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Team-Building Treasure and Scavenger Hunts - Getting a Clue on How to Write Them

Racing down the street on a cool Colorado morning, the teambuilding treasure hunt team converges on Denver's retro baseball stadium, Coors Field. One team member is clutching a map and a list of street names; another bears a Polaroid camera; a third has her eyes glued to a wristwatch; the fourth wields a reference book; and the fifth holds a clue sheet. The group's instructions for this clue: "Split the distance between three baseball statues, then look down for a 5-letter name beginning with 'P'". Pacing it off with two teammates, Player Three suddenly cries "Eureka!" At their feet, equidistant to all, is a brick dedicated to Rockies' benefactor Julian Ponce. The team earns itself 10,000 points! They have a mere eleven more clues to go.

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, or the trail of breadcrumbs, knowing we're nearing our pot of gold. With their almost inherent allure, treasure and scavenger hunts have, for years, been a staple of the corporate party and picnic scene. Under-utilized, however, are the team aspects of the treasure hunt model. With just a bit of ingenuity, treasure hunts can be adapted for a more "practical," bottom-line purpose: that of helping organizations build high performance work teams.

Scavenger Hunts vs. Treasure Hunts

Scavenger hunts and treasure hunts, it should first be noted, are completely different animals. In a scavenger hunt, teams receive a laundry list of items they need to locate (or challenges they have to accomplish); then, at the end of the day, their 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, on the other hand, is more of an intellectual challenge. Groups must work together to solve a series of tricky, puzzling riddles 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 must put their heads together, brainstorming and problem-solving, drawing on each other's skills and knowledge. Their challenge is 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 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. It 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 is for a reason: We all love to show off what we know. Take a few seconds (covering up the answer) 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?

"Trivia" clues draw on team members' stored-up base of knowledge. 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, to the realization that some tasks cannot be done alone. It is not difficult to 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-quite a tricky configuration challenge when you consider that there are 10 different kinds of fish, and they're swimming at different speeds, 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, on his own, would certainly go cross-eyed trying to follow all the fish without the help of others. How they arrive at their strategy is also 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 . - .. .. -. ."