The Myth of Adventure
Rays of light spire over the
humpback mountain peak, breaking up the blue sky. Christine stands facing the
light, on the tip of a rock promontory, 70 feet over a pitted gorge leading
down another 500 feet to a winding canyon stream. Falling means instant death.
As she greets the morning, the
breeze blowing through her hair, she lifts her arms, teeters, and falls gently
backward -- into the arms of twelve groping team members, waiting just below.
Then the group trudges to the
next adventure site, a pole Christine must climb in order to overcome her
fears. Her twelve teammates will be belaying her with support ropes all the
way. When the day is done, everyone who climbed will be awarded an ornamental
carabiner, to put on the desk back at the office as a paperweight and a
permanent reminder of the important lessons about teamwork learned up on the
windswept slopes of Mount Cooperation.
Welcome to the heart-pounding,
high-fiving world of adventure learning.
Adventure learning is a group
event in which a team is put through a series of challenging physical and
mental tasks. They often take place outdoors, in an idyllic setting, at a
retreat in the mountains, or a dude ranch, or a park. They are facilitator-led,
and they build on the psychological lessons learned years ago in '70s-ish, Carl
Rogers' style encounter groups for normals.
Back then it was discovered that
people could experience sensational breakthroughs in behavior if asked to do
things they do not ordinarily do, with the rest of the group acting as support.
The classic example is "Trust Falls." In this exercise you put a
blindfolded person on a table, then let them fall backward, with the other
group members catching the falling individual. In more complex manifestations,
it can include rock climbing, pole climbing, rope bridges, and zipping down
cables on a pulley.
There are two basic degrees of
adventure learning, higher risk and lower risk; we'll call them "high
ropes" and "low ropes." High ropes is the more adventurous of
the two. It involves climbing mountains, crossing rope bridges, rapid descents
on pulleys, and the like. There is some degree of actual physical danger in
high ropes exercises -- your teammates could decide not to belay you with their
support ropes, and you could fall off the mountain.
Low ropes involves very little
actual risk. It is adventure learning on a budget, usually a series of physical
outdoors exercises that can be done in a park or backyard. They often begin
with something like The Druid's Knot. Team members form a circle and then,
taking turns, clasp right hands with the right hand of someone else in the
circle. Then they do the same thing with their left hand. People are pulled
very close with all the handshakes. The objective now is for everyone to
untangle the knot, without letting go.
Usually the people most engaged
in the solution are in the greatest pain, their bodies contorted like pretzels.
Eventually they have all disentangled themselves and they form a large ring,
much bigger than the original circle. From a knot to a ring; confusion to order
-- get it?
There sometimes comes a moment
when the group simply can't figure out how to disengage without some people
letting go. When this happens, those who let go become "blind." They
must close their eyes and be guided from that point on by other team members --
even into the next exercise! This is seen as a good teambuilding behavior --
those with information assisting those without information.
(Some team "leaders"
volunteer others as a sacrifice for
the team good. "Igor, you let go now." An optimized team does not
command team members to die for it; it does not even ask for volunteers.)
The next exercise may be The
Spider's Web. This is done outside. A very long rope is strung between a tree,
and then, through a series of loopbacks, is formed into a giant, semicircular
spider's web. The strands of the web form perhaps 20 "windows,"
rather like the zones on a dartboard. The team challenge -- to get every member
of the team through the windows without disturbing the ropes. Two corollary
rules make it even harder: no window can be used more than once, and some of
the players will be "blind" from the previous exercise, and must be
helped through, blindfolded. If you touch the web, you become blind.
Another low-ropes exercise example
is called Acid River. The team must cross a raging imaginary river of acid.
They have a dozen cinder blocks and three or four 4x4 planks. Using the planks,
they can make bridges from block to block -- but there are not enough planks to
make a complete walkway to safety, so the planks have to be carefully moved
back and forth as each person, small group or team makes the treacherous
crossing. Again, the exercise inherits however many people went
"blind" from the previous exercise -- and anyone stepping off the
boards goes blind.
(We have seen games in which
everyone is blind by the end. It is a very pathetic sight, grown men and women
pathetically groping for a board that is right in front of them -- the blind
leading the blind, teammates to the corrosive end. It is pathetic, and
wonderful by turns.)
These games are, first and
foremost, a lot of fun to play. Most new teams are pretty stiff and formal with
one another. They have never met outside the work situation. These games help
break the ice, and get people physically involved with one another. We are
talking group grope here, and there are moments that will strike those whose
noses are blue-hued as risqué, a sort of company-sanctioned Twister.
The lessons people learn in these
groups include overcoming fear, overcoming distrust, and the synergistic power
of a group working to support the individual. People who do this rave about it.
They say it enabled them to do things they could never do. They say it changed
their lives. Afterwards there is much hugging, exulting, people saying,
"Why didn't we do this years ago?"
Everyone is ecstatic, certain
that the lessons of teamwork will naturally translate to something wonderful
once they get back to the office.
But ... when the team folds up
its ropes and packs away its carabiners and heads back to the city, are they a better team?
In our experience, they are not.
People may be friendlier. They may feel that they got to know one another, out
of the work setting. They may have lots of good warm fuzzies toward one another
-- which is good. They may head back with better intentions to team with one
another -- also good.
But they will not be a better
team because the mountaineering or web-climbing exercises were not really about
teaming. These activities were not developed to improve teamwork. They were
developed to explore various dimensions of personal development. They are
fantastic for achieving personal breakthroughs with one's own demons and fears.
And yes, they are very good at improving one's personal attitudes about being
in groups, and allowing oneself to trust others.
But teams are not failing because
people have fears and phobias, or are unable, in a broad generic way, to
"trust." Teams are failing because members are confused about what
their roles are, what their mission is, whether or not they have the authority
to do whatever needs to be done.
All this stuff with the
carabiners and pulleys is great fun, and personally exhilarating, but
pointless. Training firms that sell adventure learning for the personal
exploration benefits are giving you your money's worth. Training firms that
sell adventure learning for the teambuilding benefits are selling you a bill of
You know the carabiner
paperweights you get when you graduate from a high-ropes routine? We know
someone with three of them on her credenza. Last time we saw her, she was
heading up the mountain again, for a fourth. "It's such a powerful
experience," she says.
So why does her team have to keep
"Oh, we've got