page title icon ‘Something about problem solving…’

‘Something about problem solving’
That’s the shortest brief i think i’ve ever received. Venture Scotland, are a successful charity who offer a 12 month personal development course for disadvantaged young people, and had called me in at short notice; i was glad to accept.

They’d asked me in to deliver a five day residential course for twelve 16-30 year olds with a team of three volunteers during the ‘problem solving’ phase of the ‘Journey’ programme. After a staffing issue a day before the trip was due to go out,I asked for the aims and objective to which a development worker replied : ‘Do something about problem solving.’

I wanted to share some reflections on fulfilling such a brief and how the experience of flow learning can positively influence the seemingly conflicting needs of safety, fun and learning for participants and volunteers…

As outlined above, there was no time for programme planning, there was however time to establish a trajectory and intention for the trip with the volunteer staff. We were to use flow learning and ‘steer as we go’ committed to using short team meetings as regular and often feedback loops to critique and fine tune our performance and individual roles.

Setting out…
The journey in and out were the only fixed parameters. Two days paddling in with an overnight camp on the shores of the loch. This being a story in itself i will omit it here, save for the detail that the camp was particularly cold; with the campfire and the addtion of ‘ski jackets’ in one of the barrels made for a successful nights survival!

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What it did achieve though, was a clear reason for being thankful; shared by the whole group. The morning sun, warm food, the gift of seals surfacing next to boats, the promise of a fine day and a destination set a great tone in the morning circle. We introduced the theme for the week, and congratulated them on looking after each other; even though most had beat a personal retreat to their own sleeping bag!

The real inspiration came at a lunchtime lochside teabreak in a strange disguise. One young man had blown his top with both paddling partner and, on being challenged, had verbally abused me. I politely informed him that i don’t wish to be spoken too that way; and let it go. The group however, were outraged; and demanding something be done about so and so’s ‘bad vibes’.

It’s funny how a seemingly inanimate natural object can become alive with a little bit of intention. Placing a stone into the sand and the atmosphere quietened and gathered focus. We circled around the stone. Truths were laid bare, not without emotion, and folk came forward with what was important to them; they’re reasons for coming and their investment in the process. Tension eased and we, the leaders were given permission to take the group on a journey. This permission helped considerably, coming into a group process that begun months before was indeed a privilege one cant just assume.


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On arrival at Kinlochetive bothy, we were all relieved to be amongst the relative comforts of warm fire, a table and chairs and even sinks and surfaces for preparing our communal meals. As we settled in for our evening review; it was clear that now our purpose was established and that basic needs were met; folk were ready to go deeper.
We held a sacred council [not a scottish cooncil!] with the group that evening; lots was shared. i repeat my own words here…
‘I don’t want to hear the word ‘problem solving’, ‘teambuiding’, ‘respect’ or any other bloody buzzwords!’ Playing the angry bear can be fun way to keep it real.

Some traditional problem solving games abhor me… the abstraction of standing and manoeuvring a team along planks and milk crates in my view, has little to do with life. Sure, you can help a group pluck out generalisations about how to apply the experience to their life back at home. Usually though, it is a disservice and just makes the young people better and ‘talking the talk’ and negociating the same tasks with another outdoor provider. Not today!

In morning meeting with volunteers i expressed this view, and, after some time in sharing our observations and restating the overall trajectory for the trip; we rejigged our next few hours. Playing to the strengths of the volunteers skills; we were to divide the group into two and engage in some real work as our problem solving exercise. This left me in the position of observent tea boy… observations i hoped; may come in handy later on as the wheel turned.

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One group spent a session using hand tools to make a bench with the talented Mr Gerry Naughton. The byre was filled with sounds of chatting, chipping, sawing and banging. The chisels were particularly sharp, and the negotiation of working to task in a small space and retaining fingers and eyeballs added a dimension of danger to the debate.

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Another group were outside. In a storm, to be precise. Their simple brief was to excavate an area of an old enclosure and find ancestral treasure. Framed well by Stephen Donnelly, they incorporated taking shelter and as part of their task; making sure that their basic needs were met and the group retained motivation. Result.

At lunch the scene was set, tonight at the ‘howff’ would be an old skool ceildh and; in order to it to ‘go off in fine style’; certain preparations had to be met by the group.

1. Lighting the wood burning oven-3 hours.
2. Prepare a feast and Pizza Dough- 2/12 hours.
3. Complete the bench and pack away tools- 1 1/2 hours.
4. Prepare in a group of three a song, poem, dance, skit and let the MC know- 1-3 hours.

‘Stand back. Breath in. Breathe out. Wait for it…’

The group flew into four hours of frenzied problem solving, negotiation and self guided learning. I helped knead dough and chopped some vegetables. I love it when a plan comes together, as did my colleagues, and we shared a knowing grin as they took the bait and made a meal of it.

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After a frenzied afternoon, preparations were in hand and the group were afforded a few ideas to take it easy and let go. it was an informal affair with some taking a much needed nap, reading in chairs; many quite surprisingly chose to keep going with woodwork, digging and wood chopping. I put their decision down to good taste!

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The party was a blast. Lots of pizza, a few tales, tunes and plenty of irreverent laughter. The send ups, put down’s, raucous skits and traditional stories helped break any barriers that were still there. It was good to shine some humour on the obstacles that had been overcome by the group members pulling together. Here we were, miles from anywhere, celebrating our success; under the moonlight with owls hooting and stags roaring.

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Its is often tempting and almost invariably easier to stop a trip here. The next morning was no exception, the louder members of the group voicing their want to go home; others scared of experiencing themselves in the ‘real world’ of the city. Yes, to finish on the high and simply sleep, then pack and leave would be the easiest thing to do…

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[singlepic id=287 w=320 h=240 float=center] In fact, convincing the group that there was ‘more to be done’ before the journey was complete was gong to take a miracle. Fortunately; in our morning meeting we’d worked out the plan and the inspiration again came from a crisis in the group.

It wasn’t so much what was said to address the crisis, but the gravity of how it was delivered… it met the intensity of the problem in real way and; when Steven stepped forward with the ‘Scream Game’ as the transition to the place where we were to begin the next stage. Folk were more than willing to accept.

‘Argggggghhhh…..’ The scream game is priceless. You take a deep breath, and run as far as you can in one big shout. In this case, each ran individually around the back of the bothy, out of sight and reemerged at a door and entered in to…. a completely new space altogether.

The byre was transformed, with mattresses arranged on the stone floor like a huge communal couch. The atmosphere was quiet, reflective and as each participant arrived they were encouraged to sit silently.

Once everyone had entered, I led a small group meditation, slowly but surely, beginning with body and breath, we took the adventure all over again, this time using our power of visualization. Mentioning the moments of power, the turning points experienced or witnessed we had the chance to feel them again; this time with the overveiw of having come through it; and as we reemerged and stirred our bodies back to life. There was a new atmosphere again.

From the distant rocky outcrop came the sound of a loud, ancient horn. We were being called to attend something.

There on the hill, at the site of an rocky ancestral seat, was a circle of stones and an altar of mountain flowers. We took our place in the circle; two stones next to each set of feet. something special was about to happen.

‘Only when you are ready.’

‘One stone for giving thanks. One stone for taking away.’

‘Only you know what the stones are for. They are yours.’

Silently, each member took themselves off to their sit spot; a quiet place n the mountainside in which to reflect on the past few days. To find meaning and hope amidst fear and change. Thirty minutes can seem an age.

When the horn sounded again. The group descended and past through another threshold to signal the end of their reflection and the start of their resolve. This time, crossing a bridge over a flowing mountain stream.

‘Only when you are ready.’

When all is said and done, I want a tangible, visceral, embodied experience of success for my clients. Not a few words read from a distant signpost as the moments whiz by…. spend time blinking out what you think the facilitator wants to hear and you miss the precious moment.

As i hope i have illustrated, the use of flow learning, that is; ensuring that each element is present in the right order is a very active ingredient in giving a well rounded experience. It’s application can be utilized to startling effect in bringing together many different learning intentions; or even when ‘steering as you go’.

To respect client privacy and path, i have omitted much of the flavour and detail of the various interventions during this journey and have stuck to writing about programme content. Nevertheless, I wish to state that having adventures like this can be a matter of life and death for clients in organisations such as Venture Scotland.

With providence, good programme planning and the wonderful crucible that is the great outdoors; a light can shine to illuminate the next step. A will to go on walking…

[singlepic id=285 w=320 h=240 float=center] [with gratitude to the omni-talented Mr Gerry Naughton and the team of volunteers who’s presence of mind, good humour, tall tales, timely interjections and love of the out-of doors make for a quality experience]