Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent

Five strategy cvr

Having done my share of constructing towers from Lego and bridges from drinking straws at company team-building events, I enjoyed this hybrid satire of vacuous corporate bonding and Enid Blyton-style adventure enormously. In it, Julian, George, Dick and Anne have grown up, though Timmy the dog is still alive.  They are all (apart from Timmy, obviously) working for the multinational Lupiter Fünckstein at its London headquarters where Julian has managed to wangle jobs for his relatives.  When they are sent on a team-building awayday in the sticks they find their well-established relationships under pressure.  The Secret Seven turn up as bitter rivals on the same course, with the difference that the Five’s shambolic approach is contrasted with the Seven’s superb organisational skills, though their high irritation factor is signalled by a propensity to play Kumbaya on massed ukuleles.

In the morning the Five have to undertake an indoor task, guiding blindfolded Julian as he navigates round pieces of paper representing landmines (tasteless to be sure, but an authentic-sounding challenge).  Thank goodness it was only bits of paper.  In the afternoon they are sent outside on an orienteering exercise, during which naturally they become lost.  Here the focus switches to an adventure more in keeping with the original stories, though with extra bickering, as if author Bruno Vincent had run out of ideas for making fun of the team-building industry.

In addition to the group exercises each member has had to do a personality test.  Their characters as defined by a crude paper and pencil questionnaire are credibly linked to the way they behaved as children, playing off Blyton’s stereotypes.  So they are categorised as leader (Julian), follower-on (Dick), renegade (George) and team player (Anne).  Unfortunately the Five discover that digging beneath characteristics which had never been examined is an uncomfortable process; moreover, such pigeon-holing can lead to friction, damaging hitherto productive group dynamics.  They eventually win through, more by luck than judgement, and they do it as a team even though on the basis of their scores they are abject failures.  But then, what do professional trainers with their abstract exercises and pop psychology know?

The book will appeal to anyone who either enjoyed the Famous Five as children or has had to endure ghastly team events stuffed with bullshit-bingo cliché.  I was particularly amused at Corporate Relations getting the best meeting room and food, at the expense of departments which actually made the company money.  Having begun my career as a thrusting young executive in British Telecom’s Corporate Relations Department I found that plausible: BT’s CRD in the 1980s was certainly full of senior ‘managers’ whose sense of entitlement was inversely proportional to their often less than stellar performances.

Billed as ‘Enid Blyton for grown-ups’, Quercus are jumping on the updated Ladybirds bandwagon with their series.  There is a market for books which simultaneously allow older readers a shot of nostalgia mixed with cynicism about the modern world, and the infantilism of team building makes the topic a perfect match for a parody built on a Blytonian-style substructure.  Vincent shows that these allegedly bonding events companies insist on sending their hapless employees on are pointless, definitely time-wasting, and potentially corrosive of professional relationships – some things are better left unsaid in the work environment, especially if you despise your co-workers.  As George amply demonstrates, the strain of having to pretend to be positive while bored witless during team exercises is best countered with lashings of alcohol.

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day was a quick read, so I thought the £7.99 price a little steep, though because these books are so popular it is possible to pick them up cheaply (mine was 40p, which I thought reasonable).  Now, having learned about the career developments of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, I’m curious to know what the Five Find-Outers and Dog have been up to recently.

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