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Russell Inman

For the past several years, Cobalt, the software company I founded and run as CEO, has put on quarterly staff events for all of its employees. The events serve as a chance for our staff to break away from their day-to-day work so they can get to know their fellow coworkers, participate in team-building exercises, and focus on some of the long term “big picture” planning that will ensure our company continues to innovate in its space.

Because we like to switch things up, we rarely hold the events in the same space twice, and we’ve also tried out a variety of team building exercises. We’ve put on trivia competitions; taken the staff on sightseeing and dinner cruises; went on a sailing adventure; played paintball, basketball, and golf; held a go-kart race; went bowling; and of course held innumerable happy hours.

But one recent team building exercise stood out to me as being particularly effective at bringing together our employees and drawing out attributes that may not have been readily apparent in the workplace. In August, we took part in an Iron Chef competition at a DC establishment called CulinAerie.

What is an Iron Chef competition?

In case you haven’t actually watched the show, an Iron Chef competition involves two or more teams that are given a “theme ingredient” and then must devise the best dish that incorporates that ingredient, all within a pre-allotted time. For the purposes of this event, CulinAerie first chose three people from our staff to be judges and then divided the rest of the employees into five teams. We were told that the themed ingredient was goat cheese, and then we had one hour to complete our dish. Chefs from CulinAerie were on hand to lend their expertise and offer suggestions to each team. At the end of the competition, we presented our dishes to the judges.

The competition fostered personal connections

One thing we like to do in our team building exercises is mix up the teams so that everyone is forced to work with people in departments other than their own. A benefit to these types of events is they ensure people see each other outside of the office environment and get a more holistic view of their coworkers and their families. It’s important for you to be able to view your colleague as more than just someone who works in a certain department, and so forcing them to work together on a non-work challenge pushes them out of their comfort zones and spurs conversation.

Why it needs to be a competition

We could have just broken off into groups and had each group prepare a dish to be eaten, but I think it’s important that our team building exercises feature some sort of competition. A competition spurs the team dynamics that you’re looking to draw out in a workplace environment. The Iron Chef competition is especially well tailored for team building for two reasons. The first is that the competition is timed, which adds a level of focus and urgency that forces teams to be efficient in their collaboration. The second is that cooking food is so far removed from what they do in their day jobs — writing and supporting software — that it was impossible going into the competition to know which coworkers would excel at it. In the past, when we’ve done things like trivia competitions, it wasn’t too difficult to predict who was likely to fare best, but the Iron Chef competition brought out strengths and talents in some employees that we hadn’t known existed.

The competition flattened the organization

It’s always good when you can temporarily flatten the hierarchy of an organization. Both my colleague Chris, the president of Cobalt, and I participated as team members with no more say or authority than any other teammate. It’s important sometimes to watch a team dynamic play out without a corporate leader at the helm, and the process also allowed us senior members of the staff to observe our employees outside the normal work environment where they might be more reluctant to speak up.

It was fun

It’s important to keep this last point in mind. Team building exercises are an opportunity to let loose and socialize, and having a genuinely fun time is the best way to foster this sort of behavior. I came away from the event really impressed with CulinAerie and the environment it creates with its Iron Chef competition. If you watch the TV version of Iron Chef, you know that an oft-repeated quote on the show is, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” Our employees left that night not only with full stomachs, but with a better understanding of who their coworkers are.

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