Over twenty years ago, and before learning many of the techniques in The Secrets of Facilitation, I was called in to facilitate an international team of 20 who had come together to develop a strategic information systems plan.

The Session

The international team included representatives from three companies in a joint venture proposing to become the second telecommunications carrier in a foreign country. The joint venture was competing against two other teams who were vying for this country’s business. In 90 days, the country expected to announce the winner. Once the contract was awarded, the winner would be obligated to have wireless service up and running within six months.

This tight time frame for offering services to the public meant that all operational decisions for the organization would have to be made in advance so that the six months could be spent implementing those decisions and not deciding what the decisions would be. Therefore, the information systems team had a limited window to identify all the computer systems that the entire operation would need and to create a plan for implementation, in case the consortium was awarded the contract. This was going to take a Herculean effort, to say the least.

With any new team coming together, a team briefing is needed to get all members of the team clear on the five Ps: the purpose of the project, the product to be produced, the participants that will be involved, the probable issues to be faced, and the process that will be used. The actual briefing lasted two days.

The Mistake

Late in the afternoon of the second day, I noticed the energy in the room falling sharply. As the facilitator, I selected a team building activity to raise the energy in the room. The activity I chose had nothing to do with the work we were doing and the results of the activity in no way contributed to the work product. Nor did I hold a debrief following the exercise to try to explain how the activity related to our overall purpose, which of course it didn’t.

After the activity, the project sponsor pulled me aside and said, “Let’s not do anything like that ever again.” I learned an important lesson that day about team building exercises.

The Takeaways

My big learnings from this activity:

  1. Prior to doing any engagement exercise, you as the facilitator should be clear on the purpose.
  2. Ensure that you select an exercise that is appropriate for the purpose and ties directly to the work of the session.
  3. Once the activity is complete, take several minutes for a debriefing session to help team members understand how the activity applies to the work of the team.

Had I done these things in this instance, I would likely have avoided the significant backlash that resulted!


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