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Getting a Clue with Teambuilding Treasure Hunts

By Dave Blum, Dr. Clue Founder

Racing down the street on a cool Colorado morning, the  treasure hunt team converges on Denver’s retro baseball stadium, Coors Field. One team member clutches a map and a list of street names; another bears a digital camera; a third has her eyes glued to a wristwatch; the fourth wields a reference book; and the fifth holds a full-color clue sheet. The group’s instructions for this clue are as follows: “Split the distance between three baseball statues, then look down for a 5-letter name beginning with ‘P‘”.   As two teammates pace off the instructions, a third player shrieks “Eureka!” There at her feet — equidistant to all — is a dedication brick siting Rockies’ benefactor Julian Ponce.  The team earns itself 10,000 points!   But wait: they have nine more clues to go…

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Whether the venue is Denver’s LoDo district, New Orleans’ French Quarter, San Francisco’s Chinatown, a tropical island or somewhere under the sea, treasure hunting has an almost irresistible attraction—as old, perhaps, as civilization itself. From Odysseus’ journey to the search for the Holy Grail, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” to Poe’s “The Gold Bug” to the hunt for the Titanic—people have long been enthralled with the solving of clues, the unveiling of mysteries, and the promise of adventure (and glorious prizes). The blood quickens as we follow the map, the trail of breadcrumbs, knowing we’re getting nearer and nearer to our pot of gold. With their almost inherent allure, treasure and scavenger hunts have long been a staple of the corporate party and picnic scene. Under-utilized, however, are the team aspects of the treasure hunt model. With a bit of ingenuity, treasure hunts are being adapted to serve a more “practical,” bottom-line purpose:  helping organizations build high performance work teams.

Scavenger Hunts vs. Treasure Hunts

Contrary to popular perception, scavenger hunts and treasure hunts are completely different animals. In a scavenger hunt, teams receive a mere laundry list of items they need to locate (or challenges they have to accomplish); at the end of the day, these objects are counted and prizes awarded to the groups that have collected the most items (or have completed the most tasks successfully). A treasure hunt, by contrast, is much more of an intellectual challenge. Groups must work together to solve a series of tricky, puzzle-based riddles, codes and clues, leading to “mystery” locations pre-determined by the hunt master. For my money, the treasure hunt model is far better suited to the purpose of teambuilding. Players in a treasure hunt are compelled to put their heads together—brainstorming, problem-solving and making group decisions—all the while drawing on each other’s skills and knowledge. Their challenge is primarily mental—much like our work-place tasks and duties.

Get a Clue

Treasure hunts, understandably, are somewhat harder to construct than scavenger hunts—although the effort is certainly worth it.  Rather than drawing up a list of objects, the treasure hunt master must create clues—and not just any clues, either. They need to be “teambuilding clues.”  Such a clue possesses intrigue; it piques your interest, keeps you guessing and requires patient, creative, team-problem-solving. Such a clue needs to be fair and solvable—yes—but challenging enough that one person, working alone, would be hard pressed to crack it.

Clues come in any number of shapes and formats, depending on the learning point you’re aiming for. For brevity’s sake, I’ll break them down into three simple clue categories: “Trivia,” “Coordinated-Action,” and “Puzzles & Code.”

Trivial Pursuit

That the board game Trivial Pursuit remains so popular after all these years is for a reason: We all love to show off what we know. Take a few seconds (covering up the answer, below) to see if you can solve the following “trivia-based” clue, taken from a hunt in San Francisco’s historic North Beach neighborhood:

“Peter Falk, walking down the street, Madame Butterfly’s composer he did meet. Around the corner, an East Bay town is full of trees so you better look down. In memory of Carl and Gladys _______________. (5000 points)”

Answer:  Peter Falk, of course, played Detective Columbo on television over the years, so you start your search on North Beach’s main thoroughfare, Columbus Avenue.  As Madame Butterfly is an opera composed by Puccini, you would head down the street in search of the Puccini Cafe, on the corner of Vallejo (an “East Bay town”). Around the corner, under a tree, is a plaque dedicated to donor Carl and Gladys Skelley. Skelley, therefore, is your answer. Get it?  You wouldn’t learn the final answer without going to the actual location.  But trivia knowledge gets you to the general vicinity.

“Trivia” clues draw on team members’ stored-up knowledgebase.  Clearly, not everyone will know TV trivia from the 70s and 80s. Nor will everyone necessarily be familiar with music and opera. The right person with the right knowledge needs to be identified; ideas have to be sifted through until the correct factoid eventually emerges. Debriefing a clue such as this might have people discussing how organizations access employee knowledge. Imagine the dire implications of an organization not knowing who amongst its staff has the appropriate skills and information!

Coordinate or resuscitate

“Coordination” clues, unlike “trivia clues,” rely less on knowledge and more on cooperation. Take, for example, the Denver puzzle at the beginning of this article. In order to find the correct brick paving stone, three team members needed to move together in a synchronized manner. As they walked towards each other, pace for pace, they eventually located the name they were looking for. An additional player, you can be assured, was also standing to one side, giving counsel and offering directions. Skillful “coordination” clues lead teams, through physical action, affording the realization that some tasks cannot be done alone. One can easily imagine the debrief for a clue like this, starting with: “When has your departmental work team been faced with a challenge requiring simultaneous, directed action? What were the challenges, who supervised, and what would have been the result of attempting it all in isolation?”

A similar clue has players treasure-hunting at an aquarium, where the clue asks players to stare into a circular tank and count the number of California Baracudas. This is quite a tricky challenge when you consider that in the tank there are 10 different kinds of fish, all swimming at different speeds, and in both directions(!)  Does one person stand in the middle and count? Do team members each pick a barracuda and walk along with it?  One person, working on his own, would certainly go cross-eyed trying to follow all the fish without the help of others. How this group arrives at its coordination strategy is, again, a terrific debrief discussion.

To Code is human, to Puzzle divine

“Puzzle and Code” clues require yet another skill set—and seem to elicit the most diverse, often extreme reactions! Consider your own response to the following clue from New Orleans’ French Quarter, which begins: “Two streets meet: one has . – .-. – in its center, the other has . – .. .. -. .”

Did you identify the dots and dashes as Morse Code? Moreover, did you find yourself thinking “Oh no, I’m terrible at this kind of thing!” That’s exactly the effect that puzzles and codes can have on people, with insecurity bubbling quickly to the surface!  Puzzles and codes are, indeed, difficult; they’re unfamiliar; and quite simply, they can make you feel a little dumb. (Yet another debrief-able point!)

For the clue above, we give each team a Morse Code reader—either on a card, as part of a toy, or within some kind of small reference book. Then, using the code key, the team would decipher the phrase as: “Two streets meet: one has ‘ART’ in its center, the other has ‘LINE’”—referring to the French Quarter cross streets Chartres and Ursulines. Still with us?

“Puzzle and code” clues are great for leading discussions about personality preferences and multiple intelligences. After all, not everyone on a team is going to embrace this kind of challenge; it may only be that one team member, with the appropriate temperament, is thinking, “Morse Code—Cool! Give it over to me. I’m great at this kind of thing”

That same person’s face, however, might turn pale when faced with the following number-based, puzzle clue, which starts:

“Let your fingers do the walking to 744547 at 76925″

The trick for this one  is to consult a telephone keypad for the trio of letters on each number button (i.e., 2 is ABC, 3 is DEF). With some doing, you should be able to decode the numbers in the clue to “PHILIP” at “ROYAL,” referring to New Orleans’ St. Philip and Royal Street. Did you get it? Debrief questions for this clue might be, “How did you feel when faced with the puzzle?” “How do you deal with confusion?” and “What came up for you when your teammate(s), and not you, managed to crack it?”

Treasure hunts are terrific for teambuilding because they make you think and  they force you to brainstorm.  Throughout, you need to strategize, communicate and occasionally give up and come back to things. Whether you’re writing “Trivia,” “Coordinated-Action,” or “Puzzles & Code” clues—and a great teambuilding treasure hunt uses all three types—the following principle should be your guide: Teams of people, working and thinking together, can achieve more than one person can alone, and they can have more fun doing it.

Look for your treasure hunt with this in mind and you will most certainly “Have A Clue” about great team building design!


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