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Our Secret to Successful Engagement in Team Building

Delegates interrogating a suspect in a murder mystery

Murder Mystery?

Understandably, most people I meet have only ever encountered the world of murder mystery in a party environment, sitting round a dinner table trying to fathom the complicated instructions from a box set through a haze of wine.  Therefore, it can be difficult to imagine how on earth the format can, for example, improve group and individual performance within teams, or improve and develop employee engagement.  I’m often asked if it’s actually possible to achieve valuable learning outcomes from team building, and specifically how our murder mysteries actually work, and so here I’m sharing the format, and why we’ve found it to be successful.   Let’s take our Murder in the Boardroom, for example; on the surface, it may seem to be an activity designed simply for fun, but there is method behind the murder!

Setting the Scene

As facilitator, it’s up to me to create feelings of trust, safety and connection among participants right from the beginning, while also making sure to communicate what the goal of the activity is.  The most effective way of doing this is to introduce myself in character right from the start, and maintain my alter ego throughout the whole activity. It’s all about the first impression and starting with a strong premise.

My character sets the scene; announcing to the group that unfortunately, the ‘visitor’ who they are expecting has, in fact, been found dead, in suspicious circumstances.  Our suspects will then make their entrance; each already has a strong feeling of resentment towards the victim for various reasons, and they are apparently shocked when told the news that he is no longer with us.

By introducing the crime, and the characters, in this surprising and theatrical way, we’re promoting the willingness required from the delegates to see it all through to the end and solve the murder.  They are engaged right from the start and are on board with the whole scenario, no matter how unusual it may seem.

As our activity is more about the solving than the actual murder, we don’t supply a ‘body’!  Instead, the large team divides into sub teams, and told that they will soon be able to investigate the crime scene, and interrogate the suspects…

Interrogation and Investigation

By now the teams are clear about their objective (to solve the murder), the way in which they will go about it (interrogating each suspect in turn, and investigating the crime scene to look for physical clues) and the tone of the whole activity has been set clearly by the characters.  The story is light-hearted; our characters are personable and extreme.  We find that one of the reasons why our activities are so successful is that it allows the delegates to laugh at the absurdity of the situation they are in, which goes hand in hand with a willingness to ‘let go’.

Murder in the Boardroom involves a high level of interaction; by placing the delegates in a situation where they are talking to a character rather than a ‘real’ person, they feel able to throw themselves fully into the experience.  Essentially we, as actors, are the ones making an exhibition of ourselves, allowing the delegates to remain in a ‘safe’ place without fear of embarrassment.   As one client put it: ‘we think you are all very brave coping admirably with what is, essentially up close and personal heckling, but you guys made it easy look effortless’

By using one key character (the facilitator) to hold everything together, we create the all-important trust required to make the activity a success.  It makes it easy for the teams to engage, and therefore for us to truly observe the way in which they work, engage with others and play a part within their team, without them feeling as though they are being assessed or judged.

Conclusions and Theories

Each team collaborates, using the hard-won information they’ve gathered, to come to a conclusion.  Our actual story lines themselves are intricate, faintly ridiculous but plausible. They contain a huge amount of detailed backstory, timelines and motives involved to allow for any number of different theories for the teams to come up with.  We create a web of intrigue which drives delegates towards the desire to find out the truth, and we encourage the most ridiculous answers and theories; anything goes!

The dénouement is the most fun of all; after each team has laid their cards on the table and put forward their theory as to who the guilty party is, our characters really come into their own.  A full on argument ensues, with each character admitting or revealing secrets about themselves until the true killer is unmasked.  It’s the team’s reward for all their hard work, and successfully allows them to have achieved their goal of finding out all of the answers, whether or not their theories were correct.

So, what does this mean for business goals, workplace relevance and engagement?  Well, for a team-building activity to be successful, we must tie the activity to the business goals of the participants.   We do this by fully understanding before the event just what it is that the business needs to achieve.  Is the team not communicating effectively? Are there certain problem areas within the team which need to be pinpointed and challenged?  Or is it simply a reward for an already efficient team?

Lastly, we collate everything which we’ve observed about each team member into a simple report, following the event.  We have the advantage of having no preconceived ideas about what to expect from the team, and can give our results from an entirely different perspective, from the outside looking in.

The results can be predictable, or sometimes surprising to the people who know the delegates most closely, but either way, they are a valuable tool for moving forward.  And what is more, the teams have enjoyed a unique experience they will be talking about for weeks!