Here's the idea: You take a bunch of bored midlevel managers, men and women, shove them into the woods for four days, talk to them about attitudinal adjustment, make them solve 25 different physical challenges involving trees, bushes, mosquitoes and swamps, and tell them they will get through this thing only if they bring the others with them. Teamwork.
Then you sit them in a classroom and tell them how they stymied themselves by being competitive, stubborn, fearful, uncreative and generally one-track. And you make them like it.
"You mean Boy Scout stuff?" I said sourly when approached with this one by the public-relations lady who has the account for the new management training program called Venture Forth.
Crashing through the forest has never been my idea of fun. Tenting is for people who have been locked out of their houses. In my middle years I tend to avoid any place that does not have a dinner table, a soft bed and a convenient bathroom.
"Come and see," the PR lady said. "And wear something, uh, durable."
I wore my usual jungle garb -- stockings, gold chain, pumps, linen suit -- and came out of a day of stumbling around the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania thinking that Venture Forth, bizarre and untidy though it may be, may have something after all.
There were 10 business executives traveling on Wednesday to the 145-acre camp. This was a one-day sample of the full four-day course that will begin in late September and will cost $595 a person.
Psychologist Mary Pauer, who first thought of Venture Forth and bought the 40-year-old children's camp last year to set up the program, explained her concept:
"In business today we're getting repetitive and traditional thinking leading to traditional solutions, which may not work . . . Creative thinking calls for restructuring thoughts. A different environment forces that."
"Out there," Pauer said, pointing at her trees, her lake, her lodge and her mosquitoes, "you don't solve problems unless you cooperate with the others in your group. The trees don't care who's boss. In the outdoors, relationships change. And people get new confidence."
The staff at Venture Forth includes Steve Grossman, a muscular management consultant with a nice eye for power plays, and Rick Brown, a former Penn State football player who recently completed his doctorate at Temple University in something called "outdoor pursuits."
"In our training," Pauer said, "a strong member of the team may pass one obstacle easily, but he can't advance until all his group members succeed. In another situation, this person may become a follower."
The 10 executives venturing forth included an engineer with a large New Jersey corporation, a bank investment officer, a research director for a chemical corporation and a teacher who works with mentally gifted kids.
First there was the Trust Fall. This is when you climb on the top of a flight of stairs and fall straight back, trusting the others to catch you.
There was the All Aboard (10 people clutching and rocking on a platform two feet square). And the Forest Maze (all are blindfolded and led to a rope maze in the trees.)
Even in the short course you could see the push and the pull of the ones who chose to follow and the ones who chose to lead. You got the frustration in the bank officer's voice as he shouted, blindfolded in the maze, "We're not listening to each other!"
You watched the one who would be boss pushing aside the soft suggestions of the teacher and the interior decorator, the suggestions that would have solved the problem.
You saw basically what you see in business meetings every day. Except for one thing. Mary Pauer was right.
In the woods the problems don't take a lunch break. The trees don't care who's boss. And you're stuck there with the mosquitoes until you figure it out.
Not a bad place to send a boss now and then.