teamwork is essential. But when asked how much time they invest in team building, most companies admit they don’t spend much at all.

    “Sports teams never stop team building,” he continues. “They’re at it all the time, both formally and informally. They practice the fundamentals, review tapes, keep score; in many cases, they also live, eat and travel together.”

    If businesses could approach team building with the same dedication as professional athletes, even without the 24/7 time commitment, just think about what could be accomplished. A 2005 Wall Street Journal article cites research by Santa Clara University assistant professor Shawn Berman, who analyzed 14 years of NBA results and found that teams that had played together longer won more games—and that the statistics held even for less successful teams that had been together for a long time, which won more often than they statistically should have.

    “Team building doesn’t have to be formal, but it should be planned,” says Mitchell. “It should have agreed-upon objectives from the outset. As part of our preparation, we’ll interview participants individually to find out what the concerns are for the group. Once we know what the biggest challenges are—work/life balance, improving communication and resolving environments of hidden agendas or silence are common—then we have a collection of exercises and discussions we can use to address those issues. To really be successful, we need to know where the team is and where it wants to go.”

    MVP is frequently called in to facilitate situations where multiple groups (say, a development company, architectural firm and construction company) have to work together to complete a project. And while a motivational speech from the man many consider the best quarterback ever to play the game can certainly get the adrenaline pumping, it usually takes more than that to instill long-lasting change.

    “When three or four companies have to learn to work together and improve communication, we start to focus on executive coaching and enhancing performance. The ropes course is a great place for us to take teamwork to another level,” says Mitchell, who estimates he’s sent more than 50 groups to Four Winds in the last 15 years.

    It’s all part of finding “the heart of the team” and then building it into a positive company characteristic.

Reward participants
    Successful team building exercises are designed to motivate participants to pool their talents and perform at their best, both individually and as team members. With luck, they’ll discover diversity can be an asset and that trust, cooperation and communication are the keys to success. One of the catchphrases on the MVP website reads: “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team,’ but there is an ‘I’ in ‘win.’”

    “Every team builder has a favorite model on which they build their program,” says Springer. “For me, it’s built around a question: ‘What’s the universe made of?’ My answer is, ‘The universe is made of stories.’

    “There’s no such thing as a team or a community of people that doesn’t know each others’ stories. So if it’s in the telling of our stories that we connect ourselves, then stories are valuable in a corporate environment or in any kind of organization. It’s our job to create a safe environment where people can—maybe even playfully and with some enthusiasm—come and tell their stories.

    “Stories are a powerful means of teaching. If you want somebody to remember something, tell it to them as a story. Participating in a program like [Four Winds] provides participants with a powerful shared story.”

    Hey, NorthBay biz: Remember when the giraffe licked Anne’s shoes? …good times.



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