Our top ten team building exercises

You have recruited the individual members of your team. You have set your goal. You have developed a plan and a timeline. Now the trick is to get all those unique individuals working together toward the same goal. Given the varied personalities, communication skills, and personal agendas that individual members bring to the team, getting your team to work cooperatively can be challenging.

In the most productive teams, members individually and cooperatively focus on achieving the team goal. Members understand the interdependent nature of the team: that their individual work depends on and affects the quality of each other’s work and, ultimately, the team’s ability to achieve its goal. Members respect, appreciate, and acknowledge each person’s unique contribution to team efforts, but place the greatest emphasis on the cooperative achievement of the team’s goal.

Experiential team building was all the rage not too long ago. The team would travel off-site for a “fun” day of ropes games and unusual problem solving, usually at an outdoor educational center. Unfortunately, too often there was little follow-through and the lessons learned never made it back to the workplace. Today, the emphasis has shifted to internal team-building exercises that can be done at the beginning of a meeting.

Follow these key steps to plan a productive team building exercise:

  1. Keep it simple. It should be quick and easy to set up in a typical meeting room.
  2. It doesn’t need to be expensive. You can go a long way with basic office supplies or a few items from your kitchen pantry.
  3. The exercise should be outfitted in normal office attire or team members should be instructed in advance to dress appropriately.
  4. People have a hard time relating to large groups, so divide the team into small units of 2-4-6 people. By breaking down barriers and building partnerships within these small groups, team members will be better able to relate to the larger team.
  5. Instructions should be easy to understand, especially for non-native English speakers in your group.
  6. Limited instructions can be part of the team building exercise. Force people to realize what make gold What doing something helps team members identify abilities and skills in themselves and their peers that can help them define their roles in the team: leader, facilitator, problem solver, communicator, etc.
  7. The exercise must engage all members quickly.
  8. You must present a problem that has multiple solutions to allow for creativity, but can only be solved through collaboration and cooperative action.
  9. You can increase the difficulty level of any exercise by adding a complication like “don’t talk” or by speeding things up by asking “How can you make it faster?”
  10. At the end of the exercise, it is crucial that a facilitator, often the team leader, leads the team in reflecting on what happened, the decisions made, and how they interacted with each other. Team members should discuss what they would do differently next time. Reflection is essential to identify and reinforce learning.

Try these team building exercises to get your team started on the right foot.

  1. Scrambled puzzle. Before the team arrives, place a puzzle on each table. To manage the time element, use large piece kids puzzles of 100 pieces or so. Remove 5 pieces from each puzzle and move them to another table. As the team arrives, divide members among tables. Instruct teams to fully complete their puzzle, by whatever means, in the shortest time possible. As puzzles are completed and teams realize pieces are missing, they will be forced to negotiate with other teams to complete their puzzle. This exercise promotes flexibility, communication, negotiation and cooperation.
  2. creative assembly. Buy 3-D drilled wooden dinosaur puzzle kits. Divide the team into groups of 2-4. Without comments or instructions, give each group the undrilled puzzle pieces, one completed puzzle per group. Do not let the group see the boxes, pictures or instructions or in any way identify what you have given them. Instruct each group to put together their project, telling them that they can only use what is in front of them. You’ll get some interesting and creative builds, lots of laughs, and some good-natured frustration, especially with the winged dinosaur kits. When time is up, ask each group to describe their construction. In this exercise, creative thinking, brainstorming, problem solving, cooperation and consensus will certainly be exercised.
  3. Hand Light. Divide the team into groups of 4-6. Give each group 4 tennis balls. Tell them that each person must handle all 4 balls in the shortest time possible. Do this several times, each time asking, “How can you do it faster?” This drill will progress from the obvious passing of the balls along a line, around a circle, to some interesting ball drops and hand slides. Your team will practice cooperation, quick thinking, and creative problem solving in this exercise.
  4. Going up. Divide the team into groups of 2-6. Give each person an 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper and a 5″ strip of tape. Instruct each team to build the tallest freestanding structure possible. This exercise promotes cooperation, creative thinking, problem solving, consensus, leadership, and division of labor.
  5. dome of gnomes Divide the team into groups of 2. Give each group 20 gumdrops and 12 toothpicks. Ask each group to build a dome. Problem solving, creative thinking, cooperation (and possibly snacking) will be practiced during this exercise.
  6. Poisonous net. Stretch a piece of string through a door frame, secure it to the frame or connecting wall with tape. You will need two pieces of string, one 3 feet off the ground and the other 4 1/2 feet off the ground. He’s creating an 18-inch-wide “window” that he describes to the team as a “poisonous spider web.” The team must work together to get all members through the opening without touching the ropes. They must pass, not under or over the ropes. If a team member touches any of the strings, the entire team must go back to the beginning and try again. This exercise encourages cooperation, leadership, creativity, and problem solving. It also forces team members to trust and depend on each other.
  7. Hang Ups. Give each person a wire coat hanger. Tell the group that they can work individually or create their own groups. Instruct them to make something useful with their hanger. Set a time limit of 5 to 15 minutes. Ask each person/group to describe their “tool” and its use. This exercise will indicate which of your team members are natural leaders or born members of society, as well as which ones are more timid and may need to be pulled out when working with the group.
  8. In the image. This is another puzzle game. Divide the team into groups and give each one a puzzle from which one piece has already been removed. Each team will complete a puzzle with a missing piece. Ask each team what this represents in team terms. Your goal is to discover how important each individual is to the successful achievement of the team’s goal, but you may get some interesting answers about proper planning, supply officers, and quality control.
  9. All aboard. This is another physical game. Depending on the size of your team, lay a 1- to 3-foot square of cardboard on the floor, or mark a square with masking tape or tape. Draw numbers, one for each team member. In the order of the numbers drawn, the team members must stand on the square. As the number of people in the square increases, members will have to work together and be creative to get everyone involved. This exercise practices cooperation, problem solving, and leadership.
  10. Bridge the gap. Divide the group into teams of 2-4. Give each group a small ball of playdough and 12 toothpicks. Instruct them to build the longest cantilever bridge they can. Award points for speed of construction, length of the bridge, ability to stand without tipping over, and ability to hold weight (to measure this, stack quarters until the bridge tips over or breaks). Team members will practice creativity, problem solving, consensus (and manual dexterity).

To be successful, teamwork must be more than a method of dividing up work to get work done. Teamwork must adopt a cooperative attitude of mutual respect, shared responsibility and open communication. Teamwork recognizes each team member’s individual contribution to the team in the context of the interdependence of those efforts in the cooperative pursuit of the team’s goal.