An occupational hazard of being a management and business coach used to be that I was asked to provide or participate in team building exercises with teams I was coaching. For a while, the fad was team building in the wilderness on a “ropes course” where the team would be confronted by various challenges. You’ve seen the pictures, if you haven’t done one yourself. I had a particularly extreme version of this experience once where all the participants were coaches for different teams in the same organization. The organizers wanted all of us to be exposed to the benefits of this brand of outdoor team building and it was a paid weekend in the mountains, so why not?
The way these challenges are usually structured is that you arrive at a clearing in the woods, you are given a problem to solve like getting all of your team into a tree with the help of one rope and without touching the ground within 6 feet of the tree. You get 30 minutes to complete the challenge as best you can. Then the facilitator/instructor debriefs the experience and what you have learned. Experiential learning is what we liked to call it to distinguish it from having someone tell you directly how to be a better team.
You might have thought that because this was a group of facilitators that we would be hyper-effective in group process. In fact, it was the opposite. We would spend 25 of the 30 minutes in animated dialogue imagining different creative ways to solve the problem and time would run out before we had actually tried any of them. We had no respect for time limits at all – an important learning as it turned out.
By the third or fourth challenge, one of my colleagues and I became so frustrated that we arrived at the next location and began immediately experimenting with the rope and other “tools” we had been given to solve the problem and ignoring the brainstorming going on around us. We found, not surprisingly, that familiarity with the actual physical aspects of the problem immediately ruled out many possible solutions and made us more usefully creative. Our approach was quickly translated into the mantra of “touch the rope!”
Since that day, when I find myself in a situation where there is an over abundance of theoretical speculation in the presence of real and useful information, I exhort the team to “touch the rope!” – to try using the “tools” you have in front of you and see what they can and cannot do with them to help you solve the problem.