From Team Building to Drink Building
My first experience of the power of the outdoors was when I was 19 and working with children at an outdoor activity centre. I had a girl abseiling who was, at fourteen, already a catwalk model for a global fashion label. She let go of the rope, paniced and wailed loudly. The boy holding her safety line had come from social services and his only pleasure seemed to be hurting other people. However, he held the rope and, in no uncertain terms, told the girl to stop wailing. When she got to the bottom she looked up and shouted thank you. Later that same day, the boy took me aside and said that this was the first time anyone had ever said thank you that didn't have to. He then confided me in me the troubles of his life, that were clearly driving his aggressive behavour, and an intervention was made. This was somebody that social services had sent because he was clearly on his way towards prison. Last time I heard he was a sales maanger in a large company. In short, using the experiential learning opportunities provided by the outdoors had changed his life.
When we first started offering experiential learning in Romania, back in 2001, people were excited at the possibilities for learning and growth that the outdoors presented. I recall bringing a world class facilitator, who was profoundly impressed at the willingness of Romanian executives to engage. We took this encouragement as a support to push at the boundaries of the possible and developed award winning programmes bringing managers and street children together, environmental initiatives, women in business and so forth. In the process we transformed the performance of individuals, teams, and organisations. We have delivered events at as little as one day’s notice in locations as diverse as The Saudi Desert, yachts in the Adriatic, Toronto, the Prahova Valley, Lisbon, The Black Sea and many more besides.
However, over time the potential to transform has been lost as an explosion of providers offering fun away days has occupied the immediate horizon of managers, who have often been unaware of the alternatives. In short, team building has become little more an alcohol fuelled excuse for a party away from the office for a day or two. Or as a mentor of mine once wrote about the same issues in the UK ‘From Lewin to Lawn Mower Racing’.
Now, whilst I am in favour of spending a couple of days in a nice hotel in the country, by the sea, or somewhere exotic, with all my drink paid for a by a client, I also believe that we can learn a lot. In fact, I am crazy enough to believe that the learning will make the fun even more enjoyable and memorable. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
We once took a large retail client away to a weekend team event near Bran (Romania). Their failure to manage early tasks and focus, caused some managers to get very upset. Establishing norms of behaviour such as listening to each other, learning when to collaborate and not compete, thinking beyond tasks to patterns of value creation are both common isues and very real for this particular team. This led to a serious discussion of their norms of behaviour, which were then further tested over the course of the programme. As time went by, they gradually listened more to each other and began to go beyond mere cooperation and genuinely collaborate. When they came to the last and most challenging task they rose to the challenge and delivered the highest possible level of performance. During the final review (we review every task) there was a wave of energy and being a facilitator felt more like being the singer in a rock band. During the party that evening, people were coming up to managers saying things like “I can do more, please help me to”. Around midnight, the Sales Director staggered over to me and said: “this was the most powerful learning of my life”. The organisation was never quite the same again.
Clearly not all team buildings can be like the one described above. However, harnessing the power of the outdoors to transform meaning and performance is what experiential learning should be all about. I can say with confidence that no one who has participated to one of our events has not learned something about themselves or their organisation. Truly performing teams are not built by Adrenalin alone. They require individual and collective thought, reflection, and purposeful shared experience. The outdoors, properly harnessed, has the power to transform. Why settle for less?
Given both the challenge to team working caused by the pandemic and the increased importance of it as decision-making has inevitably been more widely dispersed, developing team performance has become even more important. In a tight labour market team building can be a powerful means to address motivation, loyalty and increase performance. Free booze and a party may make people happy for a week or two, but lasting improvements come from a more reflective approach.
If you would like to know more about our twenty years of experience, capabilities and how we could help improve the performance of your organisation, please contact us. Drop us an email or call us to find more about our previous experience and clients.