The Amazing Freeze

I hereby lodge as much a formal complaint to the final outcome of last night’s team building event as one can without a process by which to handle it. So I’m throwing it out on the Internet for all to see.

But more on that in a minute … or five.

This week, Critical Mass’ first and still largest client, Mercedes-Benz USA, came up to the mind-numbingly cold Great White North of Calgary for Year 2004 planning meetings.

Client meetings can go one of two ways: good, and horrible. I have the fortune, thus far, of never having had the latter. All of the client meetings have been good: productive, educational, if perhaps a little dry from time to time. But at the end of the day, you can walk off knowing that you’ve done a good job.

I’ve been on the Mercedes account for over three years, now. Overall, it’s been a fairly good (albeit trying) experience. But in those three years, I hadn’t really met the client before. So walking onto the fourth floor, I ran into a lot of people I had never really met before.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. I had “met” most of them during a previous visit, about this time last year (before I was promoted into the lead team). They came by on a tour, shook hands, I did a 30-second unprepared song and dance, they walked off. Now I had to remember their names and interact with them. (Not that is a bad thing in any way.)

Wednesday was our first day of meetings. Eight o’clock in the morning until after five o’clock in the afternoon. Straight. Wednesday night was the first event, which was a kind of cooking class. Can’t tell you anything about it, though. Wasn’t invited. (Although I’m a lead, apparently I’m not important enough to be considered for some things … the rel reason was due to too many people on the team, and that I don’t have direct contact with the client on a regular basis).

The first activity of the day, though, was a team-building event. Basically, personality bingo. We had to go around the room and find things that people could do or have done (for example, who could drive stick shift or who had been to five countries).

The next thing was a review of management types. We had all done a survey that produced our management strengths. The result is one of four “colours”: red (direct and to-the-point), green (extroverted), blue (planning), and yellow (structured). The idea is to focus on the strengths, and know how you communicate with other colours.

I’m a blue, for the record. It’s characterized by taking time to get all the facts, understand the situation, and plan things out. Supposedly, one of the other characteristics is a long fuse (apparently, we can take a lot of crap); but when it burns out, run.

At the time I saw that characteristic, I actually took a bit of offence. I used to be like that. Won’t deny it — can’t deny it. But I’ve taken great strides in keeping my temper in check. I would even go so far as to say that I’m a lot more laid back than I used to be.

Thursday. Stories of the dinner the night before. More meetings. A little later of a start, but the same sort of results. The technology review got booted twice, and ultimately delayed until today (we’re just getting underway as I type this, and I wonder if we’ll be getting to it at all).

The thing we looked forward to most, though, was the team event. This typically happens on the last night of a meetings. It’s always different, but almost always fun. I don’t know what they did last time, but a couple years ago they did the O-Lame-Pics, which was some combination of winter “sports”. This year was something different.

At first, we were actually told we needed to bring snowpants. I have no idea why, but I can only guess there was something to do with, well, snow. (I know, took a real stretch of deduction.) That was changed when we were told that we would not be outdoors for more than seven minutes at a time. But we were not told what the event was. All we were told was to be in the Walker Room of the Hyatt hotel at 18:15.

At about 18:30, the game was finally announced: The Amazing Freeze. Based on the reality show “The Amazing Race”, the idea was that we would run around downtown Calgary, doing various events and getting clues to the next event.

Sounds pretty straight-forward, eh? Well, here’s something to really throw a wrench in your aspirations. We were “randomly” (I assume randomness, but have to really wonder) put into teams of 5-6 people. While most of the teams were a blend of Critical Mass and Mercedes-Benz USA employees. As was with mine. Except for one detail.

Everyone else was from New York. I was the only one who had any idea of where these places were.

The teams were named by model. We were Team SL500 (my favourite Benz, although I’ll never be able to afford one). There was Anne, our account manager in New York; Ed, who runs the Dealers program at Mercedes; Diane, who runs the Owners program at Mercedes; Lark, who is one of Mercedes IT’s representatives; and yours truly.

We were handed knapsacks. In these knapsacks were bottles of water, a pad of paper, two taxi chits, a couple of pens, and an emergency phone number to call in the event you somehow got lost.

As we had already been drinking when we were handed the bag, the logical thing to do was replace the bottles of water with bottles of beer and wine. (Hey, if you’re gonna run around downtown Calgary like maniacs, you might as well be loaded while doing it.)

We then got our first clue. The entire group of about 25 people rushed out of the hotel en masse (I can only imagine what the other guests were thinking), dashing off to their first destinations. Three groups (including ours) ended up at the James Joyce. First challenge: sidle up to the bar, and suck back a few shots. Jim Beam. Blech.

Next clue took us to the Calgary Tower. I started making the team run. I got caught up in the competition. This was a bit of a challenge, because Lark and Ed don’t run, Diane is a self-professed “lazy New Yorker”, and I had a little too much energy for my own good. We ran across red lights.

A list of 10 questions, including the name of the building with a yellow plane in its lobby (the Petro-Canada Tower), the date Calgary became a city (1884), or what building was built for the 1983 Summer Games (the Lindsay Park facility, now known as the Talisman Centre, which had been the velodrome, I believe). Assuming you didn’t know the answers, you could find them by using four kiosks around the tower’s observation level.

We ran a lot.

Questions filled in, we caught the elevator back down. As we caught our breath, we had an Australian couple (I think they were Australian) take our team photo. In the spirit of the game, and because the shots had kicked in by that time, Lark offered the couple one of our bottles of beer.

I’ve never seen such a confused and bewildered look before in my life.

Turning the question sheet over to the clerk at the desk (who had answered “I don’t remember” when asked if he would help us with the question sheet), we received our next clue. It took a moment for me to figure out what it said (remember, the shots had kicked in), and we ran off to Winner’s to get a team “uniform” that could be purchased for CDN$60.

The Winner’s staff were probably more confused than the couple in the elevator. All they knew was that there would be teams of people running through the store on some goofy quest. But first, we needed a team uniform. The team made a quick decision: socks. Really ugly ones. Ed was so enthusiastic, he ripped them from the racks, the little plastic clips flying everywhere. Ed ran back to the cashier, Diane apologising to the clerk for our haste.

Right about then, Lark started telling the clerk (who was holding our clue envelopes) that she was with another team. Somehow, she got the CLK500 envelope. At this point, Diane and I got on the fairness bandwagon and decried Lark’s underhandedness, and made her hand it back.

If we’d been thinking, we would have grabbed all the envelopes and scrambled the clues (they were all different). Oh well, lesson learned.

Atrocious socks in hand, we were off to the Glenbow Museum. (Yes, running. Well, I was. The rest of the team, not so much.) We had a choice: either run through the Bog People exhibit (which I saw about a week and a half ago), or take the detour. The detour won, hands-down.

The detour was simple, though: tie ourselves together with scarves, run out to Macleod Trail, and run back. The whole thing took about 30 seconds. We chanted like Marines as we jogged down the block and back. Next clue: Off to sushi.

If there was one key mistake that we made, it was following the instructions and taking the C-Train. If we’d been thinking, we’d have taken a taxi. So we had to wait 10 minutes for a train to show up.

But we sort of played the taxi angle. While the rest of us waited on the platform, Ed wandered out to the road to flag something down. He didn’t find a taxi, but managed to frighten some poor woman in a minivan (she locked her doors), tried to flag down one of Calgary Transit’s community busses, and almost stopped a police SUV.

The train finally showed up, and we headed off to the 7th St. stop, at the other end of downtown. We were the last team to get to Sushi Hiro (but not because we were slow; that was just our last stop). We had to wait for the previous team to finish and leave.

The game was a kind of fear factor: people had to eat sushi. Oh. My. Such fear. The longest part of the effort was laying claim to the sushi we wanted to eat. It disappeared in less time than we’d had to wait to eat it. (Lark pulled out the wine, and Ed cracked a beer … with his teeth, no less!) Back out the door, we started to flag down a cab, only to luck into having a cab be there, waiting. (It had been called by a previous team, and had been late arriving.) We were off to our final stop: Catch Restaurant.

We didn’t use the taxi chits, Ed paid for the cab with cash. In the door, and up the stairs, we were the first team to arrive. We even had to find Eryn, who was more-or-less the ringleader of the whole event. The elation of being first, despite the odds that were against us, was outstanding.

The rest of the teams started arriving. By the time we got back downstairs (we weren’t allowed upstairs yet, so had to wait in the Oyster Bar), the second team had arrived. It wasn’t long before most of the teams had finished, and we were allowed back upstairs.

Tales from the teams’ exploits were traded around. No-one had gotten lost, but we weren’t the only ones to make mistakes. One team actually walked to Sushi Hiro and back, which added a significant portion of time to their race.

We sat down to dinner, which consisted of salad or clam and oyster chowder, haibut or beef, and a chocolate mousse cake. Very tasty.

Awards for the teams were handed out, from last to first. Eryn added colour commentary, which was definitely playful. Everyone was having fun. At least until they announced the winner.

A different team supposedly won. They weren’t even the second team to come through the door! I was dumbfounded! And it was because, of all things, because they’d had to wait for sushi, so they got a time bonus.

Remember that long fuse? It burned out.

Considering the difficulties our team faced, we should have been granted a lot more leniency. But no, somewhere a serious breech of the rules occured and the winning team didn’t actually win. To put it succinctly, we were robbed.

Yes, I’m still steamed. We got a coffee mug. Much better than the little keychain light, teddy bear, or box of Smarties of the other teams (the “winning” team made off like kings), but it’s not the prize that’s at issue here! It’s the principle of the thing. We’d won, pure and simple. We followed the rules (despite Lark’s attempt at sabotage), and finished first. Why should we get penalized because another team had to wait for something out of their control?

“It’s just a game, Geoff, don’t take it so personally!”

Yeah, yeah, I know. Considering all the things we had to, the excellent team building we had done, the “process” we’re supposed to be following (as a part of our jobs), and arriving first, all I wanted was to cheer our vistory. I couldn’t care less about winning anything. The fact that four Americans had to put their faith in a lone Canuck not to get them lost, come together as a team, and still complete the course before everyone else should garner the recognition. What else can I say? I got caught up in the competitivenes.

Yeah, so this is my formal complaint. We won, darn it, and you can’t take that away from us. Take your fancy backpacks, I don’t care! (I have one, anyway.) I have the satisfaction that we are #1.

Now before everyone thinks I’m too negative about all this, make no mistake: I had fun. A lot of fun. I would do it again in a second. It was planned wonderfully, executed brilliantly, and (outcome notwithstanding) an excellent idea for the event. I have to keep it in mind should I ever have to do this sort of thing again.

But next time, I’m switching the envelopes.