02/10/2015 04:02 EST | Updated 04/12/2015 05:59 EDT

Who Loses When Organizations Overspend on Team Recreation?

For some time now, I have been on my soapbox about organizations substituting team recreation for team building and overspending in this area. I have long predicted that this would lead to severe restrictions in spending for team building and corporate events.

Well, as a result of this programme that cost over US$268,000, federal workers in Washington are now feeling the pinch.


A couple of days ago, The Washington Post reported on the fallout from the clampdown by the Obama administration due to the outrage over this spending.

Here are some of the unintended consequences:

When federal employees get together for training and meetings, fancy lunches aren't on the menu anymore. In fact, food of any kind -- tuna fish sandwiches, green salad, oatmeal cookies -- can no longer be served by the government. Even coffee is off-limits.

Scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies say they can no longer travel to academic conferences to present their research.

And mental-health workers at military hospitals say they are in danger of losing their licenses because they can't attend refresher courses.

When I originally typed the following words in April, 2006 (and reprinted them on my team building blog in 2009, never did I foresee this backlash coming from the Government sector.

Why Companies are Cutting Team Building

One day the money is flowing freely. Eventually, someone in the executive suite says

"Hey wait a minute, we've spent $1 million dollars (or $5 million and even more when one factors in the indirect costs like salaries for the participants) for drumming, hot air ballooning, paint ball, or grape stomping (that was once featured on The Apprentice).

  • Where's the value?
  • How much time was spent debriefing the activity and drawing links to our business?
  • Were and business or planning exercises part of these sessions? How did this further the business?
  • How did this improve performance or team interaction?"

Suddenly, "poof" the money is gone and suddenly team building is something we used to do.

If you want to ensure that your budget for team building gets cut, treat it like a commodity. Give the most inexperienced person in your team the responsibility for contacting prospective suppliers. Give them very little guidance. After all you're busy right? They'll focus strictly on the activities and shortlist based on what sounds like the most "fun".

They won't be able to answer questions like

  • "What are your objectives for this session?"
  • "What major challenges is your team facing?"
  •  "What specific improvements do you want to see in organizational and team performance?"

They'll present you with options based what's "fun" or what's cheapest. When making your selection, go for the latest fad, what's hot and the flavour of the month. Eventually, the money for team building will disappear from your company's budget as it has in other organizations. It's guaranteed.

On the other hand, if you really want team building to be a value added, give careful attention to clarifying your objectives. Allow sufficient time for defining your team building strategy, planning and implementation.

I have recently compared notes with a number of representatives from team building companies in the USA and Canada. They are all reporting that the off-site team building retreat seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. Bad practices by too many companies have been slowly killing it.

This should be a wake-up call to all organizations in both the public and private sectors. "Use it or lose it" no longer prevails. The new mantra is "Use it wisely, or lose it."