Why I HATE Outdoor Teambuilding after 30 years

“Outdoor Teambuilding.”

For me, this phrase represents an oxymoron, two words that simply do not go together. Classic oxymoron examples include “jumbo shrimp,” “crash landing,” “found missing,” “student teacher,” and, being an old rock and roller, my personal favorite, “Country Music!”

Why do I hate outdoor team building events? Because outdoors represents a basically impossible environment to do much actual team building yet companies choose to do those things, get no results and then think that no team building is actually possible. And they waste money, time and energy and cast a pall on good, impactful programs.

With training outdoors, there are simply too many distractions and dissociations in how people are reacting to make good connections to workplace issues. Outdoors is simply a place full of distractions making it is hard to hear and easy to lose focus. Sure, who doesn’t like to go whitewater rafting*, but other than remembering the fun and a few crazy things that happened to a few people, does it apply to workplace improvement or innovation or discussing changes in expectations or alignment?

And let me note that a lot of “indoor team-building focused experiential training experiences” are often simply outdoor-type activities moved indoors. I do not include any of those in my framing of business simulations and business teambuilding events. Running around indoors is the same as running around outdoors, in my view and I would also not consider paintball and firewalking to be indoor activities.


The ROI on most of these activities simply cannot be measured. Sure people have fun and will talk about the experience afterwards, but will they really do anything differently to impact the organization? And isn’t that why we are doing team building in the first place?


(Okay, an outdoor adventure or some fun and games IS better than listening to a senior executive share critically important data using powerpoint. I will take a climbing wall over a slideshow on last year’s results for inventory turnover… But I am talking about team building activities here…)

Organizations spend a LOT of money on team building events, with the expectation that they will get some return on that investment and see some changes in organizational behavior such as increased collaboration between departments or better alignment to the organizational mission and goals. (And, yes, “Interdepartmental Collaboration” is another favorite oxymoron!).

Post program, you will find the attendees talking about the activity and the structure and not a lot about the debriefing or the business links. Navigating that high ropes challenge is a solid accomplishment. And, sure, solving The Acid River is an interesting challenge — now how does that relate either to solving interdepartmental issues? And, often, the solution comes from ONE individual and not the team — there is no real teamwork involved in the strategy and those not involved are often those same people who resist the changes being done to them. Being directed as to how to perform is NOT teamwork and will not improve collaboration.

Click on the image above to see another article on outdoor learning and change

CAN Outdoor Teambuilding work? Sure. But DOES it represent the BEST environment for involving and engaging the broad diversity of people within the group and generate sufficient critical thinking or shifting of perspective that could drive changes in behavior? Organizations pay for this stuff, but I am not sure if they are looking for “great fun reactions” or actual impacts and changes. Only you can make that judgement based on your personal experiences, but my direct and indirect experience would say, Nope. No way.

  • Generally, those kinds of activities offer no possibility of measuring or measurement of behavior of individuals or groups, unless you focus on timing, which is a focus on competition more than collaboration.
  • They make it difficult for the older, less athletically-able people to compete on equal footing (that is a pun because I have a bad foot in actuality). The older workers simply cannot run and jump with the younger ones.
  • The events are often exclusive to those with some kind of disability or infirmity, such as a bad back or shoulder or knee and, frankly, being an observer is simply reinforcing that they are different (and not included with the others).

Doing a Dragon Boat Race is seemingly pretty unrelated to improving customer service or implementing the new strategy to involve and engage everyone in a workplace innovation project. Going go-kart racing is a fun thing, but who wins is often the most common discussion along with who had the fastest kart or who cheated so they could win. Do you have a different perspective?

And there is Paintball. Paintball as a business exercise. Shooting at other people with hard projectiles with the goal of doing them harm (killing them out of the game?) but also demanding some high level of motor skills coordination and physical activity of running and dodging to succeed creates an unfair playing field. Grandmother Susan in accounting is probably going to find it somewhat physically challenging to lie in the dirt and shoot at people.

This 30-second advertisement for Booking.com is an especially good one, I think. Click on the image below to watch it on YouTube — it is well worth the time (30 sec)!

Annual company paintball teambuilding retreat booking dot com

And I also still laugh at the Firewalking “training event” paid for by Burger King back in 2001, with 100 marketing employees participating in this “team building and personal growth” session. The result was that 12 people got their feet burned and Burger King generating a great deal of publicity — yes, even Dave Barry poked fun at them in an article and there were a ton of posts around “naming the event” in a couple of training discussion threads, as well as suggestions for potential theme songs like, “Light My Fire” by The Doors (grin) ). You can read more about firewalking here.

(Dave Barry’s really funny article is here!)
 (The organizer blamed the burns on people with incredibly sensitive feet!!)

Firewalking can be a legitimate (and costly) experience growth experience (www.skepdic.com/firewalk.html).
 but does it really impact teams and help to improve company results?

One who suffered injury was Burger King’s vice president of product marketing. But, hey, she had no regrets, for she was filled with the corporate rapture. Walking across searing coals, she exclaimed, “Made you feel a sense of empowerment and that you can accomplish anything” (and she could accomplish that with only a few casualties and hospital and ambulance bills). (And one wonders how she is doing these days…)

…so the Big Benefit of Outdoor Training: You do not have to rent a hotel room.
 (Well, Booking.com suggests you do as the one main benefit in their ad!)

Sure there are things like whitewater rafting that need to be outside, but I encourage you to watch White Mile with Alan Alda (trailer is excellent!) about his mandatory whitewater trip and the death of some of his executive team. Sure, it is a movie, but being on the water is not really the cat’s meow for many people.

I can go on and on about the personal experiences (generally failures and mediocre learning situations) but those have been done in prior blogs. What we are talking about is team BUILDING activities and not the team BONDING kinds of things that might improve friendliness or improve personal interactions but that have only remote connections to organizational development.

You have alternatives. There are a lot of good team building simulations out there that focus discussions on issues and opportunities, programs that present actionable behaviors and cultural shifts in how things are done.

So when someone is suggesting an event, ask questions about what might result from the expenditures. Define the desired outcomes and frame up with the ROI should look like. Good events can generate a lot of positive outcomes and impacts.

See this post for how those discussions might be addressed in a conversation of two senior managers trying to impact their organization:

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.

Connect with Scott on Google+

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


Alan Alda’s movie, White Mile, was released in 1994: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8DIGIr8SiU

Booking.com’s advertisement on rewarding hotels after Paintball is found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZTgKU5KNTM

The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine team building simulation can be found at: http://www.performancemanagementcompany.com/corporate-team-building-games-the-search-for-the-lost-dutchmans-gold-mine/


Originally published at Performance Management Company Blog.