I attended an outdoor leadership training session this weekend. It was billed as an opportunity to learn different techniques for working with groups as they manage change. I’ve done similar sessions in the past and was looking forward to coming back with some new ideas for team building and creative strategies for making training sessions more exciting.
Even though several people from my organization attended, the organizers intentionally divided us up so that teams were made up of people who didn’t know each other previously. The plan was to spend three days and two nights rotating through different stations where we would learn a mix of outdoor skills and workplace skills. We would have the opportunity to work on various projects that incorporated both sets of skills, such as lashing downed trees together to build various structures.
When we weren’t in class, we would have to work together to complete basic outdoor activities – setting up a camp site, planning menus and preparing food, and figuring out how to divide the work. We would also have to remember our corporate roots and arrive at sessions on time and prepared regardless of weather or competing priorities.
We arrived Friday afternoon to our site, which was located in a valley with surrounding ridges that I thought might keep cell signals at bay. Once we received our team camp sites, it was time to load in our gear and set up our tents and cooking area. Several of my teammates habitually checked their phones (presumably to look at “the weather”) though which quickly became annoying. Call it mean, but I hoped they had recently upgraded to iOS 7 so that their batteries would be gone quickly.
Our team had four men and two women and I was glad to learn my tent-mate had experience camping. When I have attended sessions like this before, the women typically have less outdoor experience than the men and it can create some challenges, so this was a good thing. Three of us were IT professionals and it made me happy that our companies recognized the need to develop our skills in change leadership. One member had lived on a sailboat for several years, which I figured would come in handy for ropes and knots. We also had a young man fresh out of college with the added bonus of being an Eagle Scout. The last member of our team was a man who didn’t say very much, although he seemed enthusiastic about attending the session.
We quickly got our tents pitched, our dining fly set up, our allotment of supplies stowed, and were ready to go. Our first challenge was to come up with a team name and a cheer. We agreed on the name pretty quickly, chose a cheer, selected our representative to introduce us, and headed off to the opening session. With our without iPhones and the Weather Channel app, we had been told to expect bad weather, including rain and the arrival of a major cold front, and to prepare accordingly as we wouldn’t be able to go back to our tents.
After introductions, we started a session on team dynamics. Tuckman’s stages of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing) was familiar from a previous class, although quite a few of the 30 attendees didn’t seem to have heard of it before. The instructors led us through the fact that we had just worked through the Forming phase, where the team organizes and works through introductory tasks while avoiding conflict. We had been eager to achieve consensus on our name and cheer, but there wasn’t a lot of leadership or direction.
We were next given a proposed project to plan. As we circled our camp chairs, we found one member of our team was missing. No one had seen him step away and we assumed he’d be back quickly, so we thought we’d try to move ahead. It reminded me a lot of meetings I’ve attended over the last few months where everyone is present and ready to participate but one critical attendee doesn’t show up even though they accepted the appointment. It was as frustrating in the outdoors as it is in the office since the task required everyone to participate and we were stuck in place until he returned.
When he did show up, couple of members immediately confronted him for letting the team down by disappearing without letting anyone know. I figured that was a sign that we had moved to the Storming phase. Our disappearing man didn’t seem to understand that his absence was a problem and had a hard time getting back up to speed. We sat in the circle and brainstormed potential solutions for our assigned problem. Just when we got going, the rain started. Most of us reached into our day packs and pulled out gear, but a handful of people popped up to run to their tents.
Again I was reminded of the office and people who show up to paperless meetings without a laptop or who show up to demonstrate an application which isn’t loaded and ready on their machines. Like the office, the project moved forward whether people were prepared or not, forcing the remaining team members to pick up the slack, which often leads to resentment and distrust that the team will be available in the future. We were only a couple of hours into the weekend and this wasn’t looking good.
We made it through the rest of the evening. The evening meal was provided by the training center, although we had to attend presentations on camp cooking and sanitation as we earned our supper. We knew we’d be cooking our own meals from there on out, so most of us paid close attention. After we headed back to our camp site, we struggled to make up the duty roster for the next day. Since class started at 7:30, it meant a 5:30 wake-up to start fires, prepare food, and clean up. Although people were eager to volunteer, no one seemed to take charge, which was frustrating for those who wanted to get it all decided and head to our tents. Ultimately we finished then secured our food against wildlife intrusion and turned in for the night.
We woke to a humid morning but quickly got started on cooking bacon, eggs, tortillas, and rice. The group pulled together except for our “missing man” who hadn’t yet come out of his tent despite multiple attempts at waking him up. Ultimately he emerged but declined breakfast, saying he already ate. He must have missed the lecture about raccoons and other wildlife since he was keeping his own food in his tent. I tried to give him the benefit out the doubt, but knowing the training center’s attention to providing for different dietary needs (our team was gluten free), it was a hard sell. One of my team mates commented that he felt like he was still at work since he often encounters people who feel the need to do their own thing regardless of team strategy or planning.
For our first session, half the teams headed to plant and animal identification. Although most corporate types don’t have a lot of need for that skill set, the point of the exercise was to learn creative strategies to train material that the learners would assume was pointless or irrelevant. Having attended corporate training on fraud and abuse, passwords and privacy, and various regulatory programs every year regardless of mastery, I knew exactly what they were talking about. The instructors had some great strategies that many of us thought would translate easily to our offices. As we worked through categories covering everything from noxious plants to animal scat, I could see the other half of the teams at their session and I began to worry.
We were scheduled next for knots, ropes, and lashings. Although I know my way around a handful of knots, I can’t tie them off the top of my head without a refresher. I had never done lashings before and certainly hadn’t built any structures that needed to support a person. I was grateful to have the Eagle Scout and the sailboat fan on our team, but my hopes faded when I learned that our finished structure had to have at least one lashing constructed by each person. After a time of instruction, we were allowed to practice or head to be tested. Those students who tested early were supposed to return to their teams to assist with practice. I was surprised when our disappearing colleague headed off to the testing station. I wasn’t surprised though when he didn’t return after passing the testing station.
The two who did return did a great job of helping the rest of us through the basic knots and on to the more complicated lashings. We felt like we had moved to the Norming phase as we completed our structure but were disqualified due to our missing man so went back to Storming. Once again my thoughts turned to the office where time and again I’ve seen teams derailed by one member who ends up sabotaging the team, whether deliberately or subconsciously. Our missing man returned in time for our next rotation and it was there that we figured out at least part of what was going on with him.
We were tasked with preparing a session to train another team in a wilderness first aid topic. Each team was given an instructor to serve as subject matter expert for the content, but we had to construct the lesson plans and deliver the training session. In this more focused discussion environment we realized our missing man had a significant hearing deficit. That might explain his behavior at the ropes session – maybe he didn’t realize he was supposed to come back after testing. Maybe he didn’t hear the warnings about aggressive raccoons and not storing food in the tents. My tent mate said it reminded her of a co-worker who was in treatment for a life-threatening condition but didn’t tell the team, resulting in a lot of speculation about why her performance was declining. Although workplaces must accommodate disabilities, it’s hard to make appropriate modifications when no one is aware.
Saturday night wrapped up with a chili cook-off and a traditional campfire, which helped us relax and refuel after a long taxing day. I fell asleep with the sound of rain on our tent, which was better than any white noise generator I’ve encountered. The cold front arrived overnight and we awoke to a crisp morning. Our missing man again gave us something to talk about while he proceeded to take down his own tent while the rest of us were busy cooking as a team and taking care of group needs. Since he reminded us of the people we’ve worked with who are psychologically checked out, coupling that with all the other episodes made us wonder if he was a plant by the instructors to force us to think through the various teamwork and conflict resolution scenarios.
We had several more stations on Sunday with a little rain interspersed. This time the participants were better prepared. Our missing man was around half the time and contributed maybe a quarter of the time. He disappeared for good right before our debrief session and although that allowed us to talk openly about how his behavior made us feel, we weren’t able to experience the group dynamics needed to confront a dysfunctional team member.
Although sometimes frustrating, the weekend overall was outstanding. I learned a great new chili recipe and that the gluten free cookies that look like Oreos are better than the original. I learned that no matter what environment you’re in there will always be people who aren’t following the playbook and that we have to have strategies ready to deal with them. I learned new techniques to train students on material they find uninteresting.
Last, I learned 10 good knots, three different lashings, and their potential uses. Have you ever attended corporate training in the great outdoors? Need to learn how to secure your food in a bear bag? Email me.