How to Create Great Team Building Exercises

Don’t roll your eyes. Teamwork is important.

In fact, teamwork may be the most important competency for an organization operating in a world of complexity. That’s what General Stanley McChrystal thinks.

In his awesome leadership book Team of Teams, McChrystal, who led the U.S. charge against Al Queda in Iraq, discovered that “it takes a network to beat a network.” McChrystal won the fight against AQI by shifting his organization from a conventional, highly centralized, silo-based organization to an autonomous, decentralized, network-based team of teams.

If it’s good enough for the JSOC it’s good enough for me.

Where does teamwork come from?

Teamwork starts with effective professional relationships between the individual members of the team. What lies at the foundation of effective relationships? Trust. And where does trust come from? Trust comes from frequent high-quality communication.

So if I want a high-functioning team I have to create frequent high-quality communication between the team members. One way to do that is with team building meetings.

Good team building exercises are really just creative ways to get team members talking to each other. The main way to screw up a team meeting is for me to talk at the group the whole time. I’ve done that. This is a stupid thing to do, because the goal of the meeting is to get the team members to talk to each other, so what the hell am I talking for?

OK, so here are my 5 pillars of a good team building exercise:

  1. The exercise is fun or engaging. Go outside whenever possible and try involving physical movement.
  2. There’s lots of quality inter-personal communication between team members. Try breaking up into groups of 2-4 people whenever possible.
  3. The exercise centers around a mission-oriented theme. Focus on what’s important to the unit achieving its mission within the larger organization’s mission (seeing the bigger picture).
  4. There’s something emotional that happens, which creates an anchor in the participant’s memory.
  5. The team members have to work together to complete the exercise.

Here are three team building exercises I’ve built around this formula.

Photo scavenger hunt: This is a fun, light, and creative exercise. It’s good for new teams that are breaking the ice for the first time and forming their initial relationships, or if you’re the new team leader and you’re looking to make a positive impression on the new team.

  1. The Set Up: find an expansive outdoor setting that allows for lots of walking and photo opportunities. We chose the National Mall in D.C., and I can’t imagine a better setting. You could also pick a park, a downtown or historic area of a town or city, an arts/museum district or maybe a sports complex, wherever. I do think it’s important you’re outside and there’s lots of walking – something about the sunshine and exercise encourages good conversation. If you want to be fancy, you’ll print out a map with key landmarks and instructions (or beg your marketing partner to make a great map, like I did).
  2. Instructions: “Let’s break into groups of 2-4. We’re on a  photo scavenger hunt here, people! Our theme today is “leadership.” We’re going to walk around the Nation Mall looking for leadership inspiration. Each group takes their most creative picture as a team and texts it to a panel of judges. You have 3 hours, more time than you they need, so you’ll have plenty of time talk and get to know to each other. Have tons of fun. Don’t get arrested. After the scavenger hunt we’re all going dinner and the panel will pick winners and give out prizes.”
  3. The Payoff: This turned into legit fun, not just work fun. The competitive aspect of it really gets the creativity going. The participants get to know each other and form a good foundation for their new relationships. Everyone rediscovers the area they’re exploring, even if they’ve been there before.

    Here’s the winning picture from our leadership scavenger hunt at the National Mall. Read the inscription in the back.


Peer reviews: this exercise forces honest, candid, and detailed communication through anonymous peer to peer performance evaluations. It’s kind of serious and intense, and better suited for more established teams. The impact on the team is powerful and long lasting.

  1. The Set Up: Create a performance review spreadsheet workbook. On the first sheet, label each row with a team member’s name and each column with some competencies like “Teamwork” and “Can Be Counted on to Get Results” that can be scored 1 to 5. Then add columns for qualitative comments like, “Strengths” and “This person can improve by…”. Duplicate this sheet so that each reviewer will have a their own tab in the workbook, and label each anonymously (i.e. reviewer 1, 2, 3). Create a summary tab that will average the 1-5 scores by team member. Save the workbook on a shared drive like Google+ and change the settings so that multiple users can modify the spreadsheets at the same time. Bring the team together for a meeting, and have team members sit in the same room at their own computers or laptops. Include members of the immediate team, support partners, and the team leader.
  2. Instructions: “Each team member is going to review every member on the team, including themselves and the team leader, me. You must score every competency and provide at least three sentences of comments in each of the qualitative sections. For the competencies, you have to give each person at least (1) 1 and at least (1) 5. This is a long exercise. You’ll have about 7 minutes per review they have to fill out. Let’s all draw numbers out of this hat and to determine which reviewer tab you’ll be filling out. Remember, we are trying to build a high-functioning team, and for that we need honest and candid communication. Take your time, take this seriously, and give good candid reviews. At the same time, adjusting feedback should be given in a constructive way, not an offensive way. After the reviews are complete, we’ll break into groups of four and discuss what we learned and write out our initial action plans.”
  3. The Payoff: This turns into a highly emotional and high impact exercise. Peer to peer feedback is much more emotionally charged because of the social implications. And because each person scores themselves, they will see discrepancies between  their perceived strengths and what the team’s perception is. This is an eye opener for everyone.

Letter of resignation: This exercise is perfect for times of great organizational change, like a reorg/restructure, acquisition/merger, or anytime team member roles and responsibilities are changing drastically.

    1. The Set Up: Write out some instructions on a white board or on handouts. Everyone needs a pad and pen.
    2. Instructions: “Everything has changed. Today we’re going to mark a clear dividing line between the old way/company/roles and the new. You’re all going to be resigning from your old positions. Right now, you’re going to write your letter of resignation. Here’s how you write it. ‘I am resigning from my position of OLD JOB TITLE at OLD COMPANY NAME effective immediately… When I started in this role YEARS ago I was like… I have grown and changed in the following ways… I’ll miss these things about the old way… I have accepted a new position with NEW COMPANY as a NEW JOB TITLE and today is my first day. Here is why I am excited about this opportunity… I know I will need to grow in the following ways to achieve my goals…’ You have 30 minutes to write you letters and please use the entire 30 minutes. The letters should be at least one notebook page single spaced. After you’re we’ll break into groups of 2-4 and everyone reads their letters within the small groups. After that we come together as a big team and hear 3-5 of the best letters as a big group. Lastly, we’ll take pictures of the best letters and share them in text or email with the team.”
    3. The Payoff: This is symbolic, nostalgic and emotional. The exercise creates a clear dividing line between the past and the future and gets team members in the right mindset to face the future. We did this right at the start of our first meeting as a new team post-restructure, and it helped us form a great go-forward strategy during the rest of our meeting.
Here’s an example of a resignation letter from our meeting.
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