Adventure team-building brings out the best

In space, there aren’t a lot of recourses when things go wrong. When astronauts first unfurled the solar arrays that would power the International Space Station, tangled guide wires tore a 30-inch hole in the $5.6 million apparatus and disabled one opening joint.

“This was a very serious problem,” Astronaut Dan Tani said of the experience in a prior interview. “The arrays needed to be fully deployed for them to be rotated to point them to the sun so that they can produce the maximum power [for the space station].”

The panels couldn’t be turned off through the repair, so 120 volts flowed through the grid while an astronaut carefully space-walked at the end of a 90-foot boom. Any shock could have been devastating.

With MacGyver-like gear – wires, aluminum and homemade tools – the crew was able to come together to repair the damaged equipment.

“This repair was the type of activity that would take over a year to design and would typically require over a year of crew training — and we did it with three days of procedure development and zero crew training,” Tani said. “The trust between the ground and the crew — and among the crew — was critical.”

Backcountry teamwork

Only months before, many of the astronauts on the mission had been on a team as part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) leadership training course while sea kayaking in Alaska, where people and civilization are nearly as sparse as in space.

“Leadership and teamwork are important skills to have in the backcountry,” said Kathleen Pelto, a NOLS professional training program coordinator based in Lander, Wyo. “If groups are not working well together there is a lot of potential to be in really dangerous situations.”

NOLS courses are custom-fit to each client, and often bring out the best in people as problems naturally arise in remote settings in the wilderness. Pelto calls it “expedition behavior.”

“We think that longer expeditions in wilderness are generally the best in terms of leadership and teamwork development,” said NOLS Admission and Marketing Director Bruce Palmer. For that reason, NOLS specializes in 7- to 30-day wilderness courses, and has had contracts in place with NASA to build teamwork and leadership since 1999.

But not every business can sacrifice that much time to team-building.

“Different clients have different needs and timeframes,” Palmer said. “That focus on the longer experience is unique [to NOLS.]”

It also helps in the ability to transfer knowledge gained in the wilderness to professional settings.

“We spend a lot of time talking about transferring,” Pelto said. “The link is actually really easy for people to make.”

But still, some have to, by necessity, devote less time to making their workgroup streamlined and cohesive. NOLS also offers 1.5-day leadership navigation challenges that happen in a city “green space” of some sort where participants use some of the same skills they might learn in the backcountry – route-finding, team-building, GPS reading etc. – to compete in a team-based geocaching treasure hunt.

“A bit of this competitive and time-stressed environment is placed on the participants and that stress brings out communications and leadership dynamics as a team,” Pelto said.

Teamwork in less time

Some businesses may not even have that much time to devote to team building. For those, many options exist to strengthen teams quickly. For example, whitewater rafting is a popular team-building activity for conferences or other events.

“We do team-building almost every day of the year because rafting inherently is a humongous teambuilding sport,” said Director of Fun Ben Costello of Mountain Whitewater Descents in Fort Collins, Colo. He said rafting is something almost anyone can do, but requires timing and group effort to “get down the river safely and cleanly” by avoiding flipping the raft, losing people out of the boat or hitting obstacles in the river. The combination, he said, make it a great way to reinforce office teamwork, allowing for good crossover while providing a fun experience for the group.

“Followers in the office place tend to be those that follow on the raft,” Costello said. “You find that – oh, y’know – this guy that has trouble listening in meetings also has trouble listening to the raft guide.”

His company occasionally offers corporate or business groups other team-building activities like one called “crossing the Amazon” where teamsters must get their team across a pond using only barrels, 2 x 4s and lengths of rope. Problem solving and leadership dynamics quickly emerge, once again allowing for transfer to the workplace.

Many other options exist for quick team-building. A spokesman from the Fort Collins Convention and Visitors Bureau said Colorado State University has a ropes and challenge course available to business groups, Whole Foods Market hosts team-building cooking courses and some stores rent out bikes specifically for team rides, to name a few.

No quick fix

In most cases, however, a quick fix of team-building activities is unlikely to change much in the workplace.

“A half-day or full-day [of team-building exercises] doesn’t really result in any tangible change in the workplace,” said Sal Silvester, owner of 5.12 Solutions Consulting Group in Boulder, Colo. and author of the book “Ignite! The 4 Essential Rules for Emerging Leaders.”

It is not uncommon for Silvester to spend a year with a client in an effort to improve leadership and team dynamics in a business.

“It’s about changing their thinking, about building their awareness so they can change their behaviors,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in unstructured programs.”

He said what happens with a lot of short programs is that employees or bosses will develop some new norms during the activities but then, in the face of workplace stress, revert to old habits.

“You’ve got the chaos and the urgency of the day,” he said. “In my 22-year career I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time when people are working longer or harder hours. Nothing’s changed in the office after whitewater rafting.”

But while he recommends his own hands-on methods over a period of time, he said there is still a place for the other kinds of team-building.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time or money, but I just think they need to know what they’re getting – some awareness and some memories,” Silvester said.

Wyoming Business Report staff writer Mark Wilcox has spent a good deal of time “team-building” on a raft in the Snake River and wearing a backpack in the Tetons.

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