Friday, June 26, 2009 by Dave Blum
I’ve ventured into a new team building venture this summer — leading “ropes courses” (for the Pacific Leadership Institute). Based here in San Francisco, PLI actually uses the term “challenge course” and describes it as follows:

“Challenge Courses (or ropes courses) are a progression of low team-based elements and high challenge elements built in the trees using cables, ladders and ropes. These “elements” use physical, emotional and mental challenges that employ both human and rope safety systems to encourage team development, support, trust, leadership and personal goal-setting.”

The clientele — at least at PLI — is mostly middle- and senior- high school students, many of whom are described as “at risk”.  It’s a great program and I’m enjoying the training process.  The one thing that rankles me a bit, though, is the overall emphasis on “fun” rather than “learning”.  My fellow trainers are absolutely fantastic about pumping up the energy and inspiring the kids to “go for it”.  And perhaps, for teens, this is an important lesson:  if you bring the energy, you can do a lot more than you think you can do.

Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s some wasted potential here.  I keep hearing that teens have short attention spans; they can’t do long debriefs.  I wonder about that.  From my experience, kids are smarter and more savvy than we think.  They *can* sit and think about things. They *can* process an experience and relate it back to their lives, which is what debriefs are all about.  And they *can* conceive of next steps for implementing learning.

Whether the team building is a ropes course, a treasure hunt, or a more formal workplace training, I think we need to check in with ourselves and ask, “Are we selling our clients short?”  The temptation is to simply emphasize the fun and leave people with that–a heart-pumping, high-energy experience.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But without thorough debriefs, so much potential student learning is wasted.  No matter the age group, I think our clients can handle a little discussion, a little processing…and deep down, I think they really do want it.