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The Problems with Outdoor Training – some thoughts on team building

In a conversation a while back, I was asked if one of our team building games could be used in an outdoor setting. Wow, did that bring up some memories about what might have happened and the reality of losing control.

Firstly, I am not a fan of most outdoor types of activities. Generally, the links to the business improvement issues — why companies are actually spending money and time with managers and employees — are sometimes quite vague when relating the game to organizational behavior and leadership, problem solving or change. Sure, the exercises are fun and people do like to solve problems. But it takes a good facilitator to bring out the discussions and not all the facilitators are all that good. Plus, the links from the activity back to business are sometimes stretched.

And it is not that I have not personally participated in those kinds of things over the years. I attended one such event as a participant and was there at a college with a bunch of my Leadership Greenville colleagues (a program supported by our Chamber of Commerce). Being collaborative and facilitative in my general style, I applied these skills in discussions about solving the task at hand. The “session leader” decided I was helping too much and told me that I HAD to be silent and could not talk — this is also known as punishment in most circles.

(Yeah, and imagine when I was allowed to talk in the debriefing! One of the questions I asked of her was about her business experience. Turns out that she had never actually had an actual job. And she is the leader of this group of business people? Really?)

Another such program on collaboration turned into a mass group competition, where the VP of the group was timing the different problem solving activities and comparing different groups to the others. We actually had a really competitive volleyball competition, too, and during the awards ceremony, many the Losers actually booed the Winners in front of the company’s executive VP. And this was at a team building event where the company spent many 10s of thousands of dollars! — Note: I was on the winning team and I still have my trophy on my bookshelf as a reminder of how badly this went…

Competition produces chaos, not collaboration and improvement

That same event also had one of the participants being stung by a scorpion when he leaned on a tree — he went into shock but the facilitation team actually carried an anaphylactic shock kit with them, since it has apparently happened before. Needless to say, that hour spent on it was costly as well as pretty distracting for all of his friends and co-workers.

My outdoor delivery experiences also include a session where the sun came out and totally washed out the projected images on the screen so no one could see. At a different event, the temperature in the huge circus tent went to 110 degrees and the big electric fans blew all the papers off the tabletops (so we taped them down). But these same fans were so noisy that the debriefing was impossible, as also occurring the game activities that followed after my session. And this narrative represents the short-version of all the things that went wrong…

Another event had it rain for an hour right after we put the maps and things on the tables. We quickly recollected all the soluble stuff and then, when the rain stopped, we had each table select what it required from our “Organized Pile of Materials” and take these things outside to their tables (which the hotel staff helped us dry off with a massive number of room towels).

YES, my games CAN be delivered as outside activities. But I actually cannot remember a single time when something did not go wrong and force us to make a major adjustment in our delivery. And I cannot imagine doing a large group, outside, with any kind of controllable learning outcomes. Here is one we did for 500 people:

Large group team building delivery - INSIDE - with everything under control!

If my client is paying big bucks to get people to the venue, feed them, house them and all that, and they are renting a room for lunch or dinner, why the heck not simply deliver the exercise inside under controlled temperature and lighting and audio/video and avoid all the disasters? Why even allow the potential problems? What is the big benefit of people standing around outside? (Heck, maybe I could design a program around them all coming over to my house and working on my yard and gardens, ya think? Do it like one of those cooking classes — I could sell it as a Landscaping Teambuilding Initiative and maybe even get them to work on my neighbors’ yards…)

Lastly, I do not consider golf, bowling or firewalking to be very good team building activities. Baseball is okay, maybe, since everyone can play and bat and all that. But volleyball requires too much skill and the skill differences between people can be way too large. And how many times do I have to pass balls around or deal with a bucket on a string or hold hands with other people to solve a problem, anyway…
There are LOTS and lots of good team building games and exercises that can be delivered with high impact and good learning. Why add uncontrollable factors just to make it some “outside” program whereby the potential for non-participation or even injury might occur?

I will always remember the White Mile movie starring Alan Alda: A corporate team-building trip ends in tragedy in this drama. Hoping to build bonds between his employees and clients, advertising executive Dan Cutler (Alan Alda) takes the group on a whitewater rafting excursion. But the raft capsizes, several of the men die, and one widow files a lawsuit. Cutler tries to hide his negligence, and one survivor (Peter Gallagher) faces a difficult moral dilemma.

Have fun out there!

this was re-edited and re-publishes on September 30, 2012.   

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

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2 Comments

  1. Klaus Jakobsen

    Interesting views. Unfortunately, I think mainly your own prejudice, potentially complemented by some ignorance and a lack of insight, prevent you from seeing what outdoor based learning formats have to offer.
    Admittedly, outdoor learning is not per se effective or life transforming, however this is even more so the case, when it comes to indoor-, lecture hall-, conference- or meeting room-based learning methods.
    Just ask any brain researcher of modern age about which environment is more conducive to learning ….

    To go down the same (sorry) stupid road you chose, I would claim that in my 25 years of teaching, consulting and facilitating, I have never experiened any indoor “classroom” learning exprience that could not be improved by taking it out of doors or outside in the real world …

    More constructively, if you ever come to Denmark, write me a note and I would be happy to show you, what can be accomplished, if you take off your tinted sun glasses 🙂

    • Yes, Klaus. We all have our perceptions of how things are. And you can say that my positions are simply based on “prejudice.”

      But the guy getting bitten by the scorpion in Texas shut down the whole event for the hour it took for the EMS ambulance squad to arrive and the fact that the staff at the property had an aniphalactic shock / adrenaline kit on hand (and admitted that this had occurred before but was specifically excluded from legal action by the waiver that was signed by the individuals and the client company) is but one indicator that not everything I perceive are simply “prejudice.” The fact that it was 100 degrees in middle Texas in June was also a factor. We also had a couple of ankle sprains during the events.

      (BTW, I assume that your organization has participants sign a legal waiver so that they cannot be sued if they get injured, right? Guess you are most assuredly NOT ignorant and understand all the issues of outdoor training. Me, I don’t need or even have a waiver form for my team building training events.)

      Then there was the program for a large aerospace manufacturer where we did my exercise in the morning and debriefed neatly against their business issues, specifically focused on improving inter-departmental collaboration and sharing of people and tools and the like and how the departments should be developing more supporting goals among the different workgroups. That went really well. Then we had lunch and then we had to change the entire outside program because the thunderstorm and lightning rolled in for the duration of that afternoon and the leader would up changing all the planned low ropes courses for some “activities” that had people running around the training rooms. The good news about that was that nobody got hurt and there were no other companies having programs during this time in the conference facility at Furman University.

      Hey, Did you know that my doctoral degree was in Behavioral Neurophysiology? You say that I should ask “any brain researcher” and I actually AM one of those. But I will not reciprocate the personal attack and try to keep my comments focused on the professional side of things.

      I have associates there in Denmark who have been running my team building board game, “The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine” around your country for a number of years (like more than 15). And I have people that have attended sessions that I have delivered many years ago and who can tell you pretty precisely what we did and what they remembered and how it changed their perspective. Guess a recent notable case was the senior HR manager of Reliance in India who attended a session that I did in Illinois back in 1994 at an ISPI session. We talked about it when I was in India in December — he went through the key points of that program.

      I can attest to other “outdoor training” events that I have personally attended and can remember a few instances where the debriefing was actually linked to the real organizational issues we were addressing. I can remember LOTS of others where things were awful, like the the completely distracting heat and noise from the session with the bank that we did in Boston and the session at CSTD in Columbia SC were EVERYONE would have rather been inside than outside, or the rain on the program in Charleston, and on and on.

      It is supposed to be 103 (39 C) here on Friday. Not so great for scheduling an outdoor event, one would think.

      Denmark is GREAT. I’ve been all over the country, doing programs in Svendborg and Copenhagen and visiting Bilund and many other places. I would love to see how your programs are so much better than all of the ones that I have ever attended. But I am not sure of the reference to “tinted sun glasses” — is the weather there so bad outside that I do not need them? (Lastly, understand that the summer weather in Denmark is just a bit different than that of Singapore or Mumbai most of the year. And I would gather that you are not scheduling much training for October through February?)

      Me, I will stick to my highly-interactive, metaphor-driven INDOOR team building training events that have measurable results and actionable post-game debriefings and action planning…

      .

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