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My Expedition Practices, Principles and Management Style For Outdoor Teambuilding Programmes

Introduction – What is an Expedition?

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”

– Douglas Adams1

Often than not, we have heard people claim that they have gone for an expedition of some sort. In fact, we too, may have gone for some kind of expeditions at some point of our life. So what exactly is an “Expedition”? Is it a planned journey of some sort? By saying that its a ‘planned journey’, does it mean that if a pre-trip planning is done perfectly, the journey during an expedition will be smooth sailing throughout? Will there even be any form of dangers or unknown present when we embark on an “expedition”?

Before I attempt the essay, I strongly believe its very important to first ‘set the stage right’ by looking at the definition of ‘Expedition’. Only after we have a common understanding of the word ‘Expedition’, then you can better relate to what I am going to share on “My Expedition Practices, Principles and Management Style”.

Dictionaries’ Definitions of an “Expedition”

Oxford Dictionary defined “expedition” as ‘an organised journey for a purpose’ whereas The Collins Easy Learning English Study Dictionary better defined “expedition” as 1) ‘an organised journey made for a special purpose, such as to explore, also the party of people who make such journey’, and 2) ‘ a short journey or outing e.g.shopping expeditions’. Interestingly, the latter has included “people” as an added ingredient to an expedition and even iterated that an ‘expedition’ can be as simple as a shopping trip! Amazing enough, I actually agree to their definition!

My Definition of an “Expedition”

Though I am supportive of the second explanation, I still believe that in an expedition, there are ‘unforeseen circumstances or dangers’ present before, during and after an expedition and that this ‘unforeseen circumstances or dangers’ should be included in the definition, making it more holistic. With that, my definition of an ‘expedition” is born. My definition of an ‘expedition’ is that its ‘an organised journey involving an individual or a group of people, with the intention of achieving a common goal and willing to face any unknown circumstances or dangers during the journey.’

My Expedition Model – The “Dark Tunnel” Model

Every expedition is unique by nature. The expedition can be the same i.e it can be the same hunting trip or the same trekking expedition at the same Mount Kinabalu, but the very fact that the team members composition is different, the ever-changing environment, the eccentric mood swings amongst participants and many other factors make the same expedition different every time! After many hunting and adventure expeditions, I began to see a trend, and I have supported my expeditions with a general model. I called it The “Dark Tunnel” Model.

The “Dark Tunnel” Model is actually a simple model which can be used to relate to all kind of expeditions, ranging from a simple 3Days 2Nights southern island kayaking trips to a 2-month South Pole Expedition.

Figure 1: Jack “Sparrow” Chen’s “Dark Tunnel” Model

As depicted in Figure 1 above, the left of the tunnel represents the ‘starting point’ of any expedition while the ‘end of the tunnel’ represents the endpoint (which is the depicted by the lighter tone at the end of the tunnel, almost close to white colour. I purposely used three different “Dark Tunnels” to illustrate the different durations of any expeditions.) Imagine we are a group of participants going for a land-based expedition, the tone of the colour of the ‘tunnel’ represent the level of uncertainty as we go through the tunnel (the expedition). The darker the tone, the higher the level of uncertainties and unknown. The x-axis in the diagram represents time i.e the longer the duration of the expedition, the longer the time taken to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with more uncertainties and unknown encountered by the group, and of course, if the expedition is a short one, the group will take a faster time to reach their destination with relatively much lesser unknowns presented to them.

The y-axis represents the competency level required for the trip because the length of the expedition corresponds to the difficulty level of the trip and hence will require a higher competency level from the expedition leader and even his team members. The competency level here not only include those that are skills-based, but also emotional management based. As I have explained, the longer the expedition, the more the unknown as we reached the midpoint of the tunnel, thus the emotional management skills of the leader should kick in to handle certain participants who might be sending out emotional distress. 

My Guiding Principle in Organising Expeditions: Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail!

A business continuity planner is more powerful than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men because with a plan in place we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again!”

– Doug Rezner2

When organising any outdoor teambuilding programmes, I am a strong believer and practitioner of ‘early planning’. During the pre-expedition phase, I will go through a very thorough planning process. The pre-trip planning comprises thought processes coming from many angles ranging from logistical, financial, transportation, safety, physical and even emotional aspects. As participants’ safety is of utmost importance to me during any expeditions, often than not, I will spend twice or even thrice the effort to go through the risk assessment matrix just to ensure that the safety aspect is not overlooked. I always live by this principle, that is “Fail to plan, Plan to fail”

However, I also believe in a saying that ‘A plan is always perfect until the battle begins3‘. Putting it simply, this statement means that there is no such thing as ‘a perfect plan’ even when the pre-trip planning has been 101% thought through and planned. Certain unexpected or unforeseen events can still happen during the expedition. It is up to the flexibility and the management style of the expedition leader who can see the whole expedition through even when he and his group are experiencing some kind of ordeal. This brings me to a very important point of leading an expedition – my philosophy to expeditions.

My Philosophy to Expeditions: Be Happy At All Times.

My philosophy in leading any kind of expeditions or teambuilding programmes is to stay happy at all times and infect the group with my “Happy Germs”. I always believe that no matter how tough the going gets, when you are happy in these situations, the tough get going, happy. Never underestimate the power of a smile, it helps to break down tense situations at times. When I am naturally happy, my clients or friends can feel a positive energy, and it is precisely this positive energy of happiness which breaks down the likelihood of conflicts or quarrels amongst them.

My Leadership and Management Style in Expeditions

Few years into my profession as a professional indoor and outdoor teambuilder, my leadership style tend to incline towards the delegation, democratic and autocratic ones (the autocratic, democratic and Laissez Faire) which revolved around the core values centred with a set of defined principles – i) Happiness first, safety always. ii) Shoot to kill, kill to eat. iii) Fail to plan, plan to fail….

Often than not, I adopt a very happy-go-lucky approach when dealing with my clients. Many may wonder why. It is because “FUN” is the key word when it comes to travel. 90% of the time when people go for a tour, they are in a happy mood and want to remain happy. Thus, there is no need for me to become a director and indirectly spoiling their fun. Instead, when my clients are attempting challenging obstacles, I tend to become more participative and democratic to them. By showing encouragement to my clients in these situations, often make them feel secure. When they feel secured and set their mind to attempt the obstacles, often than not, they can complete without any difficulties. My leadership style will transform into an authoritarian one only when safety is a concern during night hunting activities because my clients’ safety is always my top priority. I have no room for errors.

How Others View Me

Thus far, the guiding principle which I have adopted in pre-expedition planning has been effective. Early and proper planning helps me to anticipate potential issues so that it gives me ample time to arrest the problem discovered prior the expedition. My philosophy and leadership style has been widely accepted by my friends and clients. They love being with a teambuilder who possess positive energy in all kind of situations. They love the fact that I can still crack jokes with them when my 4WD broke down in the middle of nowhere during our adventure teambuilding trip. They just enjoy being happy all the times. They also feedback to me in the evaluation forms that they enjoyed being led by a “Happy-Go-Lucky” facilitator who can manage his styles according to situations rather than one that is too bossy, too motherly or one that spends too much time thinking, neglecting them unknowingly. Therefore, I have no intention to change what I have already established i.e my principles, my philosophy, my leadership and management styles towards expeditions.


Expeditions, whether be it land-based or water-based, have their fair share of unknowns. Its only through proper and thorough planning, that an expedition leader can reduce the potential risks to their minimum. It’s inevitable that a leader needs to show positivity at all times, especially during times of ordeals, so as to reassure his team members that he can bring them to greater heights and ‘sail through the stormy weather‘. Lastly, by being a happy individual, the leader can indirectly spread happiness to the team. This is especially important during difficult times in the expeditions; the ordeal may seem to pass by faster and smoother when everyone is in a positive and happy mood.

  1. Are you able to identify some philosophies or theories that underpin our approach to, and the practice of expedition planning and management
  2. what do you see as your strengths and weaknesses
  3. which aspects would you seek to change and why?
  4. How has your exposure to this unit of study impacted on your future expeditions?

Note the importance of linking your personal reflections and professional experiences and observations to ideas that you have gleaned from the readings and class interactions.


Written by:
Jack “Sparrow” Chen
Chief Planner
Happy Sparrow Pte Ltd


1Adapted from http://myfamousquotes.com/?qid=227

2Adapted from http://www.scribd.com/doc/7342990/Business-Plan-Quotes-Alphabetic-A

3Adapted from Marshal Pettain, 1917, Before the battle of Verdun

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