Organizations take valuable time out of important face to face retreats to engage in what many organizations refer to as “team building”.  Buyer beware much of what you are seeing is “team building junk food”.  It may fill the need to do something together, but the nutritional value to the individual and team is relatively low.  Worse, just as in the true nature of junk food, these experiences can have a damaging effect on teams and the experience. 

As a learning professional For 25+ years, at executive retreats from new-hire orientation programs to senior team development at some of the Fortune 100 companies around the world, I feel it is important to the integrity of the development industry to help buyers understand the team building junk food craze.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of simply getting together outside of the usual work environment to have a shared experience and some good old-fashioned fun together.  Great retreats in Colorado, like the rest of the west, have amazing venues for retreats with endless options for stimulating activities.  Giving your participants a more robust taste of the local environment, like a raft experience, rock climbing, or hiking together is a great way to create a lasting memory.  Let’s just be careful what we label it.

These outdoor experiences, like the many themed parties, scavenger hunts and competitive games, all too often are sold to meeting planners and clients as a “team building” event. These businesses have become savvy to billing this as a “team building” to make the buyer feel as though they are not simply splurging on “fun”.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot of healthy development being done. The low nutritional value starts with lack of aligning the event design to learning objectives and it ends with the missing ingredient of skilled facilitation. 

The Hidden Truth: Many “team building” events originated as simply an activity or game with guides or instructors who lack corporate facilitation experience.   As a result, very little pre-meeting design thinking or purposeful learning objectives are imbedded.  The event becomes riddled with inauthentic observations, objectives which contradict company values, and hap-hazard debrief questions.  In the end, this lack of development experience detracts from the overall enjoyment of the experience, and leaves the participant with nothing nutritional on a personal, or team level.  In some cases, these events can support or reinforce behaviors the organization is trying to avoid.   

Defining Success: Talk to any mid-level or senior leader about the most impactful retreat they have attended and they will point to key aspects of an event where they learned and retained something behaviorally about how they personally, as an individual, or as part of a team, could be better.  They will talk about how it was seamlessly aligned with company values and mirrored how they work in the real world. They refer to an experience, or project in which they themselves had a stake in the success or failure in front of peers or superiors.   As you dig deeper you will hear them discuss how they received valuable feedback from peers, mentors, executive coaches, or skilled facilitators. Most of what is being sold to you as “team building” is void of any of these key learning aspects reported from successful retreats.    

Warning Signs: Team building junk food is usually pretty easy to spot.  Look closely at the website and materials provided.  In the pictures, you will typically spot colored team shirts, hats, vests, or bandannas as ways to separate teams.  This is a sure sign of competition, pitting one part of your organization against another.  Competition is not necessarily a bad thing, but internally focused competition should not be the core methodology when trying to build a team.  Another common warning sign of lack of a nutritional experience is the use of population inappropriate looking props.  Items such as Balloons, rubber chickens, giant inflatables, silly hats, and costumes simply get in the way of adult learning and can cause resentment. Professionals appreciate and value well spent time together. When they see the lack of seriousness in the environment, the messaging is “this is just for fun. it will not lead to anything effective”.

Leveraging Fun and Competition: Team building can be fun and effective; the fun must be purposeful fun and pointed at a larger learning objective.  The fun should come from participating in an interesting, professional looking challenge, and overcoming it. It should involve seeing measured improvement as a team, and feeling like you have a valuable role in the success of the team.  To professionals, this type of purposeful fun has a much higher value than asking them to dress up in costumes.  Competition can be leveraged in effective team building, after all, it drives humans to want to succeed. Competition in this context, should be directed toward a performance goal in which the entire organization is working together to beat an external challenge.  Competition and purposeful fun drives individual and organizational behaviors.  In either case, the key to truly nutritional team building is skillfully discussing and unpacking behaviors which show up that are aligned or contrary to the organizational values.    

Face to face time at executive retreats is highly valuable.  Getting the most of that time together is the goal of every learning & development professional and meeting planner.  You invested in the time, the travel, the facility, the décor, and the elaborate meals.  Follow through on that investment by giving your attendees a nutritious team development experience that is aligned to the company values, drives change, and has a lasting positive impact for both the induvial and the organization.   

Scott Miller is a senior partner and principal at Action Learning Associates (ALA), a Colorado based consulting firm with offices in California and Florida dedicated to helping organizations achieve competitive advantage through learner-centered educational programs that link team, organizational, and leadership development to business strategy. Visit for more information.