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Elephants in Main Street: Stephen Blades

A different take on teambuilding helps one player differentiate itself from its competitors.

Juliet Pitman

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Stephen Blades of Elephants in Main Street

If, when arriving for a team-buildingsession, Stephen Blades’ clients expect to shoot each other with paint balls, racedirt bikes or do their best impression of Kamp Staaldraad, they will bedisappointed. Rather, they might find themselvesplanning, filming, producing, editing and acting in their own movie about wheretheir team is going. Or they might create a newspaper as a team of“journalists”, reporting not on their past, but on their future, writing thenews for the year ahead. Alternatively they could get a crash course indarkroom photography and do an exhibition of black and white photos thatcapture the culture of their organisation. It’s a different take on teambuildingbut then Blades’ vision has always been a little left-field, somethingevidenced by his company’s name. “I was on honeymoon in Thailand on anincredibly busy main road that was congested with cars, and there, cruisingthrough the chaos, was an elephant. I wanted to create a company that capturedthis ability to cut through the noise andmove steadily forward amid chaos. So that’s where the company name, Elephants in Main Street, came from,” he says.

Takingteambuilding to the next level

Blades’ ingenuity lies in takingteambuilding – long plagued by a reputation for being arbitrary, contrived andunable to teach lessons that can be translated back to the real work context –to the next level. What the company offers is fun andcreative stuff, but its true value resides in far more than this. Traditionalteambuilding uses team-centred events to help participants come to grips withchallenges, team dynamics and differing opinions and, in so doing,learn about how their view might differ from other people in their team. Theend 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 pictureof their company’s vision, mission, values or goals for tomorrow. Getting ateam to understand these things, and work towards them with a common purpose,is one of the biggest challenges facing companies today,” Blades explains.

Translationis the secret ingredient

Underpinning everything is one of thecompany’s key differentiators – a focus on ensuring that what is learnt in theteambuilding 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 aunique take on how to make this happen. “The translation should take placebefore the teambuilding even begins. Many companies want to have a team-buildbecause they think it’s the done thing, but we won’t work like that. We want toknow 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 teambuilding exercisenot knowing what you want the experience to teach your team, of course theywon’t take any applicable learnings back to the office. You’re doomed from thestart,” he says.

Meetingmarket demands

Blades and his team have invested agreat deal in developing a unique suite of products. He explains, “We havefive: Creative Expressive, like the movies, newspaper and photography sessions,which focus on culture and goals; Creative Technical, in which participantsaddress the way in which they solve problems; Cognitive Experiential, in whichthey learn through practical experience; Socialisers, which falls into the moretraditional teambuilding focus of getting people to know each other and worktogether; and Creative Adventure, which includes adventure-type sessions for morephysically inclined people.”

This combination of carefully craftedand differentiated offerings allows Elephants in Main Street to take a customised approachto meeting a wide variety of client requirements. “Different companies havedifferent needs. Some of them may want the more traditional type ofteambuilding sessions, so we meet that need as well, but we always make surethat what we offer is well thought through, relevant and different from thenorm,” he says. The company serves clients all over theworld; South Africa is theflagship office but it has expanded to the UK,Singapore, Dubai,Namibia and Australia. Andwhile 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 chaosand keep moving forward. Much like that elephant in the Thai traffic.

  • Company: Elephants in Main Street
  • Player: Stephen Blades
  • Est 1995
  • Contact: +27 11 476 7300

Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.

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