Taking team building to new heights

What better place to learn how to talk to your co-worker then when you’re 35 feet above the ground walking a tight rope together?

Is it all fun and games or are these teams actually learning something?

“Experiential learning has been given a bad rap because so many employers have used it more for entertainment than learning,” says Joan Hill, learning and development consultant with the Ontario-based Core Consulting Inc.

People perceive it to be a frivolous perk but at a time when teamwork has become the organizational model of choice, training employees how to work together is key to success. Whether you call it adventure learning, outward bound learning or experiential learning, employers are using these Survivor-style training activities to build better teams. It isn’t for the faint of heart and it isn’t only fun and games.

Teams learn, as its name implies, through doing. It flips the traditional learning model on its head and brings the learner right in to an “experience” as opposed to sitting in a classroom learning about team dynamics. (And what better place to have an “experience” than in a sprawling forested area on a hot summer day or a country inn nestled in the snow-tipped mountains in the middle of winter.)

By doing it and then stepping back to see just how they did it, teams learn what works for them, what doesn’t, and where they need to improve. That’s when the learning begins.

“Back in the office they are interacting but they aren’t seeing how they interact. In a very foreign environment, it becomes clear to them very fast how they interact,” says Scott Kress, president of Summit Training and Development in Toronto.

This is the general idea behind the activities Kress provides for his students, typically sales reps, managers and senior executive teams.

Other organizations have sent their entire staff for Summit’s “adventure training,” like steel giant Dofasco, who sent everyone from its CEO to its maintenance staff for “corporate adventure training.”

Kress meets with his clients first to decide what their needs are. Then they develop a series of activities designed to teach these skills.

Building the “communications tower” is a popular one for team building exercises. The objective here, says Kress, is to point out communication barriers within the team. The two, six-person teams build one tower using only limited communication. The two groups are only allowed to use a walkie-talkie once for three minutes, are allowed three, two-minute face-to-face meetings, and are allowed to send information by courier once.

Using these modes of communication, they have 45 minutes to build the tower. In this scenario, mangers have to let go of their leadership roles and give way to the group, and teams have to come up with strategies to complete the project.

“The activity creates awareness on how these teams communicate. They gain some insight into how people function. It makes them aware of where they are in terms of how they communicate and where they want to be.

People will say after they do the communications tower activity, that this is like our Monday morning meetings where nothing gets done,” says Kress.

The learning comes after the activity when the two groups meet with a facilitator to share the details. It’s an important part of the experiential learning process because that’s when students can reflect on how they did things and then come up with ways to improve those methods.

In order for the training to be relevant to what they do at work everyday, the end results have to be practical and adaptable enough to take back to the office for those Monday morning meetings, says Hill.

“People will talk about what a good time they had but the question is what did they learn. That’s why the debriefing is crucial,” says Hill.

The debriefing can take a couple of hours or even a day. It’s the classroom part of the learning process where students can dissect the activities, how they responded to certain situations (like the possibility of plunging off the tight rope), and get feedback from their teammates.

Properly done experiential learning is a mixture of the old-fashioned classroom and some old-fashioned fun. Employers looking to add some spunk to their training initiatives are choosing this combo.

“There is a certain amount of jading in a classroom experience. Everyone is overloaded and this is one way to keep everyone’s attention. You can’t go away on a mind vacation when you’re doing these exercises,” says Hill.

Working with a team from Bell Canada, Hill had students build and walk wooden planks (a popular exercise). She says Bell was looking for “something different” and turned to experiential learning. Today she focuses on a more varied approach to learning, teaching shorter sessions for certain skill training. She warns of the “wannabes” trying to pass off adventure games as training.

Kress and his team of facilitators meet with their trainees usually six weeks after the initial training. In the interim, they prepare a plan based on the ideas that have come out of the debriefing session.

Before sending staff on adventure training employers need to keep a few things in mind, says Hill. While the activities lend themselves to communication and team building, it isn’t the best preparation for all things.

And, not all your staff might feel comfortable with participating in extreme adventures. The thought of walking a tight rope might be a little frightening for some employees who find it difficult to make even idle conversation around the water cooler.

The risks associated with these activities, like getting hurt, alienating or embarrassing an employee, have to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to use outward bound training activities.

“Adult learners need to be in safe and secure environment in order to learn. When there is high anxiety it sabotages the learning because then the learners are more concerned about survival and not much about the process itself.”

At the end of the day, it is still fun and games.

The very least they are going to get out of this is a day of fun while learning more about their teammates. Usually the people who come in skeptics are the ones who become the champions of it. So, we think skeptics are great,” says Kress.

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