I have just returned from a holiday in Tunisia.  We stayed in a luxury hotel – marble as far as the eye could see – where there was an incongruous mixture of scantily clad holiday makers, sunbathing on loungers by the poolside, and smart people in suits attending management courses.  Despite being in the former category, I couldn’t resist reading the notices outside the various meeting rooms and even taking occasional sneaky peeps at the stuff displayed on flips charts. It all looked horribly familiar – especially the chart with a diagram of the learning cycle. During the week there was a 2-day course on leadership skills, a 1-day course on time management and an intrusive teambuilding course – of which more in a moment.

For me this was a strange case of role reversal. You see, usually I have been the person running the courses, conscious that we were outnumbered by holiday makers and that the hotel was oriented towards their needs, not ours; far easier to be issued with towels than to book suitable syndicate rooms! 

The participants on the teambuilding course were intrusive because they often ventured out of their classroom to tackle various tasks on an area of grass close to where I sat, in my trunks, reading an insignificant book (a best-selling ‘page-turner’). The course participants were divided into small teams, each with a designated leader who appeared to be restricted to issuing instructions using a whistle. Clearly there was some sort of code; one blast on the whistle caused the participants to march in a crocodile formation, two blasts and they turned left, three and they put their hands on the shoulders of the person in front to be led with eyes closed, four and they stopped – that sort of thing. Naturally the whistles attracted the attention of the holiday makers who, failing to comprehend the purpose of the exercise, found it an amusing spectacle.  I secretly hoped that the whistle blowing task was merely a warm up and that, by the afternoon, the participants might have progressed to abseiling down the hotel balconies or climbing the palm trees.

As I lay there on my sun lounger, I pondered the wisdom of inflicting ostensibly trivial tasks on grown-up managers.  I spent years doing exactly that, utterly convinced that the task was secondary; an artificial device allowing people to learn from the processes of working together.  Quite understandably, the holiday makers were laughing at the absurdity of the task and overlooking the subtleties of the processes it undoubtedly generated. 

I first learnt about task and process over 40-years ago from the late Ralph Coverdale.  It was Coverdale who invented ‘trivial’ teambuilding tasks such as building Lego towers.  There were a number of reasons why he remained wedded to trivial tasks despite frequent objections, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by playing kids games’.  Firstly, when managers were given more substantial tasks, Coverdale noticed the tendency to become task mesmerised and for processes to be neglected. Coverdale’s solution was to set managers simple tasks making it more likely that they would pay more attention to their processes.   Secondly, Coverdale insisted that tasks should not just be planned but actually executed.  For him the proof of a process was that it worked in action. Short, apparently simple tasks, made it possible to plan and action a task in the space of 45 minutes or so.

However, the risk Coverdale ran was that the face-validity of simple tasks was low. Busy, task-oriented managers, relatively blind to processes, found it difficult to accept that they could learn from building a tower out of Lego.  But Coverdale was insistent (even stubborn) and won many converts who, deprived of the ‘distractions’ of a complex task, were confronted by the world of process that had always been there, but been largely ignored.           

I learnt other lasting lessons from Ralph Coverdale; the importance of agreeing a purpose and an objective (not the same things) and how vital it is to conduct reviews and agree process improvement plans.  Ralph Coverdale was a remarkable man, utterly passionate in his beliefs, but I wouldn’t say he was a team player!  He was too wedded to telling people what to do despite espousing the merits of learning by doing. Talking about experiential learning is a paradox.  Coverdale was of course aware of this – he used to catch himself saying too much – but, like many of us, he simply couldn’t help himself!

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