Team Building Ideas Found at 30,000 Feet

By Meade Peers McCoy

“Keep your eyes open for new ideas and information about what is going on in the field of training and development”. This is a sentiment that I have heard many times and expressed myself on more than one occasion, but sometimes it still catches me by surprise where useful information can be found. Such as when I ran across an article on team building in an Alaska Airlines in-flight magazine (page 92).

Dream Teams, creative group activities help foster a collaborative spirit by Rob Lovitt covers the basic ideas behind team building and supplies profiles of a few companies that run team building retreats or events that are available.

We are all familiar with the common team building activities (everyone has a joke about trust falls) and we’ve all experienced a variation of the hand holding human knot exercise, where the knot must be untangled without letting go of anyone’s hand. We all know team building is important but all the hype has made it feel old and not very innovative. Surprisingly, I enjoyed reading this article and was reminded that there are team building strategies that take us beyond the human knot. One of the examples provided in the article was an Iron Chef style culinary competition where employees were split into teams and given a basket of ingredients and told they must work together to plan and prepare a three-course meal using the ingredients provided. The culinary competition team building activity was staged by American Outback Adventures and Events and is designed to foster innovation, collaboration, creativity, strategy, and communication. Another example in the article was the concept of blending volunteering and team building or “VolunTeaming” as it is called by the Ritz Carlton. The Ritz Carlton’s VolunTeaming programs are designed around the idea that corporate social responsibility is something that employees believe in supporting, and that people will form more productive teams if they feel that the activity has a purpose that benefits people or the community. Volunteer-based team building changes the focus from the internal to the external group.

Team building is something that I have discussed in almost all my classes at Roosevelt, but I honestly have to say that I’ve never put much thought into how team building activities could be done differently. It took a random article in an airline magazine to get me truly thinking about how innovative you can really be when it comes to the concept of fostering team spirit and teaching cooperation techniques.

Finding new creative and engaging team building activities is very important in today’s world of team-based work environments and remembering to be on the lookout for new ideas in unconventional places is a must.

What unexpected place have you run across information about training related topics?

What’s the most interesting team building activity you’ve ever participated in?

Cooking competitions, volunteering, if team building can be this creative what do you think would make a good team building activity?


  • The term “Team Building” does seem so old. I believe this class: TRDV423 has opened my eyes to how important team building is. It’s not just about collaborating on another project. We have the opportunity to work with other individuals that we can learn from and share ideas with. I now look at the team building experience as an opportunity for growth. Before, it seemed like the normal thing to do, the – “because you’re supposed to do it” type of vibe. But with a better understanding of how working effectively in a team can bring about great change or improvements, my outlook has definitely changed for the better! I look forward to other challenging team building experiences, I’m sure there’s always something I can either learn about my team-mates or myself.

  • These are great examples of team building activities. I bet everyone would like to participate in Iron Chef style culinary competition or the CarltonRitz experience. Unfortunately, not many people have the opportunity to work for companies which can pay or want pay for them.

  • Team building activities is something that most employees probably expect to be involved in. However, at the same time they dread those activities because they think of things like the “trust fall” exercise that’s been so popular to foster team building. It is good then to hear about other, more innovative activities that achieve the same purpose. I especially enjoyed the example of the culinary competition mentioned in the article. It is a type of an activity that is probably enjoyable to most people and may at the same time cause some frustration since everyone has an opinion about cooking. This activity gives participants an opportunity to work on several skills such as problem solving in addition to collaboration and planning.

  • I think it’s great to use activities that aren’t focused on teambuilding as teambuilding. We do team DiSC sessions. They’re meant to help people better understand themselves and others but really it turns out to be a shared experience and they work together to better understand DiSC. It’s great seeing the conversations that happen. Sometimes it’s like a collective sigh of relief, like the air has been cleared and the team can start anew.
    It’s also interesting that we can find inspiration in the strangest of places. Always keep your eyes open for new insights and ideas.
    Jessica C.

  • I always think it is interesting when you find a connection to training in an unexpected place. A while back I came across a blog post that tied training to Seinfeld. As a fan of the show, I couldn’t help but read these posts. There is an episode where George decides to do the opposite of every instinct he has. The author makes a case that this shows us to keep trying new things in training and not let it get stale. There is also a funny post linking George to Cognitive Load. For those who are interested, Google “Training Lessons from Seinfeld”.

  • I like the basket of ingredients team building idea! I think thats a great way to see how team members think on their feet and interact with one another. There are so many different team building exercises that can be used to better a team and get to know team members. Some of the most extreme team building exercise seem to be on reality television shows, but other types of exercise can accomplish the same thing but be much simpler such as the human knot.

  • It was great to read this article and revisit activities again. I did not even realize the team building aspect of the Iron Chef show. It is so apparent now after reading this article. There are so many ways to develop your team’s performance that I am in awe. A lot of them I have them I have definitely done before, but it is refreshing to think of how well my teams performed due to developing all of our skills so that we could achieve our goals.

  • During the dot com era, I worked for a small accounting software company that was purchased by a west coast company out of Redwood City, California. The employees of the acquired company and several key employees of the purchasing company were flown to Florida to board a cruise ship that took us to four of the Virgin Islands. In addition to experiencing the ship, we were also encouraged to participate in the ships entertainment. I learned that a few of my colleagues could sing and several actually played in a band. In looking back, a very expensive team building event was disguised as a leisure trip.

    • WOW that was an awesome (and very expensive) team building event! My previous employer sponsored a trip to Vegas for the entire department of 78 employees. I think this was a team building event that went completely wrong. Everyone flew in that evening and was free to do what they wanted but had to report to the welcome breakfast the next morning. Needless to say quite a few got carried away because they were either hung over or exhausted from so much partying the night before that they were no good during the company activities the next day. The rest of the trip was down hill from there because everyone was more focused on sight seeing then the company activities.

  • John Maxwell, who is an influential voice across the globe about leadership and training in the at several years had comprised one book that revealed where he learned most of his leadership thoughts and theories. The book that he released was a special edition Leadership Bible that has notes and articles talking about his findings on leadership practices. As I was reading through his notes it was astonishing the training material that is in the Bible especially the new testament. Examples like Paul training Timothy and Barnbas, Jesus training the disciples and many others. When the questions said unexpected places, I thought this was a good example of “unexpected”.
    The most interesting team building activity I have participated in was a high ropes course.( I am a larger guy and have never been up 35 feet in the air walking on a rope! The only way to keep your balance is to hold onto the walkers hands on either side of you as they walk on a rope as well. This was so BENEFICIAL and encouraging for our team.

    Cooking competitions, volunteering, if team building can be this creative what do you think would make a good team building activity?
    To echo Fraser comments above, a great team building activity is one that the people involved are having fun, being challenged and forget that they are in a team building activity. Instead of focusing on “team building skills” the participants natural reactions kick in that are team building intuitive actions. When you can add any kind of creativity to these events it enhances the whole process.

    • I would say, in thinking about unexpected places in which I have run across information on training related topics, it would have to be Church. I have participated in the Myers Briggs Test on personality types a couple of times in Church. One such time was with Marriage Preparation classes, and also working in various groups at Church. This information helped me understand my spouse as well as other individuals I interacted with in various ministries.

      The most interesting team building activity I participated in was the development of a concept map. It was done at a retreat at a state park which was conducive to brain storming and the building of the concept map. All stakeholders were represented so it was a very inclusive activity resulting in a wonderful finished product. The team building activity was led by two trained facilitators who had no specific knowledge of the concept. I was impressed at the depth of input and dreaming. The concept map was used successfully to bring about much needed change. It made me realize the possibilities when a committed group of people are brought together.

      I think the best team building activities are ones in which the participants get lost in the activity and forget it is a team building activity!

  • Maybe the best team building exercises are the ones that make you forget you are doing an exercise. In 2007 I went on a 1 week retreat with a large group of associate and senior editors for a big textbook project. We met at a Lodge/ conference center in the beautiful Cascade mountains of southwestern Washington. There were so many perspectives and voices that the organizers spent the first afternoon / evening orienting everyone using a professional facilitator and a panel. But the coolest part was that one of the senior editors took everyone for a walk and we formed a circle, sitting on boulders and took part in a Native American ceremony to bless the place and ourselves and prepare mentally and spiritually for the work ahead. It was so NOT academic and not a trust exercise but it was the perfect kick off the week.

    • What a great example. I agree, team activities that are no so contrived can be refreshingly enjoyable. When I taught a creativity class in Chicago on a beautiful summer day we did a “creativity walk” in Milennium park that was very memorable for the participants. Thanks for posting this example.

  • I came up with a team building activity that I called ‘From Around the World’ where each team was assigned to a country (that they pulled from the jar). They had to create a “theme” of that country and each team had to guess what country it was and write on a piece of paper what country they think it is and drop it in the jar. The team with the most correct answers would win. When I completed this activity there were a total of six teams and it was very fun. There were food dishes, flags and birds made of construction paper and lots of other things associated with the themes. Not only was this a positive team building activity but it showed us how to communicate and think as a team. This team building activity was presented to the groups during the Monday meeting and they were all given a week to complete it. I have to say it was a great success!

  • I think that getting creative with our team building is very important. Everyone has seen the human knot and trust falls. Similarly certain icebreakers we have done in every new group we have joined, and they start to lose their luster and their effectiveness. I was starting out with a new team and I had to do the human knot exercise for the 10th time and I already knew the purpose behind the activity. I could tell some others had the ‘lets just get through this’ mentality as well. This is why activities like the iron chef activity are so great! They are new, exciting, challenging, and still have relevance to team building.

    I participated in an activity in my undergraduate program that was for team/trust building that was very out of the box. We made plaster masks. In the program we were working with a partner to put together and facilitate a workshop for students, so to build trust we made these masks together. We were told to come up with a vision of what we wanted the mask to look like and then communicate that to our partner, who had the responsibility of applying the plaster to our face, listening to our direction, etc. It was a very strange but wonderful experience. It took a lot to sit there and let someone else do that. (this was a team/partner we had been getting to know over the course of a year). We had to wait for the plaster to dry and then remove the mask, decorate it, and present our experience to the class. (that all happened over about a week in several steps). It was a very powerful process, and very creative!

    Not that all team building exercises need to be that intimate, but I definitely appreciated how much we grew from it and I think that these are things we need to keep in mind when developing more creative, new exercises for teams. I think that including a certain element of getting people out of their comfort zones is healthy. It builds trust, allows for vulnerability, and encourages the team to get closer. It can also be really fun and exciting to do something new that you would never have considered doing before.

  • I am in a sales role and travel nearly every week. I can’t tell you how many people I meet and learn from while having my morning cup of coffee at the airport, standing in line, riding the airport shuttle, and inflight. You never really know who you are sitting next to!

  • Hi, Meade!

    I agree – inspiration can come in the most unexpected of places. In particular, your topic of team-building reminded me of just such an unusual source – a favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok.” I’m an unabashed sci-fi fan, and have very high standards for it – this episode met and exceeded them. You may likely be familiar with the episode, but please humor me in my summary.

    For the uninitiated: the Enterprise (the good guys) encounters an alien ship from a culture long considered linguistically unintelligible, called the “Children of Tamar.” After a brief but unsuccessful attempt to communicate, the captain of the alien ship kidnaps Picard (the captain of the Enterprise). Picard finds himself marooned with the alien captain on a planet also shared by a particularly hostile and dangerous creature, which is now hunting them.

    For most of the ordeal, Picard is unable to communicate with the Tamarian captain. However, through the shared threat of the creature and interaction with the Tamarian captain, Picard is able at long last to make a communication breakthrough. Meanwhile, in the skies above, the Enterprise and the Tamarian ship are preparing for battle with each other, all for lack of understanding. Though the Tamarian captain is killed by the creature, Picard manages to survive with the rudiments of Tamarian language. Finding his way back to his ship, Picard prevents a needless battle and instead opens the door to amity.

    Though kidnapping someone and sharing a perilous situation may be effective at some level, it should be recognized that it’s our shared values, needs and objectives that ultimately unite us (and hopefully not quite so drastic as the scenario above). Not just a danger, but any meaningful challenge faced together, has power to bring people together in common cause.

    Remarkable how we find these insights, whether on a journey peaked at 30,000 feet, or on a syndicated TV show that hints at the journeys we can take in the future – should we find commonality in such ambitions, as well as the rewards of partnership in them.

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