Is it really possible to consider a group of people working together as a ‘single organism’, capable of learning in its own right? Or is that to completely miss the point that a team is made up of unique individuals with different learning styles and different learning motivators? Let’s use ‘Experiential Learning’ – outdoor stuff usually based around teams – as the basis for discussion.
“All Staff – Next Friday – Team Learning Day – Wear old clothes – a day of outdoor learning in the bush – Bus leaves at 0730”. I can feel my lip curl sardonically as I read the words, admittedly unfair (as a generalisation) but nevertheless a real reaction to the hundreds of thousands of dollars I know are wasted every year by organisations who erroneously believe that because their team members have abseiled down a cliff-face or kayaked down the Whhhhhanganui River (sorry, sticky ‘h’ key) that somehow, magically, some improvement back at work will automatically result.
If you were to take the cost of that abseiling or kayaking event out of the ‘let’s go and have some fun away from work and challenge some of our fears’ budget, I wouldn’t have a problem and (as long as attendance was voluntary) would enthusiastically endorse it as an added staff motivator but no, sadly, this comes out of the training budget. I remember the first time I abseiled down a cliff. I was 11 years old. The prospect of stepping backwards over the edge was terrifying, but the thought of being seen as a scaredy-cat was even more terrifying. What did I learn? I learned that gravity can be made to work for you and keep you pinned to the rock, and I learned that, on that day, at that time of my life, self-esteem and social acceptance were more important than personal safety. OSH trainers work with that problem every day.
So many times I have talked to people who have been on ‘weekends away’ at various outdoor events as part of a work training function, and invariably you get a conversation like this: “It was marvellous and the White-Water Rafting was great and the Skeet Shooting event was hilarious and dinner on Saturday night was awesome but (insert name) got pissed as she always does and embarrassed everyone and of course she missed all the stuff on Sunday ‘cos she was sick which was a pity ‘cos after all she is the Team Leader but anyway we had a lot of fun…’
And then I ask the Killer Question: ‘So what are you doing differently now at work, as a result of what you learned on that weekend?’
“Er… well, nothing, really… but it was an absolute ball of fun… we’re all still talking about the Boss chug-a-lugging a bottle of Vodka and then trying to show us all card tricks… hilarious, she couldn’t even stand up…”.
“Yes, but what did you actually learn while you were away?”
“Um well it wasn’t kinda like that, you know, it was more about, er, getting on better together as a team… I think”
“And are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Getting on better as a Team”
“Oh. Dunno. Team Leader resigned after that and now we’ve restructured so we’re all in different teams now. Those of us who weren’t made redundant, that is.”
End of conversation…
Having read this far you may think I have a dislike of outdoor ‘experiential’ learning, but you’d be wrong. It is a very powerful and natural learning environment. The trick is, to make sure you know what your objectives are both for the team, and for each individual, before you embark on it. That means both individual and team consultation. It means a WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) has to be established for each individual. The objectives (both team and individual) must be seen as worthwhile, relevant, agreed to and achievable.
Observable ‘signs’ of improvement post-event must be identified and agreed to (‘how will we know we succeeded?’). And all of this has to be in place before you go. Now, go and have your fun, but at the end of each separate activity, there needs to be a debrief as to
- why you did it,
- what it was supposed to produce,
- what it actually produced, and
- the Killer – what will we do differently back at work as a result?
At the end of the event, all of this needs to be pulled together into a list of commitments, reduced to the individual level. About 4-6 weeks after the event, a meeting needs to happen with the main question being ‘What Has Happened As A Result’. That list of ‘observable signs of improvement’ that you agreed on before you went now gets dragged out and the ‘hoped for’ gets compared to the ‘is’. If things have changed in a positive way and the team (as evidenced by the agreed symptoms) is functioning better, now you can say “This Team Has Learned”.
Am I a party-pooper? No way. You want to Party, go ahead, I’m all for Partying. Partying is Fun, if your Organisation can afford pure Fun at the moment.
You want people to learn new stuff that will cause a difference?
Ah now… that’s different…