What would you think if your boss told you that the team was going out into the middle of nowhere for a team building event and to be sure to dress warmly? What would you expect? During the first three weeks of my new job, I had the privilege to participate in what turned out to be one of the best team building experiences.
Outside of a couple of people on the leadership team, no one knew what the event would be even though we all knew we would be spending time outdoors in mid-December, middle-of-nowhere Quebec. After a short presentation on Tuckman’s stages of group development, we found out that we would receive some basic training on civilian search-and-rescue essentials, test what we learned and then do a search-and-rescue simulation in the woods around the mountain behind the lodge. Even though we all chose different roles than those we usually have (i.e. the usual leaders were not in leadership roles), the result was still search-and-rescue done in the same style we do game development. In short, we ran off and found the “victims” with minimal preparation, operating on the edge of complete chaos and communication breakdown, yet we somehow accomplished the goal and in record time.
The exercise was frustrating at times, but it was still one of the best team building exercises I have ever attended. It did an excellent job of holding up the mirror for all of us to reflect on our roles on the team. Key things I learned out of the experience were:
- Don’t taking testing your tools for granted. After doing the training on how to use a compass, I decided to switch to a warmer office job. One of the guys trained on the mapping software handed me a walkie-talkie and told me I would be communications. That was it. At the start of the test, the team ran off without testing the walkie-talkies to make sure we knew how to use them and that they worked. Of course the walkie-talkies didn’t work and we completely lost all communications with our teams.
- Leadership needs time to think… and plan. Because the team was anxious to run off and start the test and the final simulation, the leaders were constantly rushed in their planning. As a result, we only had a rough plan to find the victims. We had not thought through any what-ifs, so when things started changing, those of us in base camp were slow to respond. Instead of letting the team push us into letting them run off, we should have involved them more in the planning. This leads into the next learning…
- Make sure everyone is focused on the real goal. In the rush to do the simulation, everyone was focused on finding the victims. However, that was only the first goal. Once we found them, we had to get them off the mountain. We had no plan for that. So, as soon as the first victim was found, chaos ensued. In addition to thinking through what-if’s, we should have had a plan for the real goal and aligned everyone to it.
- Take the time to align everyone. During the compass training, one guy joined the group after we started the training. Rather than stopping and starting over, we tried to quickly catch him up. As a result, he wound up being literally turned around. We had a similar situation later in the day. Our mapping expert was involved in the search planning and missed out when the rest of the team was establishing communication norms. Within the first 5 minutes of the simulation, he violated every single one of our communication norms. I should have spent a few minutes to align him to the norms.
- Communication, communication, communication. In addition to the walkie-talkies not working, we had communication troubles throughout the entire exercise. At base camp, we had no clear picture of where all the teams were or their status. We should have spent A LOT more time establishing our communication practices at all levels.
Search and rescue professionals constantly train so that they automatically know what to do when confronted with a variety of situations. Likewise, we all should make sure our teams take the time to think through the what-ifs, plan for them and establish communication norms.