As an executive coach, I often get asked if ropes courses are an effective teamwork training option. After all, ropes course providers sell them that way.
Come conquer the mighty ROPES COURSE and your team will start to operate like Mission Control during Apollo 13.
In this post I review some of the latest research to understand important considerations for evaluating ropes course teamwork training. Does a ropes course fit for your specific team development needs? What are the benefits of a ropes course? Are there drawbacks of ropes course team building?
Effective Teamwork Training
The biggest criticisms typical ropes courses often receive is their lack of validity. Overall, research has failed to demonstrate ropes course programs improving team performance. Whether a ropes course is right for your team depends on your goals. It also depends on the ropes course. The design of the entire program is important, not just the activity it is centered around.
To be effective, teamwork training should produce measurable results. The training should be validated in a scientific way. And that validation is skill specific. Does teamwork training X improve team member skill in area Y.
Not all teamwork training is created equal, so it’s important to choose the correct training. Many ropes courses are simply a physical event. Other ropes courses include elements that can make them effective at developing teamwork skills.
What is Your Team Development Need?
A ropes course does provide an opportunity to increase familiarity between team members quickly. Placing a team in a problem solving situation and asking them to work together creates familiarity. Whether familiarity is a worth while team building goal is a situation specific question. Regardless, if you are looking for a way to improve team familiarity, a ropes course might be a good way to do this in a relatively short amount of time.
Team familiarity may not be the right goal for you though. Familiarity is not necessarily congruent with better team performance nor better leadership or followership skills. And a long standing team is likely already highly familiar with one another.
Many of my clients seek improved team performance and cohesion rather than familiarity. Improved performance should result in better business outcomes. Cohesion will make the team more resilient and better able to deal with unforeseen situations. For example, some research shows that having your team eat together is equally effective for building cohesion among team members to a ropes course experience. In other words, facilitate or buy team lunches: it is as effective and likely much cheaper than a ropes course.
Different demographics respond differently to ropes courses. Ropes courses are a pseudo military physical activity. They involve close physical contact between your team members and they involve physically strenuous activities, risk, fear and hopefully (if ran well) the elation of hard won success.
Ropes courses were created for a different work force demographic than we have now. At their creation forty plus years ago, the workforce they targeted was predominantly male, and much less culturally diverse. Today, teams include a variety of ages, both sexes and multiple cultures. If you happen to work in an office of all male fitness enthusiast for example, a ropes course might be a good fit. However, that situation is increasingly rare.
Consider if a highly physical, close-contact environment will improve team performance enough to justify the potential downside for some employees. Will it create cohesion or drive away some employees that might be valuable to your business? Does your team include the less physically fit? Are there individuals who do not enjoy close physical contact for whatever reason? If so, do some team members fear physical injury, heights or other factors involved?
If your work environment doesn’t require physical close contact between team members, a ropes course may be counter productive.
Improving Ropes Courses
A facilitated debrief can improve the effectiveness of most training or teamwork activity. Ignoring diversity, cost and time, the lack of any formal feedback or evaluation mechanism is one of the main reasons ropes courses fail. They provide a fun, challenging, and exhilarating experience (assuming the team demographics match up) but without any measurable long term benefit.
Adding facilitated debriefs and directed self evaluation to the mix can change that outcome and create a real measurable long term benefit. Some organizations need to engage in physical training. Examples include emergency services like police and fire as well as ultra-high-performance groups such as NASA’s astronaut core. Their team training almost always include a trained I.O. Psychologist to observe and conduct a facilitated debrief.
A facilitated debrief closes the loop. They make sure your team discovers what they’ve learned in a way that makes it stick. The best thing about facilitated debriefs is that they work in just about any training or real world situation. You can even add them to your regular work schedule with no special “training” activity and see real benefits.
Alternatives to Ropes Courses
Ropes courses require large specialized facilities. Your team must go to them and often stay for multiple days. That has a high cost in terms of money and opportunity. There are much less expensive alternatives to ropes courses that are equally effective at creating better team cohesion.
If ropes courses aren’t the best solution, what is?
Science based high fidelity team simulations such as Moon Base and Antarctic Traverse are a great alternative to ropes courses. Because they are onsite, they are often much cheaper all in. Here at Minerva we have developed and validated our teamwork training during our tenure at NASA to improve the teamwork skills of flight controllers and astronauts. And yes, they include facilitated debriefs as a core element.
Any good teamwork training will be designed to stress and develop different aspects of skills the students need in their day to day life such as Situational Awareness, Leadership & Followership Skills, Time Management, and Communications to name a few. An I.O. Psychologist can focus a single high fidelity simulation to work on a single or multiple aspects of teamwork development.
As you evaluate different teamwork training options, make sure you consider the time and cost investment. Most importantly make sure the training you are considering has been validated to do what it claims. Can the ropes course show that their course produces measurable changes in team effectiveness, or other metrics? Is the training based on targeted team behaviors? Can those facilitating it share research that demonstrates their simulation improves team cohesion and performance? What are the other possible drawbacks of the training based on your teams makeup and environment?
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