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Back to Archives | Back to May 2006 Contents 

Strategies for Successful Team-Building Workshops

By Gregory P. Rothaus, Chief of Police, San Carlos, California

Conference room

he military has understood it for quite awhile and the private sector knows it too: organizational success is dependent upon teams. No management fact is more obvious and no concept more critical. In organizations, we don't act alone because we simply can't. We depend on each other for support, ideas, leadership, and encouragement. In law enforcement, we often depend on each other for our very lives. Team-building workshops (TBWs) can be an important part of the organizational development process. But how can leaders maximize the significant investment of time and money that is placed into a TBW? How can the right facilitator be selected? What should the criteria be for determining whether or not the TBW was a success or failure? This article will answer those questions and will provide a framework by which the police executive can plan a TBW that is both successful and results-oriented.

The goal of team building is to bring team members together and engage in activities that are primarily designed to increase cohesion. One of the most critical commonalties of great teams is their need to continually engage in practices that keep individuals focused on the team rather than themselves. Team-building workshops are one way to do that, yet this process is useful for other purposes as well. TBW is useful for engaging in strategic planning, working through significant organizational dilemmas, facilitating a new management transition, or developing new programs. No matter the purpose of the TBW, the likelihood of success will increase significantly by following six strategies for success.

Strategy 1: Begin with the End in Mind
The first and most important step in building a successful TBW is determining what is to be accomplished. Unfortunately, in many planning sessions, this step is the least likely to receive the appropriate amount of attention. The potential positive impact of a TBW on the organization will come about by carefully thinking through what needs to be accomplished. A TBW presents an immense opportunity for drawing a roadmap to the future and for sending critical signals to the organization. Insightful leaders know that this is their moment, it is their agenda, and it is their opportunity to move forward with many of the ideas that propelled them to be leaders in the first place.

A significant amount of thought must go into determining what the primary objective of the TBW is, because everything that occurs after that will be build around that objective. This first strategy drives the following five strategies to accomplish success. An unclear objective is at best a missed opportunity and at worst a waste of time and money.

The objective should be ambitious but realistic and should take into consideration factors such as time available for the TBW, the ability of the staff to work through complex problems, and the issues most likely to have the greatest affect on the department. In addition to determining the primary objective, the police chief should use the opportunity presented by the TBW to set some lower-level objectives. These lower-level objectives could include getting the sergeants more involved in determining organizational direction, cementing the division commanders as the true leaders of their division, or just simply getting the staff to be better acquainted with each other.

Probably the best advice for police chiefs who are trying to determine their objective is to think big and look for the points of greatest leverage on their department:

  • What are the most important issues facing the community and how can the department be best positioned to address them?

  • What is the one thing the police chief wants most for the organization?

  • What organizational issues are present that can impede success or sabotage plans?

Successfully addressing these questions creates major leverage in the organization and makes a true difference in what is done and how it is done.

Strategy 2: Plan Early
When police chiefs plan TBWs, they sometimes do so in order to move from some current state within the organization to a desired future state. Examples include increasing employee retention rates, improving officer initiated activity, or raising morale. Before the chief can know whether the TBW was successful, he or she must be able to articulate the current state of the areas identified for improvement. What is the retention rate of the department before the workshop? How much initiated activity have officers involved themselves in before the workshop? What is the status of morale in the department before the workshop?

Determining success depends on whether or not an accurate assessment about the status of the current state exists. Once an objective is determined, then look for the metrics that are to be applied later for determining and measuring improvements. Without these measurements it is difficult to know whether the change efforts were successful.

Sometimes leaders hold TBWs to create new programs or launch new initiatives. In these cases, the work product from the TBW becomes the success measure and obtaining metrics beforehand may not be needed.

Strategy 3: Select the Right Facilitator
After determining the objective and deciding how success is to be measured for the TBW, select the facilitator. Fortunately, there are quite a few outstanding consultants and facilitators capable of leading a group through a team-building process. Some are sole contractors and others are part of a firm. But just as every tool will not work for every job, not every consultant will work for every circumstance. Like all of us, they have their strengths and weaknesses and they each have a unique set of experiences to bring to the process.

Two approaches for finding the right facilitator have recorded success. One approach is to interview other chiefs who have conducted TBWs with a similar goal and find out who they used. It is also important to ask about the strengths and weaknesses of the facilitator because this information is important in the planning process. Another approach is to identify several of qualified facilitators known to work in the area, interview them, and check their references. When checking references, ask about the objective of the TBW conducted and whether or not the facilitator was able to meet expectations. Both approaches used simultaneously will generate a good short list of potential people for the final selection.

Strategy 4: Effectively Manage the Facilitator
After all the advance planning and initial considerations, it's finally time to get down to the real work, the TBW itself. Thoughtfully accomplishing the initials steps for the TBW should ensure a well outlined and smooth flowing workshop. But it's important to remember that despite the best intentions things can go wrong, and sometimes things can go terribly wrong.

A major part of effective team building is frank and open discussion, but this has to be managed carefully. Individuals will sometimes show up at team-building workshops with a personal agenda, petty jealousies, or a desire to use the format as a way to retaliate against another member of the team. If this is not managed well and a blowup of some type occurs, then that will become the defining event of the TBW.

Some facilitators believe they are good at dealing with damaged relationships within the management team. They will usually get the issues out on the table and then guide everyone through the difficulties in a civilized manner. Going down this road is an enormous risk and the chief has to decide how far to let the facilitator go. If the discussions are heated and out of control, then that is what people will remember most. There has been more than one instance where attempting to deal with relationship problems at a workshop has led to anger, and in at least one case a team member became too upset to continue with the TBW. The best suggestion is to manage difficult relationships on an ongoing basis and use the TBW for other purposes. If the decision is to use the TBW to work on these or similarly sensitive issues, then it is very important to set ground rules for professional communication right up front. Then, keep things frank and open but do not allow it to cross the line and become personal or attacking.

Many facilitators are retired police chiefs or retired executives. They may come to the workshop with a set of preferences they have for leading organizations and many have strong personalities. The ideas they can give to the contracting chief are enormously helpful and should be carefully considered, but it is not their department and they do not have the intimate knowledge of it that the chief does. The police chief is the client and the facilitator should be an advisor. A good, professional facilitator will understand the values and vision of the chief. He or she should be able to advise the chief without imposing his or her own agenda, beliefs, or preferences. This line can be tough to walk and it takes a true professional. They have to focus on their client's goals and give advice without trying to bring in their preferences from their past professional life. Equally as important, the police chief has to listen care fully to the advice of this paid professional but then be able to follow his or her own judgments about what is best for their department.

The job of the facilitator is to move the team through the workshop in such a way as to accomplish the goals outlined by the chief at the early planning stages. It is important that the chief trust the facilitator and allow the facilitator to do the job without unnecessary interference. Facilitators have skills and experiences that enable them to manage time and to move discussions along at a reasonable pace.

Strategy 5: Follow the Rule of Thirds
Usually, TBWs occur over a multiday period and take place off site. By locating away from the police facility, the staff is able to stay focused on the TBW and keep their minds off the day-to-day issues at work that may distract them. By locating off-site, the chief is also better positioned to follow the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is very simple:

  • One-third of the time working on the TBW goals

  • One-third of the time working in small groups

  • One-third of the time socializing

All of these activities contribute equally to building relationships, accomplishing goals, and working together as a team.

The work product itself happens in a room with everyone at the table contributing to discussion, dialogue, and decision making. Plans are laid out, notes are taken, and progress is made toward the primary goal of the workshop. This is the heart of the TBW and should make up about one-third of the time the staff spends together. But this activity can be mentally draining and very taxing. That is why the team needs to spend another third of their time away from that format where they can free their thoughts up a bit and process what is happening.

A good way to spend this middle third of time in the rule of thirds is to break the team up into small groups and send them out for a few hours to work through an issue and report to the team. The small group may actually elect to meet in a coffee shop, sit by the seashore, talk over a picnic table in a park, or gather in some other less formal environment. Whatever they choose to do, they will be working through an exercise in an informal setting and will benefit from the dynamics of smaller groups and a change of scenery.

The last third in the rule of thirds is for social time. This is the time that is set aside during the multiday TBW to break away from the discussions and work. Some social time can be devoted to group meals and activities. But whatever the social interaction is, the intent is to focus on fun and getting to know each other. As frivolous as this may sound, it can actually be extremely productive, because people get to know each other better by interacting in a very informal setting. Also, don't kid yourself; work does get done here. A couple of staff members go off in a corner to chat and end up leaving the discussion with a new idea for the K-9 program. Or two individuals who did not get along well are now able to interact in a different setting and the result is that they see each other in a better light. The fun that is had in this social time is a team-building activity in and of itself, and it has real, tangible value for the group.

Strategy 6: Follow Through and Follow Up
Probably the worst thing that can happen after a TBW is for the notes and action plan to be stuffed in a drawer somewhere never to be seen or heard from again. All the work then becomes a waste of time and energy, and not only does the staff loss credibility but so too does the chief. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 5, May 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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