I've been fortunate to have experienced many great team building moments, activities and events on several great teams. One of the best, involved feeding each other.
In Fearless Change, Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising counsel that a pattern called "Do Food" "makes an ordinary gathering a special event" and reference Christopher Alexander's pattern "Communal Eating." Linda and Mary Lynn note, "sharing food plays a vital role in almost all human societies to bind people together and increase the feeling of group membership." Eating together has a long and documented history in building shared culture.
However, it doesn't end there. I observed a team leader who took it one effective step further. She invited team members to feed each other.
In the fall of 1989 I joined a new team of about 10 people. Our team leader scheduled a one-day, off-site meeting for us to discuss the goals for our project, create alignment and develop initial action plans. We all dutifully agreed to attend. When we arrived at the location, we discovered it wasn't a standard hotel meeting room. It was a house in the middle of a park. The trees and shrubbery had all dropped their leaves, so it wasn't particularly beautiful. However, it was our first indication that this meeting would be different than what we expected.
As we arrived, our team leader had supplied the usual coffee, juice and breakfast breads. But that wasn't the "do food" part. After everyone assembled, she started the meeting by explaining that we would spend the first part of the morning discussing the project, then at about 11:00 we would split into three groups to prepare lunch. We would have a working lunch, then continue with our agenda of action planning through the afternoon. We were randomly assigned to the lunch groups.
One group would be responsible for assembling sandwiches and sides for the whole team's lunches. A second group would create boxes for our lunches. And the third group would set up the table to foster good conversations. Each group would be expected to learn about other team members in order to create the best lunch possible. And we should plan for a working lunch.
Before beginning the sandwich assembly, the first group interviewed each other and all the other team members to learn their preferences in sandwich filling, condiments and sides. They prepared the sandwiches, selected sides and wrapped everything in waxed paper to put in the boxes.
The second group (my group) took a few minutes to discuss what we already knew about the others and what we wanted to find out, so that we could customize each shoe box for its recipient. We had paper, markers, scissors, magazines, and glue with which we created fully wrapped, specifically designed lunch boxes. We also had to deliver the boxes in time for the "cooks" to fill them before lunch.
The third group thought about the various roles on the team and how to best arrange placecards for vital conversations among people who would work most closely together. They also talked about how to make the table beautiful and memorable with what they had at hand. As I remember it, they made placecards and placemats, and even gathered fallen leaves and branches for a centerpiece.
At noon, we all came together to feed each other - with food, attention, and beauty. This event happened over 20 years ago, and it remains fresh in my memory. I sat a table that my colleagues had carefully set up to help me collaborate effectively with them. I ate a lunch made of my favorite foods, from a box that someone had thoughtfully created with me in mind. The whole meal communicated that my team members valued my contributions, and that I valued theirs.
That team worked well together from our first day. We had challenges and disagreements, of course; however, starting from a time when we focused on nurturing each other gave us incentive to work through every issue with caring, respect and our best capabilities. And we had a pretty savvy team leader as well.