What's the best way to get management motivated to invest in training? Get a critical product development project into a whole lot of trouble. As the 19th-century intellectual Dr. Samuel Johnson said to his biographer Boswell, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Colorbus Inc. of Irvine, Calif., provides raster image processors--incredibly complicated hardware and software for operation with networked color printers and copiers. A new print controller had been promised for Ricoh Inc., the Tokyo-based electronics giant. And things were not going well. At the time, Arthur Kirsch, then head of the company's R&D effort, called it a "death march." Product development was based at Colorbus' office in Melbourne, Australia--a mere six time zones away from California headquarters--where programmers were writing code furiously without producing much forward momentum. Looking back on it with a year's perspective, Jeffrey Hayzlett, former executive vice president of business development (he and Kirsch stepped away from Colorbus in April to start a dot-com, but they retain financial interests), is philosophical:

"We had this one project that was nearly impossible to get done," he says. "Nonetheless, like most companies, we sold it anyway. We went to our teams and asked them if they could they do it. Everybody said they could. And then we actually got the project. We had to teach everybody, and we had to teach them fast, because we had to deliver this project in an unbelievably short amount of time."

While the Ricoh project had served to concentrate the minds of Colorbus managers, there were other problems. "We had purchased a number of companies in various countries over the last two years," says Hayzlett. In fact, a lot of what was Colorbus had been, as recently as October 1998, Atlanta-based Star Imaging, itself the product of several mergers. "So we had different cultures," he says. "Imagine you're building a football team and you have championship-level players, except nobody agrees on what the word 'huddle' means. We had to pull all those cultures together."

Call in the Marines Hayzlett and Kirsch started shopping around for help. They stopped when they got to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, home of SportsMind, a consultancy that teaches teambuilding. (The company recently relocated to Mill Valley, Calif.) Kirsch, who lists his experience as a Marine in his corporate resume, was especially taken with SportsMind, which had among its clients the U.S. Marine Corps. Whatever the initial attraction, companies such as Microsoft and Motorola told the Colorbus executives that they were gung-ho on SportsMind, and that was enough to get Hayzlett and Kirsch to enlist the services of Chris Majer, organizational guru, retired rugby player, and co-founder of the consultancy.

To answer the question on everyone's mind, yes, SportsMind--which began life in 1984 providing performance counseling to athletes--employs ropes courses in which software engineers who haven't seen the sun in years find themselves laboring through physically challenging exercises in trust. In fact, once upon a time, ropes courses were all that SportsMind offered to corporate clients. Not anymore.

"In our view, learning shows up as a capacity to move differently in the world than you did prior to the learning experience," says Majer. "No single event is going to make a difference. It's all long-term process, because the way you build competence is through recurrent practice."

Moody Clues When SportsMind set up an initial training event for Colorbus, its purpose was to shift the mood of the organization. At the outset, the mood was not good. Colorbus management had looked at the new project and hadn't liked what it saw. "Man, we had holes in communication, in commitment, in overall follow-through," Hayzlett says. "We had people doing jobs they'd never done before."

According to Majer, the first task of the first event with Colorbus was "to generate some genuine ambition, an appetite for real learning. Most people, especially technical people, don't understand that mood is everything." He hastens to add that mood is not the only thing, but it provides the clues to whatever is going to happen in a business. "If people are in a culture of cynicism--or arrogance, which you see a lot of in technology companies--it doesn't matter how great your technology is, it's not going to do anything."

Majer is the first to say that a ropes course by itself is merely entertainment. "Lots of people want to hire us just to do ropes courses," he says. "We tell them to go to Disneyland." What SportsMind did with Colorbus was hold a series of off-site meetings in Australia, the United States, and Europe. In the United States, the consultancy usually uses one of 16 locations around the country--some conference centers, some hotels--where it has developed relationships for outdoor experiential work as well as such details as healthy food service.

What happens besides rope courses? "We talked a lot about what we wanted to be when we grew up," says Hayzlett. "We had to come up with a mission, a vision, and decide how we wanted to operate as a team."

So Why Do the Ropes, Anyway? Ropes courses make great photo ops, but why, really, are they necessary? "We can talk all day about trust and risk-taking," says Majer. "Your body doesn't distinguish between fear on a ropes course and fear of going into a stressful situation, like a meeting where you know you have to give bad news. The ropes course gives people practice at dealing with stress." He adds that while a ropes course breaks self-limiting beliefs, it does not produce competence. But being willing and able to take new actions--to take risks--makes managers able to develop new competencies. And it is the competency-developing part that constitutes the real work.

Both Majer and Hayzlett say the last day of the off-site meeting was critical. Employees were divided into teams with the explicit goal of getting the new product project done. Perhaps the toughest part was getting all participants to realize that they had a lot to learn. "You can't start off as an expert," says Hayzlett. "We had to learn the basics." That's a lot to swallow, says Majer. "They think the hard part of business is the technology stuff, when in fact the hard part is coordinating the action to get projects done."

How Things Get Done In fact, before the first big meeting, SportsMind did a considerable amount of groundwork. They interviewed people at all different levels of the organization. "Our first job is to figure out how things actually work, compared to management's idea of how things work," says Majer. The first meeting was just the first step. If there is a secret to really changing the behaviors, it is that the outside organization doesn't leave after the initial event. "It really is a great sports analogy," says Hayzlett. "You have to get in shape, and you have to stay in shape."

Thus, what started out as a series of special events turned into a relationship that lasted several months. "They traveled all over with us--here in the U.S., in Australia, and in Europe," says Hayzlett. "We put them on site at our offices for months at a time." The coaching was specific and had to do mostly with learning how to be better communicators. "There's a difference between someone saying 'I think I can get that for you Friday' as opposed to 'I'll get it to you Friday at 5 p.m.,'" says Hayzlett. "In our old way of thinking, if someone said 'I think I can get it' we took that as a commitment, when it was really a maybe."

The Bottom Line With help from SportsMind, Colorbus turned around a project that was on the brink of disaster. Privately held Colorbus doesn't disclose numbers, but Hayzlett says the impact on the company was immediate and positive. "We increased productivity all the way around," he says. "We had better communication. The level at which commitments were made was dramatically improved. We got back on track with our programming, and sales numbers improved."

This kind of effort does not come cheap. Corporate Technology Information Services, based in Concord, Mass., estimates that Colorbus revenues were somewhere between $25 million and $50 million in 1999. SportsMind charges in the neighborhood of $500,000 for its services. That means Colorbus shelled out between 1 percent and 2 percent of its sales for the SportsMind program. It's got to be a tough sell. Not so, says Majer. He asks just two questions of potential participants: "How long do you plan to keep working? Do you think you now know everything you'll need to know to be successful over the rest of your career? Nobody in their right mind says yes."

Training Resources A great place to learn more about the benefits of ropes courses and other "experiential training" methods is www.experientia.com, a Web site operated by Experientia, a nonprofit consortium of academics and researchers who conduct studies into the effectiveness of experiential training. Simon Priest, PhD, a senior member of the group, offers a summary of research and a useful glossary of terms that does things like explain the difference between experience-based ("all learning is experience-based") and experiential ("active doing rather than the passive being done to"). There are also links to companies that offer training.

Why Tech Firms Need Management Training "Technology people live in a story that says people are like computers, and learning is like putting new software in a machine," says Chris Majer, co-founder of SportsMind, a management training consultancy based in Mill Valley, Calif. In that story, he says, training means giving a big, all-day multimedia presentation where the instructor speaks and attendees listen. The metaphor is that attendees are reprogrammed and that when they leave the room, they'll know exactly what to do.

"In the history of human beings, that's never worked for anybody, but we still fall for it," he says. SportsMind used to offer these kinds of one-day programs, but Majer stopped several years ago because it wasn't working. "You can't sustain the euphoria these programs create; it's like giving out cotton candy to starving people."

Majer reserves special criticism for dot-com companies. "These companies believe they are too busy to do anything other than what they are doing at the moment," he says. "They do not distinguish between frenetic activity and accomplishment. The smart ones are beginning to realize that being a masterful technologist has no bearing--in fact it has an inverse bearing--on their competence as leaders and managers. You get these bright twentysomethings who start their own companies, think they're on top of the world, and when things start to implode, they're totally at a loss ."

Swapping Equity for Training A dot-com growing at 200 percent a year not only has a hard time stopping to reassess, it typically doesn't have any cash to fix what's wrong. In the right circumstance, SportsMind will take a piece of the company in exchange for management training. "It's got to be a situation where we think we can have a dramatic impact on the stock price, not just the business," he says. For example, if he believes he can drastically cut a product introduction schedule that will result in earlier-than-expected revenues, that may have an impact on the stock price. He stresses that taking stock is not a general policy. SportsMind won't take stock in a private company, because it's not liquid. And taking stock in a public company creates major accounting difficulties.

Nonetheless, SportsMind, which made its reputation with big clients like Microsoft and the U.S. Marine Corps, is attracted to small tech companies. "We're having the most fun with them," says Majer. "Once you get past the initial we-don't-need-any-help phase, they're really quite eager to learn. Underneath the bravado is a deep sense of being in over their heads." He laughs, and adds with empathy, "I come in not only as someone with proven practices, but as someone who built a business over 20 years and made every stupid mistake," he says. "We don't come in as Human Resources Inc. We've worked with athletes; we've worked with soldiers. We bring an edge."