The Great Outdoors

Macho Nonsense or Serious Development Alternative?Chablis

Does the idea of using outdoor activities fill you with dread, fear for your professional credibility or your budget, do you think it is something that is fine for the SAS, schoolchildren or those fit young fools from sales, but nothing to do with “proper” management development? Is your view similar to a respected OD professional who once told me that she does appreciate the great outdoors, but that “It’s best viewed from a shaded patio with a misted glass of Chablis to hand.”

Maybe you actually enjoy a leisurely walk in the country, but don’t see its relevance to improving performance at work. Perhaps you have had, or heard of others having a bad experience. Whatever your take on the subject I would invite you to pause and reflect for a moment as to whether you are neglecting an effective and stimulating option for developing people.

There has been some bad press for this sort of training, much of it justified. I have met many rightly indignant training professionals, whose scepticism turned to cynicism after watching a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary about an outdoor development event in Scotland. One summarised it as follows:

YO's on Endurance Coures

“A group of managers are shouted at by bullet headed squaddies with limited vocabularies and strong lungs.  A bloke with vertigo is forced to climb a yacht’s mast in 30-foot seas.  A chronic asthmatic collapses, blue-faced, on a mountain ridge and is airlifted to safety, trussed in silver foil.  People are quite literally keelhauled.”

There have been numerous stories of dubious practices from eating worms to walking on hot coals. While recognising that some people claim to have benefited from such events, it is at the extremes that the most damage can be done – to individuals, organisations and to the reputation of a medium from which many have taken real and memorable learning.

So what are the real differences and benefits of outdoor activities in management development? Let’s firstly be clear what we are talking about. We prefer to call it Management Development Outdoors or MDO. This places the emphasis in the right place – we are referring to the use of outdoor activities as a medium for management development, not the other way around. These activities may be adventure based, such as caving, climbing or canoeing. They may equally be simple problem solving exercises based outside and using rope, wood or scaffolding.

MDO is an extension of experiential learning, which is a key element in much Network Rail 07development training. Experiential learning is more powerful and has a more lasting effect than conventional approaches. It is centred on learning by doing, but linked to facilitated reflection, theoretical models and behavioural experimentation. All stages are equally important and valid, but the practical emphasis is the key to its appeal and effectiveness. Outdoor activities should not be undertaken lightly, but designed to highlight particular lessons or processes. They are also enjoyable and memorable, which enhances the learning.

Benefits of MDO

Some of the particular advantages of MDO over other training and development programmes are that, if well designed and run, such events are:


The practical nature of the activities, where task accomplishment is easily monitored, where team results are measurable and where individual skills and contribution are developed can readily be transferred back to the working environment. This can be enhanced by professional facilitators.


Outdoor exercises can be designed to any level of complexity, and allow scope for multi-layer management in any form and to suit any particular working culture. They lend themselves to related, yet separate problems such as may exist between different sections of a business or industry. (See examples overleaf)

  1. SAFE
    1. Physical safety; all activities should be supervised by trained and experienced staff;
    2. Business safety; course members can apply new techniques and experiment with new modes of  behaviour at no risk to the company. Decisions and actions have no direct business consequence and accordingly activities can be tried which are not possible when at work.

Canoeing(This benefit relies on careful selection of the organisation which runs your MDO programme – you need a mix of outdoor skills, commercial experience and facilitation expertise. See questions to ask a MDO provider overleaf!)


Many traditional management training courses rely on delegates assuming roles to create a situation which has some reality to work. By using the “here and now”, out of doors exercises are designed without having to play a role, course members are themselves and are less able to hide behind the excuse: “I’m not really like that!”


Most outdoor activity contains a significant element of enjoyment. People like to be Masters08_533[1]involved, this leads to increased motivation and commitment to learning. There is ample evidence that people learn more when they are enjoying the activity.


The drama and excitement of the outdoor activities will make a lasting impression. Recall of the activity leads to recall of the learning and its application. Just being outside tends to make people more relaxed, open and even more creative.

  1. REAL

Perhaps the greatest asset of all. There is less artificiality in the exercises outdoors – the problems are real, the issues are dynamic, the constraints are felt, the people are live, the consequences are real. There is no need to act – it is the real world.

How to ensure a successful MDO event

Many of the keys to effective MDO events are similar to other development activities, but the following are particularly helpful for ensuring maximum benefit is derived from them.

Considerations for the Training Department or the Manager Sponsoring the Event:

Poor reasons to choose MDO:

  1. It was successful or popular last time.
  2. It is cheaper than the other options.
  3. It worked for our competitors.
  4. It will be a nice change, a bit of a reward for the troops.
  5. It will toughen them up, sort out the men from the boys.
  6. We all had to go through it.
  7. It is part of the package the supplier provides.
  8. It will make me look progressive.

Questions to ask when choosing a MDO provider:

  1. What is their Training philosophy?
  2. What industrial or commercial experience have the staff? (It may be cheaper, but is rarely as effective if courses are run by “well intentioned abseilers”!
  3. What Safety training have they had and qualifications have they?
  4. How is their safety equipment purchased and maintained?
  5. What experience have they of designing exercises?
  6. What insurance cover have they?
  7. What ratios of staff (safety or facilitating) to delegates do they maintain?
  8. What percentage of time is spent in review?
  9. How would they react to a delegate refusing to participate in an exercise or activity?

How to get the most from a MDO programme as a delegate.

  1. Clarify personal objectives. These may not be the same as the company’s. Reconcile Management learning objectives with personal ones, such as desire to abseil or enter a cave, and prioritise them.
  2. Discuss objectives with management, training department, colleagues, family and friends – anyone who can provide objectivity, support or criticism.
  3. Review these objectives and progress towards them regularly throughout the programme. Be prepared to discuss them with facilitators and fellow delegates. Seek feedback.
  4. Try to suspend disbelief. Do not be overcritical of exercise reality or relevance, but look for metaphors and similarities with work and life.
  5. Enjoy it.
  6. Challenge and Experiment. Examine theory with a critical eye, valuing it in your own terms, but be prepared to try new ideas and behaviours.
  7. Consider the learning needs of other delegates. Understand how some have complementary and some contradictory objectives, help them to progress and give honest, constructive feedback.
  8. Before leaving the programme, set new objectives and write an action plan.
  9. Offer feedback to course designers and facilitators on appropriateness and effectiveness of the programme.
  10. On return to work, review learning objectives with others, share and invite comment on the action plan, revising it as necessary and then DO IT!