When your hear the term “team building” , the first thing that may come to mind are things such as ropes courses, a weekend retreat, or some other form of recreational activity that is intended to build camaraderie among a group and inspire them to work better together. In my years of business and consulting experience, I have never seen such activities take a  dysfunctional group of people and turn them into a high performance team. Companies waste hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on such activities without any real return for the investment.

The reasons that most of these programs do not achieve substantial results is that they are primarily focused on building relationships among members of a team. Although relationships can impact the functionality of a team, often the source of team ineffectiveness is due to some other factor. One of the most likely causes of poor team performance is lack of goal clarity within the team.

To illustrate this, I can take a group of total strangers in a workshop, assign them a very specific task, and then watch them complete the task with enthusiasm and energy, particularly if the task involves competition with another team. The group works well together because there is a clear and common goal, and they are not distracted by competing priorities at the time they are performing the task. If a team is ineffective, the most likely cause is unclear goals and priorities.

When I work with an executive team, one of the first things that I do is ask each of them to independently write down the organization’s top five goals, then we compare the individual lists. This is a real eye opening exercise for most executive teams because usually there are many differences among the lists. Until there is agreement and buy in the company’s goals at the top level, it is unrealistic to expect a high level of team work throughout the organization.

Without goal clarity, efforts to improve teamwork by focusing on relationships with will fruitless. In fact, poor goal clarity can create dissension and strained relationships within a group that normally would be very harmonious.

Goals define what the team needs to accomplish. If a team can come to agreement on goals, then most of the discussion should focus on the best way to accomplish the goals. Healthy conflict within the team is needed in order to come up with the best solutions and actions. I have found that if the goal is clear and agreed to by the team, then they can usually come up with the best way to accomplish it.

Gaining goal clarity and commitment cannot be achieved through a contrived team building exercise. It has to be done through frank and open discussion around key business issues. Often a facilitator or coach can be used to keep the group on track and to offer an unbiased, outside view of the situation. A skilled facilitator will be attuned to group dynamics and will ensure that the real issues are surfaced and addressed.