Fighting zombies brings cohesion

Why challenge-based team-building can produce highly adaptive, cohesive teams
By Peter Lane
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/22/2016

Picture this: You’re sitting down to a leisurely breakfast with colleagues when, out of nowhere, you’re attacked by a horde of zombies. 


There’s no time for office politics or bickering over the latest quarterly report — you either work together as a team or you don’t survive. Period. 


While it may be a slightly atypical teambuilding method, it’s one a zombie survival camp has found highly effective in producing stronger, more adaptive and agile teams — as employers such as Girls Guides of Canada and TFO have discovered.


There are endless off-site options out there for employers when it comes to teambuilding exercises but the key to getting the most out of your investment is choosing an exercise that incorporates an element of challenge. 


Combat-ready

Throwing people into an intense problem-solving situation has lasting, positive impacts employees will take back to work or to their organization. With the higher level of intensity and challenge, employees are forced to apply their skills in a way they never thought they could.


It shouldn’t be a cakewalk — it’s important that it be difficult. If it’s easy, then it’s worthless.


Perhaps the perfect example of a team coming together like this is the Armed Forces. People are put through an intense experience, and it has to be difficult. That intensity and difficulty are what bond people together. 


Research backs it up. To build a high-performance team that is strong, cohesive and adaptable, employers need to delve deeper than social gatherings or a “train-to-task” mentality, according to the Leader’s Guide to Team Building: Building Adaptive High-Performance Teams by the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) in the United States: 


“High-performance teams require an approach that goes beyond traditional train-to-task models. Rather, these exercises develop the art of adaptive thinking and learning. This advanced methodology develops clear and shared understanding; critical-thinking and reasoning skills; and adaptive behaviours, not conditioned responses.”  


That adaptability and capacity to solve problems as they arise — instead of being reactive and falling back on mindless conditioning — is one of the critical elements of challenge-based teambuilding. 


Holacracy versus hierarchy 

Another key benefit is the way in which challenge-based teambuilding alters the power structures of a group. 


When different organizations attend the camp as a teambuilding exercise, it’s interesting to watch how the pre-existing group of colleagues restructures itself in terms of roles and power dynamics. 


One person might work in production, one might be in post-production and one might be their boss. They all have different jobs but as soon as they’re thrown together, everyone is equal. There is no boss, there is no sales department, there is no marketing department — they’re all just one cohesive team. They have one job and they’re all working together to survive. 


That can have a significant, lasting impact in breaking down silos that emerge in an office hierarchy that can stunt and inhibit communication, innovation and growth. 


Instead of remaining separate or somehow in competition with each other, different departments develop this new language. They communicate more effectively with each other because they understand it’s no longer “Salespeople are better” or “Post-production thinks that they’re this or that” — they’re all there to do one job, to deliver on one overarching strategy. 


That sense of cohesiveness, of community, is what leads to success — and isn’t building community the entire point? 


Leadership, lasting transformation

Learning new skills together and emerging triumphant from a challenge lead to a lasting bond between team members — and lasting transformation. 


Employers will see enduring after-effects from a challenge-based team-building exercise long after the day or the weekend is over. By changing course by just one degree,  that change just gets bigger and bigger after enough time goes by.


One of the most interesting changes is people you wouldn’t initially expect — quieter, more introverted types — often take on leadership roles. Something stirs in them and they rise to the occasion. 


And that’s a critical piece for organizations because both leadership and followership skills — and adaptability between both roles as circumstances demand — is of upmost importance for all employees, not just those in the C-suite. 


In most teams today, no one person is solely responsible for the team’s leadership, according to CALL:


“(Leadership) is often provided by anyone who helps create and maintain performance-enhancing conditions, regardless of whether that person holds a formal leadership role. Teams can draw from available expertise or can be co-opted, utilizing existing resources to accomplish the mission. Many team members have no direct authority and little professional influence on other members. As missions change, different team members may take the lead in accomplishing a specific mission or objective.”


It’s true that some people have a hard time defining those roles in the beginning. With leadership, there’s often a political game that people buy into, where they think being a leader is more valuable — though that’s not necessarily true. 


Through challenge-based teambuilding, it becomes clear to the entire team very quickly that all jobs are just as equal if you’re working toward a shared goal.


Peter Lane is the Toronto-based co-founder of Zombie Survival Camp. For more information, visit www.zombiesurvivalcamp.ca.

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