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99 of the Best Experiential Corporate Games We Know!. S. Priest, S. Sikes, & F. Evans, eXperientia, 2000.

Experiential Quotes: Words of Wisdom to Live and Work By. S. Priest & T. Miner, eXperientia, 2000.

The Essential Elements of Facilitation. S. Priest, M.A. Gass, & H.L. Gillis, H.L., Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1999.

101 of the Best Corporate Team-Building Activities We Know. S. Priest & K. Rohnke, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1999.

Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming. S. Priest & M. Gass, Human Kinetics, 1999.

Visit eXperientia, an international experiential learning consortium

Sisco Conscientia, eXperientiaís online journal of research and evaluation in experiential learning

Visit the Association for Experiential Education

A group of nine executives are gathered around an inverted bucket with a glass of water precariously perched atop it. A great deal of confusion exists as many people speak †at the same time and no one appears to listen. A CEO calls commands in a loud voice to four directors who are coaching four blindfolded managers. Each of the blindfolded managers is standing in a hula-hoop and is pulling against the others on four separate ropes tied to a large rubber band. The CEO intends to stretch the rubber band to fit around the outside edge of the inverted bucket. The entire group will then lift the bucket, without spilling the water, and transfer it to a safe location.

This group is fully engaged in an active learning experience. They focus their learning on the teamwork tool of communication. They gain awareness of strengths and weaknesses which they practice to improve. Earlier that morning, the group played games to get to know one another in a new context. Later in the afternoon, they will go on the ropes course and tomorrow they will raft down a whitewater river. These experiences involve a special kind of training and development called Experientially Based Training & Development (EBTD).

At a time when business seems focused on elearning, EBTD offers another way to achieve improved communication and action.

What is EBTD?

Experience-based Training and Development describes a wide variety of activities finding their way into mainstream human resource courses, management education classes, and organizational learning schemes. EBTD is not survival training, nor is it military-style combat in the outdoors. This approach to training and development utilizes adventurous educational experiences (activities which involve some form of perceived physical or emotional risk) to bring about positive changes in individuals, groups and organizations.

EBTD programs provide challenging and novel activities coupled with unusual opportunities for shared reflection. In this way, the approach creates learning environments within a supportive atmosphere, which in turn bring about learning outcomes beyond those of the typical lectures or simulations. Since this approach can be more realistic than simulations, and since it provides opportunity for practice through experience, it proves extremely useful in training and development situations where resistance to change is prevalent or where an attitude of rigid conservative thinking exists.

Components

A number of components, specific to EBTD programming, place it apart from more traditional and conventional forms of training and development.

1.   EBTD is experiential. While working under hands-on conditions, people learn best by doing. The adventure activities utilize perceived risk and yet are quite safe.
2.   EBTD is dramatic: The excitement and emotional nature of these activities focus attention and sharpen minds. People remember what they learn.
3.   EBTD is novel. Because of the unique context and uncertainty of outcome for these activities, no one in the group is considered an expert. Adventures tend to equalize people and break down the hierarchical barriers and apprehensions that often exist in large organizations.
4.   EBTD is consequential. Errors have potential ramifications in adventures (getting wet in a canoe or falling on a rope), unlike in a classroom simulation (where play money is lost). Furthermore, success and failure is supported by those who really matter (co-workers and oneself).
5.   EBTD is metaphoric. Adventures are a microcosm of the requirements needed for changes taking place in the work world. The behaviors demonstrated by individuals and groups during these activities are parallel representations of the way they act and what happens in the office. As such, new learning (skills, coping strategies, and bonding among personnel) can be analogously applied toward future efforts on the job.
6.   EBTD is transferable. Testimonials by past participants support the utility of experience-based training and limited research studies substantiate that new learning does indeed show up in the workplace. People refer back to their experiences and approach their tasks from a fresh perspective.

Several unique characteristics of EBTD are the importance placed on the setting or natural environment, the use of experiential learning methodology, the importance of effective instruction, and debriefing the experience through feedback or reflection. EBTD is holistic, involving all the senses and accommodating a variety of learning styles, with clear and simple goals providing immediate feedback on performance regardless of success or setback. Unlike simulated games, EBTD programs offer concrete experiences that are task oriented, just like work, and are intriguing, so that everyone desires to get involved. The activities are new, fun and invigorating; they provide opportunities to experiment with new behaviors and skills in a safe environment, which encourages risk taking.

Benefits

EBTD can benefit the individual employee, the management work unit, and the parent organization through individual development, group development, cultural development, and the interaction of all three.

    Benefits to the individual include developments in self-confidence, leadership style, risk taking propensity, dealing with fear and stress, decision making, and personal inspiration and commitment.

    The work unit benefits from improvements in goal setting, team building, leadership, time management, conflict resolution, group problem solving, collaboration and cooperation.

    Outcomes for the organization involve an enhancement of systems, structure, values and ethics, vision and mission, corporate climate, and motivational atmosphere, which results in the bottom line of increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, lower turnover and higher profits.

The interaction of these three developmental areas (cultural, personal and group) can lead to empowerment, trust and integrity, effective communication, environmental safety, judgment based on experience, and coping with change and uncertainty, as these benefits are shared among all aspects of the corporate organization, individuals and work units.

Activities

Letís look at what takes place during a typical program. Although the main content of EBTD is action-oriented activities, the first two general categories relate to work done before and after the activities take place. If the categories of activities can be thought of as the meat of a program, then these first two categories would be the bread that makes the EBTD program a sandwich.

Well before the formal program starts and well after it finishes, facilitators from the provider visit the consumer to conduct at least one diagnostic interview and at least one follow-up meeting. Classroom sessions set goals and plan action, at the beginning and completion of the formal program, and are occasionally interspersed among the program activities. While this approach is the preferred model, it is not always possible due to the limitations of resources.

Client Visitations (diagnostic interview and follow-up strategies)

At the diagnostic interview (well before the program starts) facilitators from the program provider and trainers from the consumer company meet to assess the clientís needs. They usually interview or observe key members of the group and other employees who work with that group. Through a preparation meeting, the facilitators may also address any concerns of the client group and allay their fears regarding the program.

At the follow-up meeting (well after the program ends) they share several strategies and check on how to keep the changes going. During this same visit, or at a later date, the facilitators may also report on the outcomes of any program evaluations or research studies.

Classroom Sessions (orientation and action planning)

Ann initial orientation meeting explains the process and products of EBTD programming. The clients then set personal and group goals for the program period. As the program progresses, further classroom sessions may be included to revisit and revise the initially set goals . In this manner, learning progress can be evaluated as the clients take stock of how far they have come.

Programs typically conclude with detailed action planning for the individual and/or the team. Here clients carefully plan what they will do differently back at work. They also examine who will take the action, as well as how, when, and where it will be done.

Action-Oriented Adventure Activities

The bulk of EBTD programming and the unique aspects of the approach revolve around a wide variety of action-oriented adventure activities. The design and delivery of these activities are in line with the needs assessed during the diagnostic interview and with regard for the goals set by the client group during an early classroom session.

After the experience, each activity is debriefed to draw out the optimal learning points and to cement new learning. Debriefs are reflective periods of discussion, †usually led by a neutral party, often a co-facilitational team of provider facilitator and consumer trainer. Debriefs typically look for metaphoric connections between the EBTD program and real life in the workplace. Metaphors are the parallel pieces of both realities as identified by the client group. Metaphors strengthen the connection between the program and work, thus enhancing the transfer of new learning from EBTD to the office.

Recently a new technique, known as isomorphic framing, has become prevalent in EBTD programming. Isomorphs are aspects of the activity that are purposefully altered or described differently by the facilitator to make the activity more like real life. The supporting theory suggests that if a group can perform functionally in an EBTD activity which is a very close representation of work (isomorphic), then the effort needed to transfer that performance will be slight and easily achieved. The impact of this approach rests heavily with the quality of the facilitators' ability to enable client learning.

Many of the activities which follow have been renamed by some providers for one of two reasons: appropriately to create an isomorphic representation of the workplace, or inappropriately to mislead consumers into thinking the activity is the provider's own invention. In the examples that follow, the original names are used from the agency that has done some of the pioneering work in this area: Project Adventure. Each of the activity categories and their two specific forms are described in sequence for a series of typical programs, and the key point of learning for each is also included.

Socialization Games (familiarization and deinhibitization)

Most programs begin with socialization games to familiarize client group members with one another and deinhibitize their participation. These "ice-breakers" may include an activity like Name Toss where members learn each other's names while throwing an object to each other around a circle. Another example is the Human Knot, which gets people comfortable touching in close proximity. Here members get tangled up in a knot while holding hands and have to get untangled again without letting go.

Even these apparently foolish and fun games have powerful messages to share with participants. In Name Toss the object being thrown around represents a piece of information being communicated. If a sender does not link up with the receiver (by using their name to get their attention) before sending the information (throwing the ball), then the likelihood of the message not getting through (the ball may be dropped) increases. In the Human Knot the solution is sometimes difficult or impossible, because of the way the members first set up the exercise. The moral of the story may be similar to being at work where a careful project start-up contributes to reducing problems later on.

Group Initiative Tasks (team tools and team tests)

When a group seems comfortable with one another and their training, the program then progresses to group initiatives or tasks requiring teamwork for a successful solution. Group Initiatives can be divided into the tools of teamwork and the tests of teamwork. If a high performing team exhibits cooperation, communication and trust as three examples of the many necessary team tools, then simple group initiative tasks of this form will raise the groupís awareness of their strengths and weaknesses regarding the tool. This helps them develop each tool in turn. Once functional in the tools of teamwork, the group can test their performance with group initiative tasks, which are more complex and require all the tools to be used in synergy. These team tests challenge the group and help them hone their newly learned skills as they evolve toward greater effectiveness and higher performance.

Some examples of team tools include: Trolleys, Line-ups and Trust Falls. In Trolleys, a pair of giant skis (trolleys) is laid out in parallel for the group to line up and stand upon with one foot on each ski. The members hold ropes attached to each ski and in order to move ahead, the group must lift their leg, arm and corresponding ski all in unison. The most common metaphoric learning point is that if they don't all pull together in the same direction, the group won't progress.

In Line-ups, the group must non-verbally communicate a piece of information such as their ages. Here the learning may center on gaining common understanding and metaphorically speaking the same language, since for age, one person might be communicating in years, while another might be indicating decades or months.

Trust Falls involve a member falling backward (from a height no higher than the average elbow position of the other standing group members) into a cradle of arms of the remaining group. This activity needs proper facilitation training, but it can be a powerful technique to bring up discussion of issues regarding risk taking with or without the support of the group.

Team tests include the well-known group initiative tasks called Spiders Web and Nitro Crossing. In Spiders Web, a giant web of string or bungee cord is strung across a gap between two poles or trees. A number of openings exist between the strands of the web. The group task is to pass each member through an opening from one side to the other. The difficulty is increased by adding rules such as using one opening per person or returning everyone to the start if a strand is touched (the Spider is awakened).

In Nitro Crossing, the group must swing across an imaginary river from bank to bank by using a suspended rope. In addition, the group must transport a container of water (Nitroglycerin). The difficulty is increased by returning everyone to the start if just one drop or more is spilled at any time. People falling in the river must start again. For both tests, stress on the group may be added through constraints such as time limits or maximum number of tries permitted. The key learning here centers on the task being complex and requiring the team tools to be used in synergy with problem solving skills in order for the group to be successful.

Ropes or Challenge Courses (low/spotted and high/belayed elements)

Ropes or challenge courses are primarily designed for individual development after a strong and supportive group has been created through earlier training. The ropes or challenge course is not such an effective tool for team building and is limited in this respect, unless program providers go to great measures to refine and restructure activities for use by groups.

These courses typically involve personal challenges like climbing along a narrow balance beam, walking a tension traverse (tight rope cable with a loose hand line for balance), swinging on a series of suspended tires, or jumping off the Pamper Pole (top of a utility pole) or Hickory Jump (small stumps) to catch a trapeze bar or ring a bell dangling near the bar! All four of these examples, called elements of the course, may be constructed among trees or utility poles, either at ground level or in mid-air. Special standards exist for the construction of these courses: contact AEE for details.

If done at ground level (low ropes), group members need to spot one another for protection. Spotting (standing securely and holding hands up and at the ready) requires group members to break a fall at ground level by preventing the head and shoulders of the person taking the risks from striking the ground, much like a coach might spot a gymnast on a tumbling routine. Consequently, low elements are typically conducted around a soft ground surface like bark mulch or grass.

If done well above ground (high ropes), the elements require protection in the form of a belay. Belaying requires group members to protect a person in the event of a possible fall by holding his or her safety rope (which runs through a braking device), much like rock climbers look after one another on a cliff climb. Subsequently, high elements have need for well-maintained equipment such as approved helmets, harnesses and ropes, and for specially skilled facilitators.

Outdoor Pursuits (activity-based and wilderness-based)

North American EBTD programs also use classic outdoor adventure activities, such as whitewater rafting, mountaineering, caving, and canoe camping. These activities provide excellent opportunities to learn about leadership under arduous or adverse conditions.

The activities are further divided on whether they require a particularly special setting such as overnight wilderness backpacking trips or whether the activity can be done almost anywhere, such as orienteering (map and compass navigation exercises). Obviously, the former will be more expensive and labor intensive, but with circumstances that may better mirror the reality of the office. Please contact the AEE for a copy of the safety guidelines and professional practices for these activities.

Other Adventures (simulated and non-traditional)

Some quasi-adventurous activities, which would not normally be associated with EBTD programs, have become more commonplace in North America. Some are complex simulations which permit a view of the bigger picture, like a manufacturing assembly line that is re-engineered and transformed by participants. Some are suspect in terms of their safety, ethics and effectiveness, such as bungee jumping (which has no safety backup system), fire walking (which contains real rather than perceived risks), and paint ball warfare (which espouses competition rather than collaboration). As stand alone activities, these other adventures are not EBTD programs. However, as one component of an EBTD program, they have limited application provided they are applied correctly.

* * *

Most people agree that effective corporate learning has changed dramatically from the standard classroom setting. eLearning offers one new method, but often only the learners know how much they participate. EBTD programs offer another way to go where participation and teamwork are really hands-on experiences. Dynamic learning includes many avenues that lead to more knowledgeable and efficient workers. EBTD is one worth exploring.

Simon Priest, Ph.D. is a consultant and mentor in leadership, corporate, organization and executive programs. Contact him at spriest@ups.edu.

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