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 finally 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 is a college student at Clemson. This was her first job, running corporate team building programs!! And she is the leader of this group of experienced business people from the Chamber of Commerce. 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 various team building exercises 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 (2-min trailer is here) 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.

For the FUN of It!

Scott Simmerman 2016

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.

One of the best teambuilding exercises in the world, as rated by his users, is The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, which focuses on leadership, collaboration, alignment and focuses on implementing the collective performance optimization ideas.

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You can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com
 
Twitter @scottsimmerman


Originally published at Performance Management Company Blog.