Performance Management Blog

Outdoor Training is Suboptimal for Learning and Change
Large group team building delivery - INSIDE - with everything under control!

Before undertaking a training event, especially an outdoor training event, for building teamwork and improving organizational development, consider these key issues:

The situation seems simple when it comes to the effectiveness of most outdoor training used for building teamwork and improving organizational development:

  • Building teamwork should be the primary goal of training events, with generating change being a key desired outcome
  • Workers are the people who are doing the work and teamwork can generally be improved in most organizations
  • Managers are the people leading the above workers and should help focus on generating more collaboration and motivation
  • Teamwork generally has positive impacts on the culture and on people and performance
  • Training is a tool to help generate change and improvement and should aid perspective and understanding
  • Collaboration is more optimizing on results than competition
  • Debriefing and Discussion are critical pieces of any training exercise, along with getting a commitment to change

While the situation might seem simple when it comes to the effectiveness of most outdoor training, why might these events pale in comparison to indoor team building events?


First, why is it that most outdoor activities seem to be highly competitive activities with lots of room for distractions such as weather and noise and other things? And why would we want MORE competition within the organization? Competition is already problematic and generally sub-optimizing with “interdepartmental collaboration” an oxymoron in most places and also quite uncommon!

Interestingly, it seems that workers find more competition within the various departments of a company (perhaps yours?) right now than they find between their company and its competitors. There is talk of “the competition” but it is often not a real thing to most workers, who more often find themselves competing against their peers for recognition and compensation.

While senior managers may see things differently, does anyone actually feel they are competing with outsiders more than they feel they are already competing with their own management and colleagues? If so:

  • Why not focus on more inter-departmental collaboration and alignment?
  • Why not build on improving communications and engagement?
  • Why keep doing competitive things when collaborative ones are needed?

We won the competition, but we lost the team building side of all things.
And I have the trophy to prove it! More on this below.


On occasion, I am asked if our Lost Dutchman team building game could be used in an outdoor setting. Wow, does that bring up some memories about what might have happened and the reality of losing control. One time, in response to a client who insisted that they wanted to play Dutchman outside, we set up tables outdoors with the cards and maps and then it rained. Other outdoor delivery experiences also include a session where the sun came out and totally washed out the projected images on the screen so no one could see. At a different event, the temperature in the huge circus tent went to 110 degrees and the big electric fans blew all the papers off the tabletops (so we taped them down). But these same fans were so noisy that the debriefing was impossible, as also occurred with the other game activities that followed after my session. And this narrative represents the short-version of all the things that went wrong that day. Too many uncontrolled things can happen in an outside environment which leads to wondering why anyone prefers to be outside.

And, so many of these outdoor events are strictly “games” and not actual learning events and, therefore, primarily competition-based engagement focused on improving teamwork and collaboration.

(Is “competition-based engagement” an oxymoron?)

Being outside is great, given the weather, but is it really cost effective for a business to make that decision given the variables and the potential distractions? I guess if FUN is the desired outcome, and not LEARNING nor generating behavioral commitments to do things differently, outdoor games can work. But my personal experience in numerous such events is that the outdoor environment is generally NOT conducive to generating a good learning event, one of organizational change and performance improvement, and I have lots of frameworks for that in my personal history of being a participant as well as a leader.

The idea of sports analogies or military frameworks applied to business development situations also makes me uncomfortable because businesses do NOT represent how sports teams operate nor are we generally accepting assault and raw aggression as good business strategies. We are not a football team with a quarterback and plays and countless practice drills and direct head-to-head team competition with other teams. We are not a baseball team, with players who each do their jobs in the field and then take bats individually against the pitcher of another team. We are not basketball teams, running plays and shooting baskets. We can make analogies to those activities, but we are not in those industries!

Paintball as a business exercise? Shooting at other people with the goal of doing them harm (“killing” them out of the game?) and demanding some level of motor skills coordination and physical activity of running and dodging to succeed creates an unfair playing field.  Sure, there are analogies, but is that a business learning opportunity? Is building a rope bridge and then walking over it a real situation for your business (or driving a go-cart or bowling) — is it going to generate real business collaboration and improvement? Firewalking? That is the subject of a number of other blog posts of mine, including one planned for later this week.

(You may find this article on Business Sabotage to be of interest and can read it here!)

Sports are too much about winners and losers whereas business requires collaboration across a variety of operational and support groups. Military games are way too deadly serious and some of your participants may have significant emotional ties to such situations, like service in Iraq or Afghanistan. If they were in a real war, your activity will bring back those strong negative associations and memories. If they had a child or relative killed or injured in some war, it is that same issue — you are coercing them to participate in a situation that creates unpleasant emotions.

Do we really need to use competition and competitiveness
as driving forces 
for collaboration within our companies?

Is that telephone customer service rep actually in competition with another company or merely depending on collaboration from other departments to perform well in their job? Is that worker on the shop floor really competing with The Koreans in producing a high quality automobile? Is competition the real driving force for top performance by people? (Answer: NO) )

Workers are the people who are doing the work. Managers are the people managing. Workers and Managers both want LESS competition within the different departments of your company. So, why not focus on more inter-departmental collaboration and improving communications and engagement?

Generally, the links to the business improvement issues — why companies are actually spending money and time with managers and employees — are quite vague when relating many outdoor activities to organizational behavior and leadership, problem solving or change. Sure, these outside exercises can be fun and people do like to solve problems and compete. But it takes a solid facilitator to bring out real work-place related discussions and not all the facilitators are all that capable. Another important consequence is the lack of support within the program design for a strong debriefing to take place. This, to me, is a real negative because the debrief is what creates the Links from the activity back to business. In the case of outdoor team activities, the links to the workplace are often really stretched.

I speak with experience as a participant of many different kinds of these activities. One was at Clemson Univ with a bunch of my Leadership Greenville colleagues (a program supported by our Chamber of Commerce). Being collaborative and facilitative in my general style, I applied these skills in discussions about solving the outdoor problems at hand (like the acid river and the bucket on a string designs). The “session leader”  actually decided I was helping too much and told me that I HAD to be silent and could not talk — this is also known as punishment in psychology and it has pretty predictable consequences long-term. People (like me) generally and predictably react negatively to punishment, often with very predictable negative outcomes.

(Yeah, and imagine when I was allowed to talk in the debriefing! I actually was trying to help the group with their problem-solving while the session leader seemed to want them to fail! One of the questions I asked of her was about our leader’s business experience. Turns out that the facilitator, a college student, had never actually had an actual job. And she was the leader actually selected for this group of business people from the Greenville Chamber of Commerce? Really?)

Another program on collaboration and teamwork turned into a mass group competition, where the VP of the group was making things more competitive by timing the different problem solving activities and comparing different groups to the others. We were randomly assigned to “teams” and he had HIS pick of his teammates, so his team pretty naturally “won” all the challenges. 

We actually had a really competitive volleyball teambuilding competition, too, and during the awards ceremony, many of the Losers actually booed the Winners in front of the company’s Executive VP Operations who was there giving a speech and making some awards. Remember, this was at a team building event where the company spent many 10s of thousands of dollars bringing people in from all over their US facilities and hosting them at a retreat facility in the middle of Texas!American Airlines Volleyball Trophy awarded at a team building outdoor training event

Note: I was on the winning volleyball team and I had my trophy on my bookshelf for years as a reminder of how badly this went…

That same event also had one of the guys being stung by a scorpion when he leaned on a tree — he went into shock. But the facilitation team actually carried an anaphylactic injection kit with them out in the field, since it had apparently happened before (wonder if they had mentioned that when working on the design of the activities). Needless to say, that hour spent on addressing that sting was costly for the 60 highly paid company people — everything stopped completely — and was also  pretty distracting for all of that guy’s friends and co-workers.

Competition produces chaos and confusion, not collaboration and improvement

YES, our Dutchman game CAN be delivered as an outside activity, but why? I cannot remember a single time when something did not go wrong and forced us to make a major adjustment in our delivery (like an afternoon lightning storm or very high heat). And I cannot imagine doing an outside event with a large group with any kind of controllable learning outcomes. Yet here is one we did indoors for 500 people that went extremely well:

Large group team building delivery - INSIDE - with everything under control!

If my client is paying big bucks to get people to the venue, feed them, house them and all that, and they are renting a room for lunch or dinner, why the heck not simply deliver the exercise inside under controlled temperature and lighting and audio/video and avoid all the outdoor disasters? If spending time outdoors is important, then perhaps have everyone enjoy a picnic outside as a social event rather than arranging for a team building outdoor event that could not easily be taken inside compared to hosting a picnic that could more easily be brought inside should the weather go sour.

– Why even allow the potential problems and distractions?
– Why necessitate a scramble when the weather changes?
– What is the big benefit of people standing around outside? Birds?

(Heck, maybe I could design a program around them all coming over to my house and working on my yard and gardens, yes? Do it like one of those cooking classes — I could sell it as a Landscaping Teambuilding Initiative and maybe even get them to work on my neighbors’ yards…)

Lastly, I do not consider firewalking, golf, rope-walking, go-karting or golfing to be very good team building activities. Volleyball requires too much skill and the size and skill differences between people can be way too large. And how many times do I have to pass balls around or deal with a bucket on a string or hold hands with other people to solve a problem, anyway…

There are LOTS and lots of good team building games and exercises that can be delivered (indoors!) with high impact and good learning. So, why intentionally add uncontrollable factors just to make it some “outside” program whereby a much higher potential for non-participation or even injury might occur?

I will always remember the movie White Mile, where a corporate rafting, team-building trip ends in tragedy. Hoping to build bonds between his employees and clients, advertising executive Dan Cutler (Alan Alda) takes the group on a whitewater rafting excursion. But the raft capsizes, several of the men die, and one widow files a lawsuit. Cutler tries to hide his negligence, and one survivor (Peter Gallagher) faces a difficult moral dilemma. We often see the same kind of lower-level drama play out in such corporate team days… Watch the two-minute trailer here for some great scenes.

These uncontrolled, outdoor activities CAN go very wrong, but so many simply have the outdoors as functionally distracting to the learning that is supposed to be the main desired outcome.

Have fun out there! And maximize your team building impact.

 

For the FUN of It!

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 who is trying to retire!! He now lives in Cuenca, Ecuador.

You can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com

Learn more about Scott at his LinkedIn site.


Here is a 2-minute overview of the virtual team building game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cE6gDtZymwk

logo for Lost Dutchman Virtual online edition

Dr. Scott Simmerman

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, earning CPT and CPF credentials. -- You can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com and a detailed profile is here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottsimmerman/ -- Scott is the original designer of The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine teambuilding game and the Square Wheels® images for organizational development.

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