5 Team Building Exercises in 5 Core Competencies

The words “team building” often send people running for the hills, but team building is the most important investment a leader can make in their people. It increases collaboration, mitigates conflict, reduces communication barriers, and fosters an environment of trust.

Team building games help people engage because, after all, it’s just a game!  Plus, games have a way of breaking down barriers and generating creativity.  People need ways to express their creativity, and they need to be able to see the results of their creativity, receive feedback, and explore other ways of being in relationship with the team.  Most importantly, people need to be able to do this in an environment of safety where it’s OK to explore.

Effective team building games generate alignment, creativity, deepen connection, and a better understanding of communication or style differences. The more people get to know each other, the more effective they will be.

Here are 5 recommended team building exercises you can incorporate into your next planning session. We have included one for Effective Edge’s key areas of practice: productivity, communication, innovation, leadership, and engagement.

Productivity: Do the Math

Items Needed: Cards with numbers on them

Instructions: Create “tasks” that are assigned different values. For example, you might have “Climb a Mountain” and give it a value of 30, while, “Bathe the dog” has a value of 3. Give each member of your team three cards with the same number on them so that every team member has a set of numbers different from every other player. One person will have all 1’s, while another might have all 9’s. The goal is to accomplish the tasks in a set amount of time so that whoever is left will receive a prize based on the total value of the tasks completed.

However, in order to complete the task, they must get people together whose numbered cards add up to the value on the task. Once a card is used, it can’t be used again. And once a team member has used up all their cards, they are taken out of the game and out of the running for the prize.

Ideally, there are more tasks and values than can be fulfilled by the cards your team possesses. They must determine which tasks to do and which cards to use up. Ultimately, not every task can be completed, and not everyone can be a winner. The goal is to get the highest total task value (for the best prize) and work together to achieve it knowing that in order to do so, some will miss out.

Debrief: This exercise helps your team work together, better understand strategy, and get out of the mindset that everything is the highest priority. Hopefully, once the game is over you’ll see that everyone has some kind of prize or reward, but it is best to allow the team to not know that during game play.

Communication: Back-to-Back Drawing

Items Needed: Paper and Pens or Markers

Instructions: Split your group into pairs and have each pair sit back to back. One person thinks of a picture of a shape or simple image (like a sailboat or a cat), and the other gets a piece of paper and pen. The person thinking of the shape then gives verbal instructions to their partner on how to draw the shape or image, without simply telling them what the image is. After a pre-determined amount of time, have each set of partners compare their images and see which teams drew the most accurate replicas.

Debrief: This is an exercise that focuses on communication and language. While the final drawing may seldom look like the picture, it is revealing to participants how different the interpretation of instructions can be even when they are supposedly talking about the same thing. Participants can then keep the pictures in their offices to remind them that people communicate differently.

Innovation: Frostbite

Items Needed: Office supplies for building (thick card stock, rubber bands, sticky notes, stapler and staples, etc.), blindfolds, and a small electrical fan.

Instructions: Divide the team into groups of 4-5 people. Tell them they are Arctic explorers stuck in a frozen tundra and a storm is brewing. They must elect a team leader and then erect an emergency shelter to survive. However, each of the team leader’s hands have “frostbite,” so they can’t physically help construct the shelter, and the rest of the team has snow blindness and are unable to see. Blindfold all the members of the team, except for the leader. Give each team the same set of building materials and start the timer for 5 minutes. When the timer ends, turn on the electric fan’s “arctic winds” and see which team successfully built a shelter for survival.

Debrief: An excellent game especially for new leaders.  It requires the leader to communicate, strategize, and direct the other team members with authority.  The team members must listen and carry out the leader’s directions trusting themselves, their team and the leader.

Leadership: The Perfect Square

Items Needed: Blindfolds for each participant and a long rope

Instructions: Gather your team in a circle and have them sit down. Each team member should then put on a provided blindfold. Taking a long rope with its ends tied together, place the rope in each person’s hands so that they have a hold of it. Stand up from the circle with eyes still closed. Instruct them to form a square out of the rope without removing their blindfolds. Once the team believes they have formed a square, they can remove the blindfolds and see what they’ve accomplished. Throughout the game, randomly instruct a team member not to speak. One by one, members of the group are muted, making communication more challenging.

Debrief: This exercise deals with both communication and leadership styles. There will inevitably be team members who want to take charge, and others who want to receive direction. The team will have to work together to create the square, and find a way to communicate without being able to see. By introducing the muting, you also inject the question of trust. Since instructions can’t be vocally verified, the team member calling out instructions has to trust those who cannot talk to do as they are told.

Engagement: Organizational Jenga

Items Needed: Multiple Jenga games or sets of wooden blocks

Instructions: Using wooden blocks or an actual Jenga game, mark blocks according to the department names present in your organization. For example, you might have some blocks denoted as the IT department, and others as HR, and others as Operations, etc. The labeled blocks should also reflect the composition of your office (e.g. if 10% of your staff is in IT, so should 10% of the blocks).

Divide your team into groups, giving them an equal number and kind of blocks. From here, either specify the type of structure each team must build, or provide guidelines and allow them to build any structure they want. When the time limit has been reached, each team, taking turns, must begin to remove a block at a time without destroying their structure. Do not inform them ahead of time that you will be asking them to do this. If time allows, you may ask them to repeat the exercise. See if they find a way to build a structure that can withstand removal of blocks.

Debrief: This exercise is meant to show how each department and the various managers and staff positions are necessary to complete the task, and that without everyone in place, things fall apart. The Second round reveals what “blocks” the team sees as unnecessary as they conceive of a way to deconstruct their structure without destroying it.

Ensure your team building activities are connected to your bigger picture, that the exercises are planned and carried out strategically and can be tied back to your goals and mission. If the people are enjoying or being challenged by the experience, chances are the lessons will be integrated back into the workplace.

– Stephenie Rockwell, Program Manager, Effective Edge