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Chapter 20
The Myth
of Adventure Learning

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 goods.

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 going back?

"Oh, we've got problems."



[IMAGE]NOW AVAILABLE from from Berrett-Koehler Publishers (San Francisco) and Texere (UK)!

What Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right

a fully revised second edition of this award-winning classic
by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley

"The American business approach to workplace teams is filled with powerful subtleties and is also quite different from the Japanese. The phrase, "How come all this quality stuff don't work," nicely sums up the challenge making teams work in America. Authors Robbins and Finley present practical solutions to the problems with and misconceptions about teams that will be valuable to any organization inclined to assign teams to work on legitimate operational issues. Pragmatic team tips covered here include team decision-making, communication skills with teams, reward and recognition ideas, the importance of effective team leadership, and the fundamental factor of organizational culture that could help or hinder team success. The authors swap narration of chapters, enlivening this useful handbook on how to make the commitment to teams a success. Serves well any manager's interest in maximizing productivity and quality improvement with teams. Recommended for all quality professionals." -- Quality World

Winner, Financial Times/Booz Allen & Hamilton Global Business Book Award, Best Management Book - The Americas, 1995

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