OUTDOOR CHALLENGE FOR EXECUTIVES
(Philip E. Bartow)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Several levels of trust are developed in challenge
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
attitudes about change, or trying something new, or accepting new types of
authority become apparent in outdoor activities.
unambiguous, agreed upon goal which provides an orientation for individual
efforts is an attribute of outdoor challenge activities.
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.
challenge activities provide the basis for either self examination or
diagnostic observation to promote.