June 2013

Technology is changing the essence of today's team-building programs

by Paul D. Kretkowski

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The rise of smart phones and tablets is changing some key premises of team building as planners have known it for decades. These devices, especially iPhones and iPads with their camera, display, GPS and gaming capabilities, are laying the groundwork for team-building challenges that are not only more immersive and fun than their predecessors, but also able to harvest attendee data.

Best TeamBuilding spent three years developing and trademarking its SmartHunts app for iPads, which enables several types of team-building exercises across a resort, a city or even a continent. The Dunedin, Fla.-based company now offers 20 team-building games that add and blend Web searches, video filming and playback, live actors, and GPS with the quizzes, contests and physical challenges found in conventional team-building programs.

Teams on SmartHunts receive a flow of clues, maps, quizzes and other information; meanwhile, their data and any video they shoot are uploaded on the fly. By the time they return to the starting point, the company has produced standings and assembled a rough cut of teams’ photos and video for all participants to see. (A professionally polished eight-minute version is sent out two days later.)

Mark Gilicinski, cofounder of Columbus, Ohio-based Mobile Xpeditions, which also creates high-tech team-building challenges, says the economic advantages of this approach over pen-and-paper versions are undeniable.

“Some of the best activities are highly creative and [team participants] interact with humans, whether it’s with actors or facilitators,” Gilicinski says. “But that’s really expensive; if you have 500 people divided into some number of teams, there’s a huge cost to facilitate that. The technology [helps] deliver that experience and customization in a more economical way.”

If a team is scheduled to interact with an actor, the app knows its location and whether the actor is already occupied with a second team—so it can then divert the first team toward a new task. Similarly, struggling teams can be fed a helpful clue. But the biggest difference is literally a matter of scale. Because SmartHunts’ iPads can be linked to Wi-Fi and high-bandwidth videoconferencing, team building can take place simultaneously across large geographic areas, Best TeamBuilding CEO Scott Flynn says.

“We just did a program for Exxon where half their group was in Calgary and the other half in New Orleans. They did a hunt together in two countries in two time zones!”

The app also simplifies the tracking of who has learned what, and where a group’s skills are strong or weak.

“[One company] wanted to ascertain how up people were on the company’s technology. So in the course of that trip, [attendees] had to answer 80 questions, then we compiled the statistics on that and gave it to the company,” Flynn says. “So it’s the serious side of play, presented in a manner where the participant doesn’t recognize something serious is going on.”

High-tech team building has started to change when organizers hold such a program, Flynn notes.

“Usually they [would] call us in for the third day of a three-day event; we’ve always thought this was crazy,” he explains. “[Attendees] don’t discover the hotel until the third day—’oh, there’s a pool!’—and they don’t meet anybody.

“So we invented the SmartHunt to open the meeting: Do a meet-and-greet, explain the program, break up the group, then tour the venue and the surrounding area,” Flynn continues. “Within two hours [attendees] have met all these people, they know what’s at the hotel and the surrounding area, and they can interact with all the people they met.”

Let’s Get Physical
High-tech applies to the physical world as well as the digital, says Ian Fraser, cofounder of San Francisco-based The Go Game.

“One of our games centers around an art heist,” Fraser explains. “You’re recruited into sort of an Ocean’s Eleven gang that’s going to steal art. One key feature is we’ve created a laser maze that’s illuminated with a fog machine; it’s portable and you can set it up in any hotel conference room.”

Teams cycle through this maze throughout the game, Fraser says, and if they need an additional tool that helps navigate it, a nearby security guard may just happen to be eating “powdered” donuts, whose floury coating can also provide a fog-like medium that reveals the lasers’ locations. High-tech team building also records teams’ inventiveness as they solve challenges specifically designed to elicit creativity.

“And at the end of the game people get to try it over and over, and there’s Sally from Accounting edging under the laser because she’s the only one who can get under it,” Fraser says.

The Go Game also arranges for actors throughout the city or venue to spring up in unlikely places and guises, leading teams to wonder who’s an actor and who’s just a bystander.

“Once people know actors are out there, everyone becomes a potential collaborator or saboteur,” Fraser says. “After the game, they’ll ask each other, ‘How did you coordinate that with the woman with the baby carriage and the UPS driver?’ And [the other team] didn’t? But the lady at the bar with the tattoo was in on it and gave them a clue.”

Wireless-enabled devices allow Go Games to also slip inter-team challenges into an exercise. When teams bump into each other on the street, they can challenge each other head to head—without knowing the challenge in advance, Fraser says.

“It could be silly, like a dance-off with no music, or who can type fastest on their phone, or who can compliment each other the most until someone stumbles,” he remarks. “And this is great for when a goal is to foster networking.”

Fraser says Go Games can engage anywhere from 500-10,000 people for one to three days. In these cases, you want to give away a modest prize but not an amazing one, Fraser says, because cutthroat competition means the whole game “turns into this horrible competitive thing.”

Digital devices may also give clients a chance to harness attendees’ combined creativity directly while their energy level and focus are high. In one recent case, The Go Game produced a two-and-a-half-day event for Hewlett-Packard where part of the challenge was to use smart devices to create a new commercial for the company.

“It was just hysterically funny stuff; a panel picked the top 10 and [attendees] judged them and it was just great,” Fraser says. “The technology always goes hand in hand with the effort people put into it.”

 

Paul D. Kretkowski’s iPhone often sends him and his hand-picked team on secret missions.

 


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