Smart Moves: All together now...

Compound problem solving is the new outdoor activity, says Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Online
THERE'S something about being 100ft up a cliff - and stuck - that makes you rely on your colleagues in a new way. Even the best management consultants would admit they can't replicate some of the learning experiences to be had in the great outdoors: but the challenge for outdoor centres is how to make learning both innovative and effective using activities which are now seen as old-hat.

With the modern workplace placing an ever-greater emphasis on teamwork and communication skills, there has been a corresponding pressure on centres to move away from traditional but simple activities such as canoeing, abseiling and orienteering, and toward compound problem solving activities.

One of the organisations at the forefront of responding to this change has been The Adventure Centre, established five years ago as the first of its kind running in conjunction with an independent school, Kelly College, in Devon.

The challenge, says its founder Jack Russell, has been to break free from old expectations. "We realised that we had the perfect site; we were right on the edge of Dartmoor, and we had a white-water river nearby, and a quarry behind us, with a couple of acres of crystal-clear water and an 80ft cliff. But after the tragedy at Lyme Bay [where schoolchildren died while on an adventure course], there was obviously going to be a new direction for professional centres.

"We decided to get some of the most qualified people in; not 19-year- old just-qualified instructors, but people who had been to the Antarctic, who had degrees in psychology, who had more experience and were older. The outdoors things, in some ways, are very much secondary."

The centre's management has piloted a creative business simulation exercise which involves the brains - and not just the bodies - of company employees who are sent as participants. Each team is allotted a sum of money to buy in the skills of centre staff, including instructors, safety advisors and technical experts.

"Rather than giving an off-the-peg programme, we say 'Here's a menu of 50 activities or tasks, with each one designed to promote certain individual characteristics.'

"If you are constantly doing the same courses, you'll get stale and boring. With us, there's an element of fun, but also a challenge. If you sit people down and do a paper exercise, it's not real. But when you're up a 100ft abseil, the perceived danger is high, although the actual danger is low. People start to become a lot more honest with each other, but it has to be done in such a way that they don't feel threatened. We give them ownership,"says Mr Russell.

This is carried through to activity courses for children and teenagers. "We give them parameters, but it's exactly the same. They determine what time they are going to turn up, and what they are going to do."

The centre's services have been used by all types of organisation including a top headhunting firm which found its problems solved by allowing employees to spend hours in a remote Dartmoor farmhouse talking out disagreements.

"They had no access to faxes, mobile phones or the internet," recalls Mr Russell. "The biggest problem they had was not being open and honest, so we just created that relaxed environment."

One activity involves participants going into town with a Polaroid camera, given the task of snapping shots in a set of highly unlikely places.

"A lot of companies are realising that to sit in a classroom and listen to a management consultant tell you about theory is one thing, but to have fun is another. Some are going the other way, saying 'Let's have corporate quad-biking, or paintballing.' But we meet the middle ground; applying the pragmatic side to the theoretical."

The centre has been so successful that it is now establishing its own management centre. But it is the outdoor experience, Mr Russell admits, which is often the most powerful, changing the lives - and not just the working habits - of participants. One woman, who learnt to conquer her fear of water during a week at the centre, wrote to say she had used that new found confidence to cope with a family tragedy.

"Many people are negative, and that can be contagious within a group of people," says Mr Russell. "We often get people here saying it's been the best week of their lives, but we have to be careful, because their expectations then are so high. We believe we can improve them by giving them confidence; a nugget of gold in their back pockets that can make them feel like a million dollars."

For more information, contact Kelly Enterprises on 01822 610817 or 0378 300061