Team Building and Recreation: Two Different Beasts

Far be it for us to stand in the way of fun, whatever the form, but we’ve noticed a trend lately: Some organizations are blurring the line between team building and recreation. Most corporate adventures pursued under the guise of team building sound ridiculously fun—excursions that include bungee jumping, paintball, GoKart racing, rock climbing and so on. And while we whole-heartedly approve of the spirit of these exploits, there is a key distinction between recreation and team building.

If it helps, think of the difference between flowers and trees: Both are plants, but only one provides shade. Similarly, recreation and team building are both fun, but only one offers challenges specifically designed to help teams work together toward a common goal.

Toward that end, team-building activities usually include elements that combine problem solving, delegation and communication. The same cannot be said for skydiving, white water rafting or heliskiing, where a hired guide makes all of the important decisions (thankfully). Granted, team building sometimes includes recreational activities (some trees also bloom, right?), but the two are fundamentally different.

Don’t get us wrong: We endorse play in most any fashion. Recreating with colleagues is an opportunity to drop the work façade and get to know people better, even if it’s just for a round of golf after work. If a company can afford extracurricular recreational pursuits, it’s a grand idea. Recreation recharges the batteries—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our only suggestion is to allocate funds toward team building separately from recreation.

If you want to identify the goals and approach team building strategically, here are 10 suggestions to help make the magic happen.

Tips for Event Planners: What Nobody Else Told You

Planning a successful group event entails marrying magic with pragmatism and shepherding chaos into calm. It’s not easy and, consequently, some events go more smoothly than others. After 10 years of experience as expert event planners, we have a unique perspective and know what works. We compiled this list to help eliminate the most common mistakes event planners make.

Vetting
Do your homework. Regardless of whether you need caterers, entertainers or team-building specialists, vet each vendor carefully.
The time you spend up front will save you anguish later. Read online reviews and contact at least one other company who has worked with the vendor directly to inquire about their performance.

Communication
Be sure you understand each vendor’s offerings and that your expectations are aligned before signing a contract.

Trust
Now comes the easy part: Let it go. If you hired a guy to make BBQ for 350 people, he knows what to do and what he needs. If you’ve done your homework well, you can trust that your vendors are experts in their crafts.

Promotion
Promote the upcoming event internally, and consider these tips. (Note that 3-5 are specific to team-building events.)

  1. Top Down Buy In: If leaders in the organization don’t take it seriously, then others won’t.
  2. The Hype Machine: Tease it out ahead of time, but remember that a little mystery goes a long way. Share enough to create intrigue, but don’t give away every juicy detail of what’s to come.
  3. Costumes are Good: Designate colors or themes for each team. Will Team Purple triumph over Team Green?
  4. Pre-Game Competition: Pump up the natural competiveness of certain people or departments. Would anyone care to make a small wager on the marketing department?
  5. Prizes: If you feel compelled to gather a few prizes, go for it. Gift certificates are good, but keep the value small. If a prize is too big, it becomes the focus and dampens the fun. A $15 or $20 voucher at a local coffee house, sock store or novelty shop is perfect.

Logistics
The Golden Rule of event planning is that everything takes longer than you think. Toward that end:

  1. Build extra time into the schedule, and keep the timeline loose. Expect to start a little late, and remember that it’s always better to end sooner than people expect than to ask them to remain longer than expected.
  2. Recognize that transportation is a bottleneck, so keep travel distances as short as possible. Once you get people to a site, try to organize everything around that location, as opposed to multiple places.
  3. Allow for free time for play or socializing between events.
  4. If people are hungry or uncomfortable, they don’t have fun. Provide water, food and, if it’s an outdoor event, sunscreen.
  5. It’s easier to cut something than it is to spontaneously fill time. Create a best-case scenario (if all goes according to schedule) and a worst-case scenario (what to cut and change if something goes amiss).

Final Tip
Be sure to acknowledge all of the other people who help organize the event. Appreciation is one of the keys to building and maintaining long-lasting relationships of any kind.

Case Study: Wells Fargo Team Takes a Breath Together

The key to a successful corporate reorganization consists of two elements in equal parts: seamless implementation and team member support of the initiative. Without the latter, a company risks investing time, energy and resources into a process that may not be adopted smoothly.

So after an ambitious reorganization effort to centralize its marketing operations, Wells Fargo recognized that each team within its marketing department needed an offsite to learn about moving forward and to help team members coalesce and rally around the new marketing organization.

With 21 employees scattered throughout multiple states—from California to North Carolina—the leaders from Wells Fargo Integrated Brand Marketing team saw the offsite as an opportunity to bring everyone together to cover both procedural changes (i.e. how new campaigns would run) and unite as a team. In particular, the organizers wanted a team-building activity that focused on mindfulness.

Larissa Acosta, segment marketing leader and one of the organizers, suggested the Slow Game as a way to close the event. But Acosta, who is new to her team, didn’t mention mindfulness to the group. Instead, she leveraged their curiosity to maintain momentum into the afternoon of the offsite’s second day. And after a morning of laborious workshops, the Slow Game began.

Acosta said, “Once we got through opening exercises, it was clear to me that it was going to work. From the way people were responding to the warm-up exercises, I knew they were having fun.”

The opportunity to set aside work for a few hours revealed new insights about everyone. “Being engaged in something that has nothing to do with your job and is focused on connection with the missions and the people on the team—that’s priceless,” explained Acosta. She recalled, “People talked a lot about the opportunity to get to know everyone better because we don’t all work together. There were some surprises as far as how some people responded to the missions, and new personality traits came to light.”

Afterward, the feedback was that it was refreshing to be outside and fun to do a team-building activity that was fresh, creative and unexpected. With mindfulness, the concept of the “beginners mind”—experiencing events as if for the first time—was especially welcome because of its rarity in finance where world experience is so highly valued.

We asked Acosta if she thought this exposure to mindfulness would have a long-term impact on her team, and she pointed out, “You just need to open the door for people, as far as what else is out there in how we perceive the world, perceive our day to day and the people you interact with. As long as you crack open that door and people have exposure to what is possible, the seeds will grow over time.”

Team Building: Where Everyone is the Beloved Underdog

During this year’s suspense-filled World Series, many people experienced the joy of cheering for a team who, seemingly against the odds, might win. This phenomenon is called “the underdog effect,” and psychologists have documented it, running tests where people overwhelmingly choose to support the team least likely to win.

Theories abound, both scientific and anecdotal, as to why this fascination with the underdog prevails. One theory is that spectators like games that aren’t lopsided, so they root for the loosing team in hopes of seeing the score balance and suspense build. (No matter if you’re a Cubs or Indians fan, weren’t you just a tiny bit thrilled to see the World Series go to the seventh game with extra innings?) Plus, because there’s little at stake with a team prescribed to lose, a win feels all the more triumphant. And a loss? Meh. It was to be expected.

Another explanation for rooting for the underdog is the possibility of schadenfreude, the perverse pleasure we sometimes derive from the misfortunes of others. (If you think you’re a saint, take a second to recall if you ever wished something horrible to befall an evil boss or an ex after a bad breakup.) Sometimes it’s reassuring to think that giants can fall, so the schadenfreude theory says that people support the underdog simply because there might be a chance to watch (with glee!) as a powerhouse team fails.

But one theory that we see missing from the pile is the exact opposite of schadenfreude. We all know what it feels like to lose. We’ve all been the underdog at something at some point in life—on the playground, on a sports team, at a job or maybe in romance. If Michael Phelps challenged Michael Jordan to few laps in the pool, odds are that Jordan would loose badly. Nobody, not even MJ, is great at everything. We can empathize with the underdog.

As game producers, we appreciate experiences that create underdog situations, but with a twist: We want everyone to experience being an underdog. We want to get Phelps out of the pool and Jordon off the court. Once they’re both in unfamiliar territory, things get more interesting.

When designing a team-building event, we ask ourselves a series of questions: How can we create experiences that help people move safely past their comfort zones? Is it possible to push the boundaries for everyone in a group simultaneously? Or can the positions of power shift unexpectedly during play?

Because we create challenges that demand different kinds of intelligence, every person on a team gets the opportunity to shine and experience a heroic moment. And by leveling the playing field, our games offer people the opportunity to see their colleagues’ strengths in a new way.  

It’s a recipe like the 2016 World Series with alternating underdogs and tons of suspense. It’s an opportunity for people to work together and discover strengths as both individuals and as teams, a place where something unexpected could turn the tables for a win. And a place where everybody loves—and is, temporarily—an underdog.

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A Day in the Life of a Go Game Producer

Kelly Rogala has six lunch boxes lined up in front of him—a couple of Sponge Bobs, Hello Kitty, Spider Man and—my personal favorite, just because I didn’t know there was such a thing—a John Cena. He loads each one with guidelines and iphones. And so goes the preparation of a game producer, or “game runnah,” as Kelly calls himself. Today, he’s heading to San Francisco’s North Beach for an afternoon of corporate team building.

On a laptop, he shows me Breadcrumb, The Go Games’ proprietary software in which he’s already set up today’s Classic Go Game  for Ernst & Young, tailored for the client after a preparatory interview during which he asked questions like, “Is anyone on your team hyper competitive?” and “On a scale of Disneyland at one end and a bachelorette party at the other, where does your organization align?” Just as Kelly starts to show me one of the tabs where he can customize each game, the software malfunctions. We stare at a spinning arrow for moment quietly.

Kelly slaps his forehead (who does that?) and gets one of The Go Games’ full-time coders on the phone who fixes the issue immediately. And the next thing I notice is that he’s hopped into the Karaoke Rickshaw to help Go Game co-founder Ian Fraser  with something while also looking for a microphone to pack with the lunch boxes. “Unflappable multitasker” must be part of the game runner job description.

Just before we head out, Kelly dons a bright orange jump suit and grabs a large orange suitcase on wheels. At 6’3” with a curly faux hawk and turquoise Nike HyperRevs, this ensemble totally works. Kelly admits that he gets the thumbs up all the time from random people on the street. “People think the jumpsuit is my thing,” he says. He glances down at himself, laughs and adds, “I guess it is my thing.”

Our car pulls up at Washington Square, and Kelly rolls his luggage over toward a large group obviously congregated in anticipation of something. While we wait for a few Ernst & Young stragglers, Kelly lines up the lunch boxes on the ground and describes what he loves about being a game producer for The Go Game: “My job is to play with people, which is a miracle.” He tells me stories about events he’s run with spontaneous synchronized swimming in a kiddie pool or invented-on-the-spot invisible limbo. I learn about a massive pillow fight he orchestrated in Beverly Hills. “I deliver peak experience. It’s a unicorn job,” he says.

Kelly Rogala at workAt game time, Kelly delivers his opening lines, promising “prolonged eye gazing, trust falls and synchronized breathing.” The group giggles nervously. He switches gears, describing The Go Game as a cross between television’s The Amazing Race, the board game Cranium and a good old-fashioned scavenger hunt on steroids. Then Kelly hits them with a few tips—such as being respectful in public places and not getting arrested—and off they trot, lunch boxes and iphones in hand.

As we watch them go, Kelly says, almost wistfully, “They’re about to have so much fun.” The two of us walk over to a bar on the park’s corner where one of The Go Games’ actors, a “plant” in industry speak, is hidden in plain sight at a table under the awning outside, waiting to be discovered by the game’s participants.

We head inside to a private back room, where Kelly sets up a projector and screen, two computers and a headset microphone—all the while monitoring the teams on Breadcrumb as they progress. Now I see how he can control the elements—sneaks (location-based clues), creative challenges (tasks solved by taking photos or making short videos), head-to-head challenges with other teams, secret agent meetings (the plants) and trivia—to help move the teams along in the moment and improve their experiences. The elements are scaled for points, and each team is hustling to earn the most points. But, before any winners are declared, there’s also team judging of the creative elements (hence the screen) once everyone finishes and meets up at the bar. It’s a lot of moving parts, sometimes in unknown cities and with unpredictable weather. And that, Kelly admits, is the hardest part of the job.

Eventually, the teams regroup at the bar. I hear the phrase “so much fun” repeatedly at high volume—and this time it’s not Kelly talking. While beers and food appear, Kelly manages what could easily fall into chaos. He’s mic’d up and has teams chanting their names and stopping on cue, conducting as if it’s an orchestral performance. With his other three or four hands, he’s deejaying music on one computer, screening the teams’ photos and videos on another and watching their votes transfer from the team iphones into his iphone.

It’s insanity. People are going berserk as they watch the action unfold onscreen, and Kelly is somehow doing stand-up comedy, navigating what would be a technological cluster for most mortals and propelling the event toward an award ceremony—during which he manages to convince the last-place team captain to drink beer from a rubber chicken (a first, Kelly claims jubilantly).

Afterward, Kelly wipes beer from his computer cables and packs the lunch boxes and everything else back into the orange suitcase. Mission complete. And while we head back to The Go Games HQ, I try to make sense of what I’ve just witnessed.

Earlier in the day, Kelly warned me that people don’t understand The Go Game until it’s delivered. Even now after I’ve seen it, I can’t offer any suggestions to solve that problem. How do you convince people to suspend all skepticism about team building? “That’s why,” Kelly says, “the sooner I can put the play into the hands of the clients, the more fun they’re going to have.”

Team Building by the Thousands

“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”
                                                                                —Plato

While our average team-building event usually involves 20 to 150 participants, every now and then we work with much bigger digits, like a recent gig we ran for almost 1,500 people in Orlando, Florida. That’s a whopping 150 teams to manage, along with digital devices, hired actors, props and logistics. And the cherry on top? The client requested a customized version of The Classic Go Game with sports-specific challenges. No problem. We got this.

How do we pull off a game like that? Like Plato said, it’s about knowledge, not numbers: We’ve been doing this for 15 years and are fortunate to have a solid staff with creativity out the wazoo. So we flew a small faction out to Orlando a few days early and got busy:

1. Two game producers sat down together and wrote 70 customized, sport-specific scavenger hunt scenarios and loaded them into Breadcrumb, The Go Game’s own software that participants run from mobile devices while they play.
2. Another staff member hired over 20 actors and prepared them to work as plants in the game at various locations around the Hyatt Regency Orlando and a few blocks down the street.
3. The team also rounded up a strange mix of props and gear, such as remote controlled cars, ropes for tug o‘ wars, twisting balloons, etc.—a task that’s a little like a scavenger hunt in its own right.
4. Lastly, before releasing 1,500 people loose on the hotel premises, we spent time getting a lay of the land, making a detailed plan and clearing it with the hotel’s event management.

Once the bones of the game were in place and game day arrived, the event was like butter.

Well, that’s not to say there weren’t a few shenanigans: One participant leapt into the hotel’s swimming pool fully clothed, another gave his boxers to one of the actors in the hopes of scoring big points and one team hit the emergency stop button on the hotel escalator. But in our industry, and especially with 1,500 adults at play, antics are all in a day’s work.

Why 6 is the New 10

You may have noticed that we have an unconventional approach to most everything. We cruise the streets in orange jumpsuits. We often travel with rubber chickens in our luggage. And we don’t subscribe to the standard rating scale of 1 to 10. You know the one, it might go something like this: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most positive, how would you rate your overall experience at The Door to Hell?

Instead of the conventional 1 to 10, we created a superior ranking system of 1 to 6 for four reasons:

Disassociates Percentages
The 1 to 10 system triggers preconceived associations with the traditional grading used by schools. Unless your teacher graded on curve, Americans usually associate a 9 or 10 (which translates in our minds to 90 to 100 percent) with an “A.”

Thus, as we move down the scale, an 8 (80 percent) is a “B,” a 7 (70 percent) is a “C,” a 6 (60 percent) is a “D” and 5 (50 percent) is a failing grade. Because of these easy-to-calculate percentages and how we associate those five numbers with grades, the 1 to 10 rating system gets skewed toward the top numbers. What’s the point of using the numbers below five if 50 percent already seems like failure? (Unless, of course, you’re rating United Airlines.)

Minimizes Gray
There’s a lot of gray area in the standard scale of 1 to 10. Is there really much difference between a 5 or a 6? A shorter scale gives each number real weight, pinpointing accuracy and diminishing the ambiguity of broad-scale fuzziness.

Greener
From the Olympics to “Dancing with the Stars,” judging panels use the traditional 1 to 10 scale. But if everyone adopted The Go Game scale, there would be 40 percent fewer placards and paddles printed for every judging panel. That’s a significant savings in resources.

Un-Boring
It’s tough to make surveys exciting, but changing up the routine will help the people you survey to think  differently about their answers, and perhaps their responses will be less rote.

What do you need to survey next? Employee engagement? Professional development? Customer satisfaction? Company culture? This is our little gift to you.

Nine Company Holiday Party Ideas

Celebrate company accomplishments and toast the New Year with panache! The Go Game has so many ways to spike your end-of-year party with high-stakes competition and monumental absurdity—let’s make this year’s holiday party unforgettable!

1. Costumed Pub Crawl
Grab a Santa hat and galavant to the watering holes with fun missions at every stop and prizes for the winners. Our emcees have super-hero skills in managing chaos. A rowdy good time in any town!

2. Give Something Back
This special game is designed to give back to your community for the holidays. From building bikes to gathering school supplies for kids, this is the most fun you’ll ever have giving back.

3. Holiday Scavenger Hunt
Embark upon stealth missions to find runaway reindeer and learn whether your colleagues have been naughty or nice. Teams use our mobile platform to score points, discover new challenges and ring in 2017!

4. Holiday-Themed Game Show
How many sides are on a dreidel? Which country claims Christmas Island as its territory? You’re the next contestant in our hilarious holiday game show, complete with custom questions about your co-workers and boss.

5. Party at Your Place
Rewrite Yuletide classics, recreate awkward family photos, recount funny holiday tales from childhood and more! We offer these challenges at your address—with or without a live emcee—and always with prizes for the winningnest winners.

6. Karaoke Caroling
What’s better than karaoke? The Karaoke Rickshaw! We’re well trained in the art of spontaneous sing-a-longs. This lit-up rig is equipped with over 80,000 popular tracks, so there’s always a tune to make even your shyest co-worker croon.

7. Rhythm Circle
We’ll bring the band leader, drums and piles of percussion instruments to prove that your coworkers have more rhythm than a shaking Santa. Pa rum pum pum pum!

8. Need a Venue?
Located in San Francisco’s Mission, The Go Game’s beautiful headquarters has high ceilings, a balcony overlooking the main room, a kitchen, two bathrooms, loads of costumes and can accommodate groups up to 150. Pricing starts at $750 per night.

9. Let Us Bring Your Holiday Idea to Life
Want a new spin on the holiday fête? How would your team like to celebrate the season? We can can customize this affair anyway you like it. Tell us what you want. (Seriously.) We’ll make it happen!

Contact us to book your holiday party.

Introducing Play into Mindfulness

Believe it or not, food scientists, mathematicians and astronomers have something in common. These professions are on a short list of “High-Paying Jobs for People Who Don’t Like Stress.” But who really likes stress? And how many food scientists, mathematicians and astronomers does anyone actually know? If only we could all be so lucky. Meanwhile, the rest of us have deadlines, too many projects and far-reaching goals. On top of those work pressures, add the New Media Age in which people are finding it difficult to connect with colleagues and friends in an authentic way. We’re stressed and disconnected. Something’s gotta give.

Enter mindfulness. Enter play. We created a twofer, combining one of the best-known stress busters with one of the best ways to help people connect. And we call this extraordinary merger the Slow Game.

You can’t swing a dead cat in the Silicon Valley without hearing about mindfulness. Google introduced it to the corporate mainstream, and Aetna, General Mills, Intel, Goldman Sachs and many other companies have followed suit. Why? Because quieting the mind and paying attention has a myriad of advantages—in the workplace and beyond.

Research has shown that mindfulness can improve mental and physical well-being in a variety of ways. To name a few: by reducing stress, heightening productivity, developing better brain function, combating insomnia, fending off depression, boosting immunity, treating PTSD and decreasing pain. Yep. Scientists are proving what Buddhist monks have known forever: Mindfulness has significant benefits. In spite of the science and growing popularity, mindfulness doesn’t appeal to everybody, and that’s where the Slow Game comes in. We’ve noticed that the people least familiar with the practices of mindfulness (and who are often most resistant to it) sometimes benefit the most. All it takes is a different approach.

Mindfulness + Play
One intimidating misconception about mindfulness is that it’s an austere practice, always done with absolute seriousness. Our approach blends contemplation with play into a dynamic experience unlike traditional mindfulness courses. The Slow Game incorporates elements similar to our Classic Go Game mission-style scavenger hunt with the playfulness of Second City improv.

After some warm-up exercises, teams set off to pursue points for creative missions—all with a mindful aim toward authentic connections, emotional intelligence or awareness of a moment. Along the way, they encounter our actors—kind of like mindful secret agents—who guide them through a few quests. After these pursuits, the teams reunite to debrief and discover a final secret mission to pursue alone.

The best part about learning mindfulness through play is that it deftly introduces a set of skills to bring back to work. We’ve introduced the Slow Game to probation officers, teachers and all kinds people with stressful jobs who’ve taken mindfulness practices back to their workplaces. Not only that, after playing the Slow Game participants begin to see their co-workers in new ways. The glorious combination of mindfulness and play coaxes even the most reluctant people to open up in entirely new ways, which makes for the ultimate team-building experience.