Team Management Systems

Games: How to maximize their impact and get it right on the day

By Dick McCann
Copyright © Dick McCann. All rights reserved.

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Games and activities can sometimes be a divisive factor among facilitators. There are the great enthusiasts who liberally pepper their workshops with loads of activities and games, and the more conservative who choose carefully, looking for experiences not far from those back at work. Some feel that while energizers and icebreakers add energy and possibly laughter to a session or workshop, there is little value or learning to be taken away. Others agree that large-scale outdoor activities can often provide bonding and excitement through the challenge but complain that this doesn't always last or transfer to the real world when the teams return to the workplace. Some like the provocative approach where envelopes need to be pushed, boundaries tested and challenges posed to enable ‘true change’. Others just enjoy the movement and variation that a game can bring to a learning session and rely on ‘second attention’ learning where the experience is locked into the unconscious, ready to emerge at a later stage.

So how do you ensure that the games and activities you use build engagement and learning in both the workshop and the workplace? Here are a few tips:

  1. Select the activity carefully

    Ask yourself what’s the point of the game or activity. Keep in mind, ‘Just because you can doesn't mean you should.’ Ice-breakers are obvious; Energizers are there to wake people up and get them moving; but anything longer than 10 minutes needs to have a learning/debrief point. Try to look for games/activities that reinforce the learning points of your intervention and, importantly, provide a common language and non-confrontational way of learning.

  2. Know your participants

    Who are your participants? What’s the gender balance? Is the activity suitable for men and women? (It’s amazing how many games are designed by men for men!). What’s the culture of the organization participants work for? Any other cultural or religious issues? Consider all these points when choosing the game or activity.

    What about learning styles or work preferences? Some people learn best by watching and reflecting; others learn best by talking and doing. So cater for both groups in your design. It’s probably best to have equal amounts of ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted’ time.

  3. Process is the key

    The process must be simple and easy to understand. Consider how you group people and form sub-teams to maximize the learning points. Every step of the game/activity should engage people and have relevance to learning – even if it’s at the unconscious or second attention level. Do you need to adapt the activity to your organizational client to give an extra layer of relevance? Real organizational issues rather than hypothetical scenarios are always better.

  4. Set clear ground rules

    Ground rules for the game/activity are important; more rules may be required where the risk of destructive confrontation is high; less where the risk is low. Beware of any occupational health and safety issues.

  5. Always debrief

    Ensure there is a 'take-away' - most games and activities need a 'next step' to be meaningful. Always debrief/reinforce the learning and tie it back to the workshop and the content that is being covered. Learning journals are an invaluable resource – use them and make time for people to record their ‘aha’ moments and share them with others.

  6. Resources and materials

    Make use of color and design in your resources and materials. Boards are a useful device on which to center the discussion but they should contain a colorful graphic and create an air of expectation in participants. Card sorts are a valuable way to release the sense of fun and participation that most of us have experienced in the past. But make sure the cards look professional and enticing.

My favorites

Most of us have a few favorite games or activities that we tend to use regularly. Here are a few of mine1.

  • Icebreakers put participants into the right frame of mind for learning and help them feel relaxed with one another. I often use Clusters - an activity that’s good for large workshops. Participants meet in various clusters for a few minutes and when the music stops they form the next cluster. Cluster combinations increase in size from pairs to sixes and topics change with each grouping. Birds of a Feather combines introductions with learning that diversity can be good for a team. People naturally want to form groups with common characteristics; this icebreaker is a jolt that illustrates how diverse groups have access to more resources and can provide a greater variety of solutions.

  • I use energizers a lot at various points in a workshop to invigorate participants when they become sluggish, or as ‘attention switchers’. My favorites are Imaginary Bodies, Silly Walkathon and Dance Designs. The latter uses popular dance crazes of the past introduced initially as warm-up exercises. For example, you might ask them to stretch their arms wide above their head (making a ‘Y’ pattern). Similar stretches are done following various letters until they are done in the order Y,M,C,A. At this point you hit the Village People button on your iPod system!

  • Challenging the group with a broad range of 'puzzlers' - from word games, to mathematical and fantasy scenarios - is another relevant set of activities. Some particular favorites are Who is the Captain?, Nails, Color Blind and Cash Game: Change management. Nails requires groups to work out a way of balancing 12 nails on the head of the 13th nail. In Color Blind blindfolded participants work as a team to determine which of 3 colored shapes are missing from a set of 30 pieces.

  • I’ve used outdoor games for many years and some of my favorites are Minefield, Sheep Dog Trials, Time Capsule and Holy Tubes, Batman!. Sheep Dog Trials requires a team of 4-6 people to negotiate an obstacle course while blindfolded and shackled one behind the other in a line (they are the sheep). Another team member stands inside a circle and directs them through the obstacles to the final ‘sheep pen’ – just like the famous sheep dog trials of the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the USA. Holy Tubes, Batman! challenges participants to rescue a Ping-Pong ball from its predicament using water, buckets and themselves.

  • Competitive games on an inter-team level that require each team to hone their teamwork skills if they are to be successful ('team games') are a great addition to a workshop. Paper Plates, A Bridge Too Far, Bottle Tower, and Frenzy are all examples of team activities that require planning and coordinated execution by the team to achieve the outcome in a specified time. They are great for learning about teamwork. Paper Plates is a puzzler game where teams compete to sequentially touch 60 paper plates arranged on the floor. The fastest team is the winner. It’s designed to encourage teamwork and show the importance of thinking ‘outside the box’. Frenzy is a 3-stage physical activity designed to show that cooperation for the benefit of the organization rather than competition between teams can lead to better results.

  • While competitive group games work well within teambuilding workshops, I also like to run 'group games' – non-competitive activities that involve all participants working in groups or sub-groups. Here they learn from and with each other as they carry out structured tasks. Some of my favorites here are Bright, Blurry, Blind, Innovation Battle, Fun with Snowballs, and Alphabet Review. Bright, Blurry, Blind uses metaphor cards to bring out organizational issues or topics that are either bright (common knowledge), blurry (known but rarely talked about), or blind (not known, lacking, or purposely hidden). Alphabet Review assigns discussion topics relevant to the workshop to each letter of the alphabet.

  • As coauthor and developer of Team Management Systems (TMS), games that highlight TMS concepts in a fun and interactive way are also high on my favorites list. One of the best is Projectivity™: Performance review and future planning which uses a set of 36 cards related to the Types of Work Wheel in a 7-step process that reviews teamwork and develops action plans for improvement. Another popular activity is Team Values and Ground Rules which uses a card-sort activity around the Window on Work Values to generate shared values that can become ground rules for the way the team works. I also like the activities I wrote specifically for the QO2™ modelsCreative Visualization, Image-ination and Your Personal Movie, which use Ericksonian processes to encourage innovation and creativity.

Games allow us to learn, make mistakes, and change our way of viewing the world and interacting with colleagues, generally in a safe environment. One of the hardest things to learn is how to combine individual needs with the collective needs of the team, leading to improved personal, team and organizational performance. Carefully constructed games and activities aid this process. But remember to select the activity carefully, know your participants, set clear ground rules, debrief well, consider your resources and materials and, above all, establish a caring environment where ‘process’ is king.


Games TMS People Play

1 All the games I mention in this article are from the new resource Games TMS People Play.

Copyright © Dick McCann. All rights reserved.

With a background in science, engineering, finance and organizational behavior, Dick McCann has consulted widely for organizations such as BP, Hewlett Packard and Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. He is coauthor of Team Management: Practical New Approaches with Charles Margerison; author of How to Influence Others at Work, the TMS E-Book Series and The Workplace Wizard: The Definitive Guide to Working with Others; and coauthor with Jan Stewart of Aesop's Management Fables and The Half-Empty Chalice. Dick is coauthor and developer of the Team Management Systems concepts and products and also author of the QO2™ Profile, Window on Work Values Profile and the Strategic Team Development Profile. Involved in TMS operations worldwide for over 25 years, Dick is now Managing Director of TMS Australia and a Director of TMS Development International.

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