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  • George smart

    Teambuilding For Bob (2012)

    My favorite business article of all time is by Steven Kerr. In 1975 he wrote a short, powerful piece entitled “On the Folly of Rewarding A while Hoping for B. Google it!  Kerr succinctly captured one of corporate America’s most annoying and expensive behaviors – the continued avoidance of addressing uncomfortable issues by rewarding different or generalized behavior – all the while hoping the original problem gets fixed.

    As Michael Crawford commented 20 years later, “Kerr’s central point is that we can expect people to rationally do (or pretend to do) the things that are rewarded rather than the things we say they should do. As has been said, “Put your money on self-interest. At least you know the jockey is trying.”

    A few times each year, I get invited to do corporate teambuilding. Their 5th-level admin has a list of consultants, no budget figures, and no real agenda. The mandate from the admin’s boss is, basically, “call these people and see how much they charge for a day of teambuilding.”

    From here the story is pretty much the same, just the names change. After much beating around the bush, the person will confess quietly that the real reason for this request is Bob, whose incompetence is destroying teamwork and setting people against each other. The boss is uncomfortable or unsuccessful or unwilling to address the issues with Bob, so the boss decides to drag the other 30 poor souls out for a day of teambuilding – and hopes maybe Bob will get the message. When I figure this out, and suggest the problem lies outside of Bob, the caller gets uncomfortable, won’t let me speak with the boss, and calls the next consultant on the list. Thank God. At least I dodged the bullet of a badly conceived intervention. Those 30 people won’t be so lucky. And Bob, bless his little dysfunctional heart, will get a lovely catered day off from work.

    It’s clear this is not a team issue. Teambuilding is totally the wrong solution. This is a personnel issue that is not being appropriately handled by the boss. Bob isn’t going to change one bit because of this day, even if I trot out the best teambuilding exercises. All the company has for its money and 240+ hours of labor time is slightly more pissed group people who missed a day of real work.

    The Tipping Point simulation, which my company has used with clients for about a decade, is refreshingly on point and still to this day remarkably innovative. It teaches people to think about outcomes before they go down some silly fork in the road hoping for unrealistic change. By knowing how you’ll get the desired idea – any idea – to stick, companies improve the problem definition to match the fix and get much more focused and relevant. Those who experience The Tipping Point’s insights into starting and sustaining relevant change learn that most knee-jerk attempts like Teambuilding for Bob are expensive, time-consuming, and doomed from inception.

    Research Triangle Park, North Carolina USA