Workers write an ode to team spirit

Outdoor challenges are over. Fire-fighting, poetry and Shakespeare are the new ways to build trust
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The Independent Online

Spending your working day battling through a smoke-filled room with a bunch of firefighters may sound frightening rather than fun. But those joining Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service's team-building course love it. After all, it's a long way from the classroom "chalk and talk" personal development days, and equally different from the outdoor get-across-a-river-with-two-twigs-and-a-ball-of-string challenges so popular with firms in the Eighties.

Spending your working day battling through a smoke-filled room with a bunch of firefighters may sound frightening rather than fun. But those joining Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service's team-building course love it. After all, it's a long way from the classroom "chalk and talk" personal development days, and equally different from the outdoor get-across-a-river-with-two-twigs-and-a-ball-of-string challenges so popular with firms in the Eighties.

But are courses like "Fire-fighter for the day" genuinely innovative, or do they offer the same old thing in more exciting packaging?

Michael Jahn, commercial training officer at the fire service's HQ in Stone, says their training offers "team building with a difference". Why? "First, the whole ethos of the fire service is working in a team, and people take that sense of teamwork back to their jobs," he says. Second, the course reflects an increasingly changeable marketplace.

Jacquie Drake, director of the Praxis Centre at the Cranfield School of Management, points out that traditional outdoor courses have become less popular because they have got left behind. "That's not to say people don't want them," she says. The army's Exercise Executive Stretch, for example, is regularly oversubscribed.

But it is firms' basic attitudes to training that are changing, and personal development programmes must adapt too.

Roy Harrison of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) explains: "A few years ago, people got away with a nice break from work where they sailed ships and crossed mountains. Now companies are more sophisticated and demanding."

The main force behind the change is the rapid advance of new technology, which has exploded old hierarchies and forced companies to reassess training needs. Dr Drake says: "A lot of procedures are no longer relevant. Leadership styles are less commander based, and 'do it because I say so' has less impact. Problems are so complicated that no one is an expert on anything. What is required is a connective approach, with everybody respecting each other for what they bring to the team."

She says the kind of training which helps with this is "anything which gets the person to see what blocks them from being able to change". Courses are increasingly using psychology to bring about positive change. Team Dynamics, a consultancy, works with top rugby and football teams, as well as corporate clients. The company has moved away from its more exotic courses, set in Lapland for example, saying the same results can be achieved closer to home. Trying to grab a cushion from team mates at a country hotel can elicit the same intense feelings of competition as a game of ice hockey within the Arctic circle. Team Dynamics works by finding out what is at the heart, or spirit of a team. In some cases, says consultant Simon Meyerson, "they spend more energy fighting each other than doing the task in hand. Once the team focuses on the collective aim, ignoring egocentricity and sibling rivalry, you're on your way".

Results are "almost instantaneous", but must be maintained with reappraisals.

Building trust will always be an essential part of personal development, although the means and method of instilling trust is becoming more personal and intense. Walking blindfold and relying on someone to stop you bumping into things is one well-used method. But many find it takes more courage to write and read out a poem to colleagues, and trust them not to make fun of it or take advantage of what the poem may reveal about the writer.

Courses which use creative skills are gaining in popularity. The Globe Theatre, in London, in conjunction with the Praxis Centre, uses Shakespeare's plays for corporate training. For leadership and inspirational skills they turn to Henry V. For a course on emotional and political intelligence, they use Julius Caesar.

Richard Olivier, who leads the programmes, says that when the courses began three years ago, it was "a hard sell". Now they are mainstream. This is because there are "fewer certainties at work". He says: "People no longer have a logically planned future, they have to adapt and be flexible and maintain a creative, constantly changing vision of what they are doing. This comes naturally from the world of the artist. People need a creative mindset to thrive."

This seems to hold true even in the solid world of accountancy. Akber Pandor, director of learning and dev- elopment at KPMG, works with the London Business School to tailor training courses for his company. He agrees that things are changing fast: "People are getting responsibility sooner. Ten years ago you would go on the 'management one' course one year and on the 'management two' the next. Nowadays you don't know what skills will be needed when, and training has to be done on a personal basis - as opposed to the 'sheep-dip' approach."

Technology, he says, is forcing change, and is also part of the change, with the increasing use of e-learning via desktops.

Employers also gain from such courses because all kinds of personal development help to compensate executives for today's lack of job security, giving them marketable skills and strengths to take with them when they move on.

For firms that still see any form of change as difficult, and cling to old hierarchies and methods, training can be particularly beneficial. As Dr Drake says: "Companies must learn new skills and try new ways of handling operations. They must let go of the past."

And if being a firefighter for the day helps them to do that, then teamwork really will have paid off.

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