Why Helium Stick doesn’t always fly for team building

Helium Stick (or magic stick) is powerful energiser and icebreaker and can be used to introduce fundamental team skills. With good reason. It’s one of the world’s most popular experiential activities. But sometimes it doesn’t fly. Sometimes it fails to deliver the fundamental team skills it promises. Don’t get caught out. This guide discusses three of the common pitfalls encountered when facilitating Helium Stick and helps you avoid them.

3 Reasons Why Helium Stick Doesn’t Always Fly

The three common pitfalls of using the Helium Stick are; using it with frustrated teams, failing to make interventions and when there is a mismatch between the complexity of the activity and the participants reality.

Frustrated Individuals and Dysfunctional Teams

Helium Stick is a simple, effective activity, so it can be tempting to use it with your most challenging groups. But caution is needed, too much underlying tension can kill the activity (and make your life difficult too!). In any experiential activity frustrations can become overwhelming, but in most participants simply withdraw for a moment, recover and come back to it. In Helium Stick there’s nowhere to hide. Instead participants sometimes completely withdraw, physically or mentally.

So instead of using Helium Stick with frustrated individuals or a highly dysfunctional team, start with something a little more cathartic such as Play House from the MTa Team Kit. If you’re mid-way through the day let frustrations settle, by taking a short break: give everyone space and time to relax and reset before the activity starts. If the tension is still present, consider a facilitated conversation to explore the tension and how it could be resolved.

Failing to Intervene

Another mistake you can easily make when using the Helium Stick is letting participants fail and fail and fail again without making any process interventions. Without process interventions some groups are unable to improve their performance. This demotivates and disengages learners to the point where they won’t want to be part of the rest of the day. The solution is a few timely interventions and the asking of potent questions. Questions such as ‘What will help you to succeed?’ or ‘What are the behaviours that will help your team to perform more effectively?’. This focuses the team on the process. The result? A team that can improve their own performance and is motivated to succeed at the challenge rather than blaming each other.

Lack of Complex Team Processes

The team processes required to succeed in Helium Stick are fundamental for effective team working but rather basic. The last pitfall of the Helium Stick is when there is a mismatch between the complexity of the activity and the participants workplace reality. This is especially relevant when working with functional teams that deal with high levels of uncertainty e.g. senior leaders. The Helium Stick, in our experience, is too simple to generate any meaningful learning. It presents a simple problem and a simple solution. Managers typically operate in situations where the problem may be clear, but the solutions rarely are. This problem is not limited to the Helium Stick but is reflected in all basic experiential learning activities, from The Marshmallow Challenge to Planks.

To engage these audiences, you will get better results with more complex activities which will stimulate them and reflect their reality. Activities such as Over the Bridge from MTa’s Team Kit introduce a higher level of uncertainty and require more sophisticated team processes to succeed. This makes them more suitable for senior leaders.

If you want to find out more request a free consultation with Alex or Jamie, our senior facilitators. Alternatively, improve your facilitation skills with these free hints and tips.