If, when arriving for a team building session, Stephen Blades' clients expect to shoot each other with paint balls, race dirt bikes or do their best impression of Kamp Staaldraad, they will be disappointed.
Rather, they might find themselves planning, filming, producing, editing and acting in their own movie about where their team is going. Or they might create a newspaper as a team of "journalists", reporting not on their past, but on their future, writing the news for the year ahead. Alternatively they could get a crash course in darkroom photography and do an exhibition of black and white photos that capture the culture of their organisation.
It's a different take on team building but then Blades' vision has always been a little left-field, something evidenced by his company's name. "I was on honeymoon in Thailand on an incredibly busy main road that was congested with cars, and there, cruising through the chaos, was an elephant. I wanted to create a company that captured this ability to cut through the noise and move steadily forward amid chaos. So that's where the company name, Elephants in Main Street, came from," he says.
Taking team building to the next level
Blades' ingenuity lies in taking team building - long plagued by a reputation for being arbitrary, contrived and unable to teach lessons that can be translated back to the real work context - to the next level.
What the company offers is fun and creative stuff, but its true value resides in far more than this. Traditional team building uses team-centred events to help participants come to grips with challenges, team dynamics and differing opinions and, in so doing, learn about how their view might differ from other people in their team. The end goal is that everyone works together.
But Elephants in Main Street seeks to go a step further. "The kinds of exercises we organise help people to develop a tangible picture of their company's vision, mission, values or goals for tomorrow. Getting a team to understand these things, and work towards them with a common purpose, is one of the biggest challenges facing companies today," Blades explains.
Translation is the secret ingredient
Underpinning everything is one of the company's key differentiators - a focus on ensuring that what is learnt in the team building is relevant to, and can be applied in a real-life work setting. The idea is to be not only innovative, but high-impact as well. Blades has a unique take on how to make this happen.
"The translation should take place before the team building even begins. Many companies want to have a team-build because they think it's the done thing, but we won't work like that. We want to know precisely what they want to achieve upfront. Some 70% of the work involves uncovering their desired outcomes and then planning the events accordingly. This is where the translation starts.
"If you go into a team building exercise not knowing what you want the experience to teach your team, of course they won't take any applicable learnings back to the office. You're doomed from the start," he says.
Meeting market demands
Blades and his team have invested a great deal in developing a unique suite of products. He explains, "We have five: Creative Expressive, like the movies, newspaper and photography sessions, which focus on culture and goals; Creative Technical, in which participants address the way in which they solve problems; Cognitive Experiential, in which they learn through practical experience; Socialisers, which falls into the more traditional team building focus of getting people to know each other and work together; and Creative Adventure, which includes adventure type sessions for more physically inclined people."
This combination of carefully crafted and differentiated offerings allows Elephants in Main Street to take a customised approach to meeting a wide variety of client requirements. "Different companies have different needs. Some of them may want the more traditional type of team building sessions, so we meet that need as well, but we always make sure that what we offer is well thought through, relevant and different from the norm," he says.
The company serves clients all over the world; South Africa is the flagship office but it has expanded to the UK, Singapore, Dubai, Namibia and Australia. And while its services may not be the cheapest in the industry, they're effective, helping the company and its clients to cut through the current economic chaos and keep moving forward. Much like that elephant in the Thai traffic.
Elephants in Main Street
PLAYER: Stephen Blades
Entrepreneur Magazine - Tactics Section
By Juliet Pitman