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The Great Outdoors


On this page we will place newsletters and articles about management development, learning techniques, and articles of interest. The first offering is an article written by one of our team, outlining some ofthe arguments for and against the use of outdoor activities in training and developing teams and individuals. Comments and enquiries can be sent to us at

The Great Outdoors 

Macho Nonsense or Serious Development Alternative?

Does the idea of using outdoor activities fill you with dread, fear for your professional credibility or your budget, do you think it is something that is fine for the SAS, schoolchildren or those fit young fools from sales, but nothing to do with "proper" management development? Is your view similar to a respected OD professional who once told me that she does appreciate the great outdoors, but that "Itís best viewed from a shaded patio with a misted glass of Chablis to hand."

Maybe you actually enjoy a leisurely walk in the country, but donít see its relevance to improving performance at work. Perhaps you have had, or heard of others having a bad experience. Whatever your take on the subject I would invite you to pause and reflect for a moment as to whether you are neglecting an effective and stimulating option for developing people.

There have been numerous stories of dubious practices from eating worms to walking on hot coals. While recognising that some people claim to have benefited from such events, it is at the extremes that the most damage can be done - to individuals, organisations and to the reputation of a medium from which many have taken real and memorable learning.

There has been some bad press for this sort of training, much of it justified. I have met many rightly indignant training professionals, whose scepticism turned to cynicism after watching a Ďfly on the wallí documentary about an outdoor development event in Scotland. One summarised it as follows:

A group of managers are shouted at by bullet headed squaddies with limited vocabularies and strong lungs. A bloke with vertigo is forced to climb a yachtís mast in 30-foot seas. A chronic asthmatic collapses, blue-faced, on a mountain ridge and is airlifted to safety, trussed in silver foil. People are quite literally keelhauled.

So what are the real differences and benefits of outdoor activities in management development? Letís firstly be clear what we are talking about. We prefer to call it Management Development Outdoors or MDO. This places the emphasis in the right place - we are referring to the use of outdoor activities as a medium for management development, not the other way around. These activities may be adventure based, such as caving, climbing or canoeing. They may equally be simple problem solving exercises based outside and using rope, wood or scaffolding.

MDO is an extension of experiential learning, which is a key element in much effective development training. Experiential learning is more powerful and has a more lasting effect than conventional approaches. It is centred on learning by doing, but linked to facilitated reflection, theoretical models and behavioural experimentation. All stages are equally important and valid, but the practical emphasis is the key to its appeal and effectiveness. Outdoor activities should not be undertaken lightly, but designed to highlight particular lessons or processes. They are also enjoyable and memorable, which enhances the learning.

Benefits of Management Development Outdoors

Some of the particular advantages of MDO over other training and development programmes are that, if well designed and run, such events can make learning:


The practical nature of the activities, where task accomplishment is easily monitored, where team results are measurable and where individual skills and contribution are developed can readily be transferred back to the working environment. This can be enhanced by professional facilitators.


Outdoor exercises can be designed to any level of complexity, and allow scope for multi-layer management in any form and to suit any particular working culture. They lend themselves to related, yet separate problems such as may exist between different sections of a business or industry.


a) Physical safety; all activities should be supervised by trained and experienced staff;

b) Business safety; course members can apply new techniques and experiment with new modes of behaviour at no risk to the company. Decisions and actions have no direct business consequence and accordingly activities and behaviours can be tried which are not possible when at work.


Many traditional management training courses rely on delegates assuming roles to create a situation which has some reality to work. By using the "here and now", out of doors exercises are designed without having to play a role, course members are themselves and are less able to hide behind the excuse: "I'm not really like that!"


Most outdoor activity contains a significant element of enjoyment. People like to be involved, this leads to increased motivation and commitment to learning. There is ample evidence that people learn more when they are enjoying the activity.


The drama and excitement of the outdoor activities will make a lasting impression. Recall of the activity leads to recall of the learning and its application. Just being outside tends to make people more relaxed, open and even more creative.


Perhaps the greatest asset of all. There is no artificiality in the exercises outdoors - the problems are real, the issues are dynamic, the constraints are felt, the people are live, the consequences are real. There is no need to act - it is the real world.

(See examples below)


 How to ensure a successful MDO event

Many of the keys to effective MDO events are similar to other development activities, but the following are particularly helpful for ensuring maximum benefit is derived from them.

Considerations for the Training Department or the Manager Sponsoring the Event:

Questions to ask when choosing a MDO provider:

1. What is their Training philosophy?

2. What industrial or commercial experience have the staff? (It may be cheaper, but is rarely as effective if courses are run by "well intentioned abseilers"!

3. What Safety training have they had and qualifications do they hold?

4. How is their safety equipment purchased and maintained?

5. What experience do they have of designing exercises?

6. What insurance cover do they have?

7. What ratios of staff (safety or facilitating) to delegates do they maintain?

8. What percentage of time is spent in review?

9. How would they react to a delegate refusing to participate in an exercise or activity?

WRONG reasons to choose MDO

1 It was successful or popular last time.

2 It is cheaper than the other options.

3 It worked for our competitors.

4 It will be a nice change, a bit of a reward for the troops.

5 It will toughen them up, sort out the men from the boys.

6 We all had to go through it.

7 It is part of the package the supplier provides.

8 It will make me look progressive.


How to get the most from a MDO programme as a delegate.

1. Clarify personal objectives. These may not be the same as the company's. Reconcile Management learning objectives with personal ones, such as desire to abseil or enter a cave, and prioritise them.

2. Discuss objectives with management, training department, colleagues, family and friends - anyone who can provide objectivity, support or criticism.

3. Review these objectives and progress towards them regularly throughout the programme. Be prepared to discuss them with facilitators and fellow delegates. Seek feedback.

4. Try to suspend disbelief. Do not be overcritical of exercise reality or relevance, but look for metaphors and similarities with work and life.

5. Enjoy it.

6. Challenge and Experiment. Examine theory with a critical eye, valuing it in your own terms, but be prepared to try new ideas and behaviours.

7. Consider the learning needs of other delegates. Understand how some have complementary and some contradictory objectives, help them to progress and give honest, constructive feedback.

8. Before leaving the programme, set new objectives and write an action plan.

9. Offer feedback to course designers and facilitators on appropriateness and effectiveness of the programme.

10.On return to work, review learning objectives with others, share and invite comment on the action plan, revising it as necessary and then DO IT!

Effective Applications of MDO

Evidence for the effectiveness of all training is difficult to gather and is often largely anecdotal. This is particularly true of MDO, but here are some examples of how we have used MDO to help our clients.


A well known and successful consultancy, specialising in Total Quality Management recognised a weakness in the training they provided to their clients. The TQM principles were encapsulated in a three pronged approach of Systems, Control and Teamwork and they had a wealth of experience and expertise in the first two.They were concerned, however that they only had a superficial understanding of teamwork. They therefore asked us to design and facilitate a one day seminar with their senior consultants. The day was run from their offices, but the activities ranged into the neighbouring public park.

Combined with some psychometric analysis of potential team strengths we ran a number of short problem solving exercises and a carefully adapted version of a longer exercise.

The ensuing review was wide ranging, but also quite deep in certain aspects. The consultants found a number of areas where they felt a need to improve their own working relationships and structure, which in turn gave them a greater understanding of the importance of the teamwork part of their programmes and some fresh ideas on how to impart the message.

* Some recent surveys in Europe have shown that as many as 80% of TQM initiatives fail. Part of the reason for this is neglect of the teamwork training process. (Total Quality: Time to take off the rose tinted spectacles, A.T.Kearney, London, 1991.)


A company that prided itself on quality and customer service recognised a change in customers' expectations and requirements. The company was increasingly being asked to design innovative marketing ideas, rather than just manufacture products.

During a team building programme the delegates struggled with a series of problem solving exercises, which during review was blamed on a lack of innovative thought. This seemed to be backed up by the results of the Belbin Team Roles profiles, which identified only one "Plant" (creative thinker) in 88 middle to senior managers.

The initial reaction to this was to advocate recruitment of more innovative types. However we recommended they spend some time considering their culture first. Their reputation was built on some fairly inflexible systems and a culture of compliance and tradition, which fostered intolerance of new ideas.

We ran a series of programmes to encourage more creativity and, more importantly to recognise and appreciate innovation and the need for it.


Some National Health Service managers were trying to come to terms with their new roles in the market environment introduced by the government. In particular they were concerned about the apparently conflicting functions of providing and purchasing health care for their clients - the patients. We designed and ran a large multi-task exercise where managers had to bid for contracts, buy tasks to fulfil those contracts and then complete the tasks. The tasks themselves varied from simple, repetitive operations with low value to longer problem solving exercises of high value to further reflect the conflicting priorities of their hospital environments. This proved to be an easily recognisable metaphor and the managers developed a number of strategies which they successfully adapted to their real situations and transferred to their new Health Trusts.

(This benefit relies on careful selection of the organisation which runs your MDO programme - you need a mix of outdoor skills, commercial experience and facilitation expertise. See questions to ask a MDO provider above!)



For more information see:

 Management Development Outdoors - A Practical Guide to Getting the Best Resultsby Bill Krouwel and Steve Goodwill, published by Kogan Page in association with the Institute of Training and Development 

(ISBN 0-7494-1162-7)




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