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The Science of Team Building: A Case Study


How do you survive 50 years of business and continue to grow? The determining factor is the ability of the organisation to respond to an ever-changing and highly competitive business environment. This calls for innovative thinking and buy-in organisation-wide.

Buy-in depends on engagement. People will engage if they feel valued and know that their opinion is important. This process of empowerment can be referred to as: ‘Having a voice’. When people realise that ‘having a voice’ is great but being listened to, is even greater, the organisation will accomplish successes unheard of.

TBi introduced the first phase of three of it’s Team Growth Strategy™ in May 2014, with excellent results (see Figure 1). The methodology is one where a focused approach is followed, relevant to every day working.

Data analysis

Upon initial inspection the change generated with this first phase of team building is obvious. Figure 1 is scientific proof that the TBi methodology of team building works.

The top five constructs, which displayed the biggest variance, are (the constructs are ranked from the biggest to the smallest deviation):

  • Communication: Introduction of thinking styles has benefited understanding. Team members feel optimistic about improving communication in future.

  • Encouragement: Members experienced situations where they supported each other to achieve certain goals.

  • Share ideas: When the sharing of ideas happens spontaneously, members realise that it is safe to be vulnerable to learn from colleagues.

  • Trust amongst colleagues: The AEL setting requires a unique environment where members are treated as equals. The experiential process allows members to be themselves. Sharing of ideas is a specific spin-off of increased trust.

  • Change: Increased levels of trust allow members not to view change as a threat. The AEL process has opened their minds to consider new ideas.


  • When comparing the values represented by the blue graph (before) to that of the red graph (after) phase 1 had a positive effect on the team – significant change

  • In future one can refer to the blue graph as baseline behaviour (calibrated)

  • A significant increase in measurements is natural after a team alignment programme of this nature. Participants are feeling positive and optimistic and experience a natural ‘high’.

  • However, this focuses the attention to ‘sustainability’ of team behaviour. This correlates with the findings of Priest (1994): “Without “follow-up” team behaviour will revert back to baseline levels within 6 months.”

Can behaviour be measured?

The popular constructs employed to measure organisational behaviour are tangible: share price, productivity, financial metrics, market share, etc. This one-sided view has jeopardised a true understanding of the concept ‘Organisational Effectiveness’ and is deemed inefficient in understanding organisational performance.

Business leaders have turned a blind eye to the importance of intangible constructs like, teamwork, trust, cooperation, support, integrity, etc. I think it may be because of complexities in quantifying these constructs.

TBi has designed a protocol to measure behaviour. The challenge that we had to face was the ambiguity associated with the constructs identified above. In other words, when a company survey ‘measures’ a construct like trust, how can the results be a true reflection thereof? My understanding of “trust” is influenced by my personal experiences and further influenced by my thinking style.

If my understanding of trust is largely determined by experience then experience should be the independent variable (variable determining the value of others) to measure the dependent variable, in this case; trust.

In other words, if we want to measure ‘trust’, we have to experience trust to create a common or shared understanding of it’s underlying principles. A shared understanding of trust becomes a principled value. TBi refers to this process as calibrating behaviour and establishing principled values that reflect the organisational culture.

We employ a rather unique methodology known as AEL: “Adventure related Experiential Learning (AEL) is a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill and value from direct adventure related-experiences and in-depth reflection”. Heunis (1997)

AEL affords us the opportunity to introduce experiences in a team context and apply specialised debriefing techniques to create a shared understanding of the underlying principles of ‘trust’. This process calibrates the relevant construct, in this case ‘trust’.

The bedrock of AEL are the ‘tools’ which provide meaningful and shared experiences from which learning is extracted (experiential learning). These ‘tools’ can be categorised as: problem solving activities, low rope activities, high rope activities, Lego® Serious Play®, simulations, Thinking Styles analysis (HBDI™), etc.


Empirical data was obtained by means of an adapted version of a Team Development Inventory (TDI) Assessment, which was completed by each team member, before and after Phase 1 of the TBi Team Growth Strategy™. The TDI assists with measuring 28 constructs (values) that make up teamwork.

The results are displayed in Figure 1. These constructs are forced ranked from the highest to the lowest. The form of both graphs is similar. This indicates construct consistency and increases the reliability of the methodology to address these constructs separately.

  • The graph displays team member’s subjective experience of these constructs before and after the programme.

  • There is a noticeable difference, as indicated with the blue (before) and red (immediately after) graphs.

  • All constructs measured show an increase from before the session to after. The significance of this measurement is a benchmark that has been created for the team (values calibration).

  • Frequent ‘flash surveys’ will assist TBi to tailor-make future programme content.

  • This signifies the start of a process we refer to as ‘institutionalised teamwork’.

Sustained Change

At the end of each learning experience, the team members were guided by questioning techniques to arrive at a single metaphor or ‘catch phrase’ that encapsulates their learning.

Metaphors act like ‘touch stones’ to remind the team members of their commitment to change. These simple words (see below) send out a powerful message: ‘commitment to disciplined change to establish a high performance culture’. When metaphors are frequently applied in the work environment, learning generated is transferred and embedded into the company’s culture. The support of Leadership and Management is critical in this regard.

1. “Red; Yellow; Green”: emotional state of mind: colour code.

2. “A Ko So”: focus.

3. “Blue, Green, Red, Yellow”: thinking preference and thinking style relevant to the situation.


This Client has been exposed to the first phase of alignment. Sustained improvement largely depends on keeping the metaphors alive and sticking to the TBi Team Growth Strategy™.

About the author

Dr Chris Heunis co-founded the Team Building Institute (Pty) Ltd (TBI) in 1997. TBI's vision is to change the way participants feel, think and behave through adventure-related experiential Learning (AEL). This methodology was born of a philosophy that aims to develop individuals and teams through a multi-disciplinary learning approach. Chris's doctoral dissertation examined the role adventure experiences play in corporate team building. This led to the establishment of the institute, which has earned national and international recognition in the field of AEL. The TBI's approach is to integrate interdisciplinary concepts that are usually viewed as seperate entities. These are concepts such as psychology, organisational development, philosophy and recreation. Chris started his carer in the adventure industry in 1985 when he was appointed head of the first national adventure training centre (CARO) in Oudtshoorn. In 1990, he accepted an appointment as a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. Since his appointment, he has completed a master's degree in the field of adventure education, formulating a national strategy for the training of adventure leaders. Thereafter, he paid an extended visit to the USA, researching various aspects of experiential education. He designed and constructed the first freestanding Island of Healing rope course at the University of Pretoria during 1995. Since then, the TBI team has built 25 more rope courses countrywide. Chris co-authored a comprehensive training manual that forms part of a 129-hour training programme for AEL facilitators. This manual is endorsed by the University of Pretoria. Since 1990, he has facilitated team building programmes for numerous listed companies. TBI's headquarters are in Pretoria.

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