OUTDOOR CHALLENGE FOR EXECUTIVES

(Philip E. Bartow)
1975

Outdoor challenge programs provide a direct and stimulating approach for achieving many of the organizational development objectives of management. Outdoor challenges promote individual development, team building, and group cohesiveness. The outdoor setting provides an alternative environment in which to explore the role of values in accepting individual challenge and developing team flexibility to achieving agreed upon goals. In addition, outdoor challenge programs combat stress and highlight the role of personal health in achieving the objectives of the organization.

 

In recent years the role of such outdoor challenges as mountain climbing, white water rafting, canoeing caving and survival training have been adapted to the needs of the executive. Some outdoor challenge programs had their genesis in preparing military personnel to  survive hostile, environments. Behavioral research suggests that the use of outdoor challenge activities either eliminates traditional barriers to acceptance of new concepts, or reveals them at their most basic level. Both origins have important implications for the development of management training programs.

 

Why It Works

 

Outdoor challenges seem to be effective for several-reasons not the least of which is they can be fun. Outdoor challenges provide a stimulating way of presenting materials normally covered in more formal classroom or management seminar structures. In the apparent informality of the setting, participants relax some of their normal ego defense mechanisms which are stimulated by more formal cues. This opens them up to new forms of communication and participation.

 

Another aspect of challenge activities is the impartiality of nature and directness of the experience. The challenges are perceived as real and value free. Gravity pulls just as hard on the other person. The challenges are in terms of overcoming basic fears and reinforcing our awareness that we can survive and be prepared to meet greater challenges.

 

There are striking similarities between an outdoor challenge program and an organizational environment. Not only can the meaning of the functions of management be highlighted but many contemporary organizational development concepts can be experienced directly. In fact, most of the traditional barriers to acceptance of new concepts in the organization are either that outdoor challenge activities provide the basis for either self examination or diagnostic observation promoting individual growth and team building.

 

Individual Growth

 

Climbing a cliff or running a set of rapids stimulates the total mental; physical, emotional and social fabric of the individual. There are few activities in an organization which are as demanding. Because of this the most basic and perhaps complex relations in an organization can be revealed in what a person experiences when climbing a cliff.

 

PHYSICAL AWARENESS

 

Many challenge activities are physically demanding and instill a heightened sense of awareness. The beginner finds muscles he or she didn't know existed. For some people the neglect and abuse they have heaped on their bodies through poor eating and working habits become apparent. Over the course of a challenge program many participants find themselves gaining strength, find they feel better in their other activities, and have a greater sense of mental alertness and an enhanced ability to cope with stress.

 

EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT

 

How people respond to change and uncertainty is influenced by their sense of self confidence, the values which shape their perceptions and their awareness of their coping patterns. Basic emotions like fear or distrust interfere with the clearness of thought necessary for dealing with an unknown situation or even for survival. Learning to recognize the emotional symptoms and cope with them is a major aspect of an outdoor challenge activity. The same mechanisms developed to cope in a challenge program can be used to deal with an emotionally laden work crisis.

 

Self-confidence

 

One of the first statements many people make when it is suggested that they try climbing is that they have a fear of heights. A progression of small challenges, familiarity and trust in the use of equipment, and confidence in a climbing partner usually transform the potential fear into exhilaration and an enhanced sense of self confidence. Similar experiences are found in going into a cave or into rapids for the first time.

 

The sense of self confidence transfers to other settings. If a person can approach the uncertainty of an outdoor challenge with confidence he or she can approach changes in management style, responsibility, or assignments with confidence.

 

Clarification of Values

 

Outdoor challenge provides opportunities to focus on and clarify values that influence a person's attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and perceived approaches to new situations. Attitudes that lead to dramatic disruptions are often a reflection of the values which guide the individual's perceptions about acceptable alternatives for avoiding embarrassment. Many attitudes about change, or trying something new, or accepting new types of authority become apparent in outdoor activities.

 

Coping with Uncertainty

 

A major role of outdoor challenge is to help people identify how they respond to uncertainty. Those who display avoidance mechanisms on outing trips often do the same in the work setting. Attempts at avoidance during an outing are apparent and can be dealt with without embarrassment because the setting is understandably stressful.

 

This provides an opportunity to develop constructive problem solving procedures. The participant learns to translate uncertainty into a series of small problems and to assess the risk of each. He learns that the equipment and techniques reduce the level of risk and that the perceived risk is much greater than the actual risk.

 

MENTAL STIMULATION

 

Focused Effort

 

In climbing one learns to concentrate, to focus all mental energies on a single, often simple, but immediate task. At times one becomes aware of every detail in the grains of rock, of strength and emotion and can remember them for days. Perhaps it is the jolt of adrenaline that people experience when looking over a cliff before rappelling for the first time, or maybe it is simply relearning how to concentrate and how to learn; but the intensity of those moments invariably spills over into other activities.

 

Commitment

 

Whatever the precise mechanisms, few people complete a stimulating climb dead to the world around them. They approach the rest of their activities with a sense of vigor. The sense of challenge often increases their willingness to accept risks, to be innovative, and to make a commitment to their tasks.

 

Team Building

 

Team strength is influenced by the level of friendliness, interaction and activity of it members. All three are stimulated in an outdoor challenge situation. Friendliness is enhanced through the development of trust relationships. Interaction is facilitated through the communication and interdependency in a challenge activity. Finally, they are linked in an agreed upon activity toward a common goal.

 

TRUST

 

Several levels of trust are developed in challenge activities.

 

First, participants learn to be dependent upon and be able to trust somebody else. A climber, for instance, learns to trust the person providing protection in the form of a belay. In this situation there is no loss of face in being dependent upon the belayer. It is a new type of trust situation for many.

 

Second, the participant learns to trust his own capabilities and to follow through in a difficult situation.

Third, the participant is constantly reminded that he can support somebody else, that he can be responsible, and that he can be depended upon.

 

It is not uncommon for the pulse of the belayer to rise dramatically the first time he stops a falling climber. Not only is he afraid of being pulled off the top but fears that he can't support the climber. The fear of responsibility is tremendous. After a round or two of this sort of supportive relationship the climber and his partner usually start taking their capabilities to support and be supported as matter-of-fact.

 

COMMUNICATIONS

 

Two-way communication in climbing is an important as it is in the organization. The person on top has to know the situation and needs of the climber. The person climbing has a responsibility to himself to communicate (upward) with the person on top. This often has to be forceful and assertive to overcome such barriers to communication as distance, obstacles, and the noise of wind, rivers, and other climbers. Communications are necessary to test belays, to notify the belayer of changes in direction, a possible fall and the need for additional or precautionary support during difficult moves. The consequences of a failure to communicate effectively can be noticeably uncomfortable.

 

The organizational analogy is simple. Subordinates need to learn to be assertive to overcome communications barriers. This includes their own fear of speaking upward for support and to avoid awkward situations. The person on top needs to initiate communications; to coordinate activities; to verify that everything is okay; and, to provide encouragement.

 

Challenge activities-provide diagnostic opportunities as to how people will communicate under stress. It provides an opportunity to assess whether they can coordinate the information they receive and translate it into meaningful activity; or if they will fall into some non-communicative shell or panic and fail to listen to reason.

 

COMMON GOALS

 

An unambiguous, agreed upon goal which provides an orientation for individual efforts is an attribute of outdoor challenge activities. Achieving the goal cuts across personal interests, values and rank. Individual contributions are based on technical skills and shifting direction of demand and potential for support.

 

Functions of Management

 

To further illustrate the role of outdoor challenge in executive development analogies will be drawn between the functions of management -- planning, organizing, staffing, directing, controlling and innovating.

 

PLANNING

 

A plan is a predetermined course of action. Climbing requires the identification of primary and intermediate goals. While the top of a cliff might be the primary objective, the climber must identify a series of smaller sequences of activities and then execute each movement. Often a climber will exert a tremendous amount of energy and concentration and move only a few inches.

 

He has to plan the sequence to conserve energy and to place protective anchors along the route. He must identify alternative handholds and footholds, and determine the relative advantage and requirements of each. Then he must choose the sequence of actions and make a commitment.

 

The consequence of a failure to plan ahead far enough and to budget energy and conserve strength can lead to a fall.

 

 

ORGANIZING

 

There has to be structure to team. The organization of climbing team is dynamic and goal oriented. Somebody has to go first to the top of a pitch while somebody is still at the bottom. The person at the top is then in a position to provide a supportive relationship to the next person who climbs. Who the lead climber will be often is determined by relative strength and expertise.

 

Modern management is approaching the structure of a climbing team. Many of the currently management concepts such open system, Quality Circles and participative management build on the notion of the contributions of all participants.

 

STAFFING

 

Staffing is a human resource development activity. If personnel with the necessary qualifications are not available for a given task they either have to be hired or developed from within through transfers or training.

 

Outdoor challenge has been used to assess the potential response of individuals to new environments to reduce the risk of poor assignments. The stress associated with outdoor activities can be useful in determining how people will respond to stress on the job. How will they respond when something goes wrong on a project, or when something breaks down and the boss comes in and yells? It's nice to know if a person is going to flare up or throw something, or become passive, or crumble and be defeated psychologically. Ideally, a person will seek information and identify alternatives, and take a rational course to deal with the situation.

 

DIRECTING

 

There are many styles for directing the efforts of others. One extreme is dictatorial and the other is laissez-faire do nothing. Leadership patterns often evolve as a response to different kinds of environmental challenges and are influenced by the nature of the task and the relative capabilities of the team members. Several contemporary management approaches espouse the concept of a supportive relationship by the person on top with an emphasis on the development of subordinate capabilities.

 

There is a parallel with challenge activities. Each person is responsible for choosing alternatives and making decisions, and suffering/accepting the consequences for those decisions. It is important that the skill of each person be developed because failure impacts on the whole team.

 

The directing style of the leader, to the extent that a leader per se is identified, is either instrumental, in terms of having the strength and know-how to go first, or supportive or informational.

 

CONTROLLING

 

A climbing team experiences all the constraints of a team responsible in a corporate project. It has specific objectives and targets, time and resource budgets. Progress must be monitored and projections of the likely outcomes have to be made. If it appears that time or resources (energy, food, etc.) are going to be insufficient, contingency plans have to be made.

 

The major difference between an outdoor challenge activity and a corporate program is the time frame of decision making and the closure of the outcome. In outdoor challenge activities the time frame is often shorter, the results unambiguous, and the stress is specific. In the corporate setting the consequences of a failure to control are sometimes less defined and the stress is less specific.

 

INNOVATING

 

In climbing there is always a way to solve a problem. Sometimes the solution is to back away from the immediate objective and find another route. Outdoor challenge programs place a premium on flexibility in the use of available resources and individual capabilities. There is a synergism in development of the physical, emotional and psychological capabilities. This leads to a functioning innovative team which is flexible and adaptive to changing requirements.

 

Making It Work

 

During outdoor challenge activities a variety of personal and interpersonal relationships develop. There are many surprising transformations. Participants often gain insights into their own behavior. The ultimate concern is not in being able to see hidden capabilities of the individual on the outing trip but to keep those capabilities viable once the individual returns to the work setting. The outing experiences need to be interpreted or translated to become meaningful in the work setting.

 

Three things can be done to enhance the value of an outdoor challenge program.

 

First, the program should be designed with specific objectives in mind.

 

Second, the outing sequence should be in a series of stages which allow integration of the experiences into the participant's daily patterns and work setting.

 

Third, participants should engage in the activities. Research results from a three year study show that participants who find ways of avoiding the challenge activities do not develop the same level of self-confidence and self-awareness as those who follow through.

 

Four, efforts should be made to identify parallels between the experiences of the outings and situations in the work setting.

 

SUMMARY

 

o    Outdoor challenge programs provide a direct and stimulating approach for achieving many of the organizational development objectives of management, promoting individual development, team building and group cohesiveness.

 

o   Many attitudes about change, or trying something new, or accepting new types of authority become apparent in outdoor activities.

 

o   An unambiguous, agreed upon goal which provides an orientation for individual efforts is an attribute of outdoor challenge activities.

 

o    Achieving the agreed-upon goals that outdoor challenge activities provide cuts across personal interests, values and rank.

 

o    The major difference between an outdoor challenge activity and a corporate program is the shorter time frame of decision making and the closure of the outcomes.

 

o   Outdoor challenge activities provide the basis for either self examination or diagnostic observation to promote.