The 007 theme song was playing as we stepped into the Juniper room at the Essex Conference Center & Retreat in Essex, Mass., last Thursday. A woman dressed in black and faux animal print peered down her sunglasses at us (it was dark and rainy out on that day in June), gave us a mysterious smile, then continued arranging some envelopes, Polaroid cameras, and other paraphernalia on the table.
We were an eight-person group of meeting planners (and one journalist) who came to experience TeamBonding’s most popular corporate teambuilder, Spy Game, and we were ready to rumble. TeamBonding’s lead facilitator, Kevin Prentice, posing as Professor X, divided us into two groups, then outlined the scenario: The morning’s activities were the final exam for us, the graduating class of the Spy School. My group, the CIA, faced off against the now-defunct Russian KGB. The point was to save the world from the ultimate weapon of mass destruction--the doomsday machine--by figuring out what country was harboring it. But first, we had to follow the clues, exercise our intelligence and creativity, and perform numerous dirty tricks.
When we opened our briefing package, out poured the tools of the spy trade: coded messages, top-secret passwords, audiotapes, bugging devices (stickers to plant on the other team when they weren’t looking), and assorted other bits and pieces we had to assemble into some sort of working spy device a la McGiver. While I can’t give away classified secrets, suffice to say we discovered we probably should keep our day jobs as we decoded, searched, sabotaged the other team, and laughed liked hyenas. Even though our team’s song, set to the tune of the Village People’s classic "YMCA" and acted out enthusiastically, if not well, made us winners in our minds, the dastardly KGB ended up winning the competition as a whole by a hair. But we all learned a lot about each other, and worked on our problem-solving and prioritizing skills, among others.
"People tend to gravitate toward the activity they’ll have the most fun with, not necessarily the activity that will move the group closer to its goals," said Prentice, after the winners got their prizes and posed for a "Charlie's Angels"-style photo, with cap-guns drawn. He pointed out that we each chose to work on the activities that looked like the most fun, regardless of how many points they would earn us. "The same thing happens in the corporate environment, with the same result," he added. His company can include a discussion on how ethics, leadership, and other topics relate to the game after the two-hour session, or you can use it as a standalone teambuilder/ icebreaker. Either way, it’s a blast.
Some client companies also have used a different slant on the program: First, the TeamBonding facilitator administers a Myers-Briggs personality test, then, without telling participants which type they are, breaks them up into teams with all the same type, and with differing personality types. "The same-type teams tend to do terribly, because they all bring the same skills and approaches to the table. They get to see that teams with diversified personalities tend to do the best," said Prentice.
The minimum size for the program is 12 participants (we were a special case), and the maximum is 250, broken in to 25 groups of 10. Spy School is just one of many programs TeamBonding runs out of its Canton, Mass., and San Diego, Calif., offices. The company can bring its programs just about anywhere in the U.S. or abroad. For more information, go to www.teambonding.com.