As a team manager you may encounter various difficult team situations. Use this guide to help you avoid common pitfalls, and handle breakdowns when they occur.


About this Page

We hope that you are looking at this page at the beginning of the year, before any trouble arises…

…but we know that some of you will arrive here when a breakdown happens.

That’s OK! Just pick where you want to start:


It is far better to prevent breakdowns in team cohesion before they happen, rather than reacting to them when they do happen. Here are some ideas on how to build and maintain a well functioning team.

Your Team Needs to Form before it can Perform!

Stages of Team Development

  1. Forming – simply getting the group together.
  2. Storming – A certain amount of conflict inevitable as a newly-formed group learns to communicate and work together.
  3. Norming – Once the roles and relationships are established, the group can start learning to work together more efficiently.
  4. Performing – this is the phase when good things happen. It isn’t simply last-minute crisis management that causes many teams to get 80% of their work done in the last 20% of the available time. Much of the early time is spent in steps 1-3

See Tools for Managing a Team for more on this!

Team Building

It is important not to neglect team building! You may think that you already have a team, and that its members know each other, but the participants may have never worked with each other in this way before. Working in a self-generated program like Destination Imagination is different from most school-based group work! There is no teacher pushing informatoin to the students, managing the direction of learning. Even if you have an established team that has competed in DI before, team building is a necessity – as the participants mature, their personality evolves and grows. Do not assume that team members who had established relationships from prior years are ready to work together under the same assumptions as in prior years.

Most team cohesion issues later in the year stem from inadequate team building at the start of the year!

Resources for Team Building

Set Shared Expectations

It is difficult for teams to thrive if the do not have a good foundation of shared expectations – both about how they will relate to each other, and about the task before them (solving the Challenge).

  • It’s important to set expectations for both parents and kids!
  • Consider using team member and parent contracts – either the ones on our web page, or the one in the Roadmap, or both!
  • Make sure that everyone – team members and parents – understand the time commitment. When will team meetings take place? Make sure they know about the smaller group work sessions / building sessions / etc., and that the frequency and length of sessions will increase as the Tournament nears. Let them know that there is a strong correlation between the number of hours put into the challenge and success at the tournament!
  • Set ground rules up front.
    • Safety first!
    • Respect everyone’s ideas: There are no stupid, wrong or bad ideas! Insist on supportive language: Teams should avoid saying “but”, “stupid”, or “no”. Instead use “yes and”, “maybe we could…”, or “it might be better if…”, etc.
    • Be on time: For team meetings, for work / building sessions, for the Tournament, etc.
    • Honor your commitments: If you promised that a task will be done by some date, get it done on time, but…
    • Ask for help when needed: If that task is taking longer than you expected, ask for help from your teammates!
    • Give help when asked: If your teammate asks for help, be there to help!
    • Any other ground rules that you as Team Manager think will support the team.
  • Understand the realities:
    • Team members are humans just like you.
    • They have good moods, and sometimes bad moods.
    • Team members get tired sometimes.
    • Not every team member will be equally committed to success.
    • You will never achieve equal contribution in time or effort by every team member. Don’t expect this, and don’t fret if you don’t achieve it.
    • Not every team member will be available for every meeting. Kids are very over-subscribed these days!
    • Breakdowns happen! People make mistakes. It is isn’t a problem unless you fail to learn from it.

Keep Your Meetings Organized

Well organized meetings and work sessions are essential for good team morale. Poorly organized or unfocused meetings can be a progress and morale killer!

Here are some tips for each meeting:

  • Prepare for the meeting! Make sure that you and the team both know what the goal of the meeting is, and what the team hopes to accomplish in the meeting. With new teams, the Team Manager should set the agenda for at least the first few meetings. Make sure that you have the supplies that the team needs on hand – or that you know who will be bringing the materials.
  • Start every meeting with team building!
    • Many teams have a greeting process in which the team takes a few moments to “clear off” whatever happened before the meeting. This could be asking each team member to tell the team, in 5 seconds or less, about their day / week / etc.
    • Always do some kind of team building exercise (see above). 
    • Once teams get better at Instant Challenge, you can use an easier IC as a team building exercise, or perhaos ICs that they have already solved once.
  • Two kinds of meetings:
    • Team Meetings: The entire team should be present. A time to plan, brainstorm, generate ideas, select ideas for implementation, and for practice. They are not the time to do building, writing, etc. Supervised by the Team Manager. Start out once a week, then add more as you get closer to the Tournament. Every Team Meeting should include an Instant Challenge!
    • Work Sessions: Usualy 2 or 3 team members, or you can have the entire team but split into groups in separate rooms. This is the time to build, write, edit, sew, paint, etc. May be supervised by the Team Manager, or by another adult who understands the ground rules (see above), and especially the rules on Interference. There are usualy 2 or 3 work sessions each week. [Note, this probably does not apply to the Improv Challenge.]
  • Don’t make meetings too long, or if they are long, make sure that there are occasional breaks for purely fun activities that are not related to solving the challenge!

“Do”s and “Don’t”s

green checkThings you MUST do:

  • Make sure every Team Member and parent knows the expectations for the team.
  • Know your team members! Understand their individual skill sets, what excites them, what bores them, who is quiet, who is loud, who is confident, who is shy. Tailor your interactions to suit them, and make sure that each gets to contribute to the solution.
  • Help the team understand Rules of the Road and the Challenge (without opining on possible solutions)
  • Be a project manager for the team, organizing time and documenting decisions. This often entails being record keeper / scribe. We suggest a team notebook, or perhaps a shared Google Drive folder.
  • Be fair and inclusive! Make sure that every team member has the opportunity to share their ideas, and have them evaluated fairly, regardless of the team member’s gender, age, skin color, history, etc.
  • Make your team meetings a safe space to share anything – not just about the Challenge, but about everything. The team that knows each other, cares about each other, and loves each other unconditionally is a team that can solve any challenge, no matter how difficult.
  • Insist that your team work to plan. Don’t let the team start DOING until they have a PLAN of what they are going to do.
  • Remember that creativity is an iterative process! Plan a little, build a little, test a little, reflect, repeat!
  • Provide skills training when the team requests it. Always be asking “what would you need to know to implement this idea”. If you cannot provide the skills training yourself, find someone who can.
  • Monitor for safety! Injuries are bad for morale. See the Safety Commandments.
    Safety Commandments
    • Use protective equipment: Safety goggles, gloves, proper ventilation, good lighting, etc.
    • If the team can’t do it safely, you may intervene. Ask if there another way to accomplish the goal.
    • The right tool always safer than the wrong tool.
    • Sharp blades are always safer than dull blades.
    • A neat and organized work space is always safer than a messy work space.
    • Avoid overcrowded work spaces.
    • New safety rules may need to be developed for the use of things the team builds.
    • See Rules of the Road for more safety rules.
  • Seek decision by consensus; avoid the tyranny of the majority. Become an expert in the use of CPS Tools that support consensus based idea generation and evaluation.
  • Brainstorm with team parents individually and as a group on how to best support each member of the team. 
  • Communicate with parents proactively! It is easy for an upset that seems to be completely resolved in the team meeting to flare up again when the team member gets home and a parent asks them how the meeting went. Sometimes this is because the parent is more invested in the team member’s ideas than the team member is; other times it can be a warning sign for interference, or indicates that the team members aren’t communicating with each other honestly and openly.  
  • Find the positive! It is cliché, but you can attract more ants with honey than with vinegar.
  • Call forth excellence! You can ask the team…
    • “Is this working to your expectations?”
    • “Is this tournament ready?”
    • “Is this reliable?”
    • “How can you improve on this solution?”
    • “Let’s check this solution against the scoring rubric…”
    • “Does this look like the quality seen at Global Finals?”
  • Turn breakdowns into opportunity. “Ok, your device broke. What can you learn from this breakdown? How can you improve it to be more reliable?”
  • Celebrate both successes and failures! Help the team to break the big problem (the Challenge) down into smaller, more manageable problems. Then help them break those down into even smaller sub-problems. Celebrate whenever a solution is found to even the tiniest problem. Also celebrate when a proposed solution to a problem fails! Even though that idea didn’t work, the team has learned something that in the end will make their overall solution better.
  • Avoid the sunk cost fallacy! Just because the team has worked hard and long on a particular idea doesn’t mean that it is the best route to the solution. Time spent in the past is irrelevant – what matters is how much time and effort it will take to get from the current state to the a complete, excellent and reliable solution. But be careful not to jump ideas too easily, and be sure to emphasize that even if the team changes course, the effort on the abandoned idea was not wasted! It allowed the team to learn in a way that might not have been possible otherwise.
  • Tell the truth! When in doubt, when you don’t know what to say to the team about some situation, telling the truth about what you see (while avoiding interference) and about what you feel (again, avoiding manipulation), are good techniques. Honesty is both disarming and forwarding for the team; it sets a good example, and calls forth similar honesty in the team members.
  • When in doubt, get help! Call your organizations DI Coordinator (if there is one), or else contact your regional director who can guide you or direct you to an appropriate mentor.

stopNever Do These Team Breaking Things:

  • Don’t interfere! Interference can kill a team faster than you can blink. The moment you start telling them what to do, how to do it, the team is doomed. You’ve broken the rules of the program, and it is nearly impossible to recover from that.
  • Don’t manipulate your team! Leading questions are not permitted in a court of law, because they can be used to steer the answer, and that’s just as true here in Destination Imagination. Don’t provide a bucket of materials for the team in the hope that they will pick those materials to construct their solution; that too is manipulative. 
  • Don’t be fickle! Insist that the team put reasonable effort into refining and fixing an idea that might not be working out before immediately abandoning it for a different solution. But also see the item on the sunk cost fallacy, (above).
  • Don’t favor a particular style of communication. Some kids are quieter, others more brash. Some speak out with confidence about their ideas, others are more cautious. Some are shy, others outgoing. Make sure that both the confident and the cautious have an opportunity to share their ideas.
  • Don’t limit your team with low expectations! It is not your job to tell them “you can’t” or “it won’t work”. Rather, it is your job to tell them “you can”, “how can I support you”, or “what skills training can I help you find”. You exist in support of the dream, never in opposition to it.
  • Don’t vote! Majority votes, as a method of idea selection, can be absolutely corrosive to team morale, because someone always loses the vote. Instead use evaluation matrix or one of the other idea selection CPS tools!
  • Don’t lie! For instance, don’t say the solution is great if it’s mediocre; don’t say the team is working hard when they are being lazy. The team knows when their solution is subpar, even if they haven’t admitted it to themselves out loud. If something isn’t working, support them in making it better. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions, like “will this solution get you to the Affiliate Tournament?” or “will this solution get you to Global Finals?”.


Even if you follow the guide above, you may encounter some common difficulties. Here are a few, together with some effective ideas on how to address them:

A Team Member is Dismissive or Speaks Negatively About Other Members’ Ideas

  • As the team manager, you should interrupt this promptly!
  • Ask the team member to explain exactly what their concerns are about the proposed idea.
  • Ask the team member to propose an alternative that they think would work better, and explain why they think it would work better
  • Don’t allow team members to rank solutions; instead use a CPS Tool for idea selection.
  • If the problem persists, brainstorm with the student’s 

A Team Member doesn’t seem to be “pulling their weight”, or seems disengaged

  • First, check in with the team member. It doesn’t hurt to ask them what is going on! But be careful to listen more than you tell, and be careful not to phrase your question in a way that makes them feel like you are accusing them of something.
  • Have a chat with the team member’s parent, and let them know your concerns.
  • Discuss with the team how to allocate work more evenly.
  • Is there a particular element of the Challenge, or a Team Choice Element idea, that this Team Member could concentrate on?

A Team Member is upset that their idea was not selected by the team

  • First, acknowledge the team member’s contribution. Thank them for the effort they put in and the risk they took presenting their idea.
  • Explore with the team whether aspects of the idea can be incorporated into the solution in some way.
  • Be sure to add the idea to the team notebook or equivalent, so that if the idea the team has selected flops, the team member’s idea is ready in the idea bank.
  • Speak to the team member’s parent promptly, preferably before the team member goes home, to explain to them what happened. 

A Team Member is domineering and attempts (either successfully or unsuccessfully) to force the team to adopt their ideas over other ideas

  • Interrupt and say “let’s apply a CPS tool to this idea and compare against other ideas that the team has”.
  • Remind the entire team that everyone’s ideas are worthy of consideration.
  • Have a private discussion with the team member, and remind them that while their ideas are valued, the team members are all equals, and that the entire team must come into alignment behind a solution.
  • If necessary, speak to the team member’s parent and ask for assistance.
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