Outfitted with clues, compasses, and cell phones—the camels would come later—32 men and women set out across the Arabian Desert to find, prepare, and excavate an abandoned archeological research site.

Members of a global resource organization doing so well that its president felt they were becoming complacent, these top-level managers had convened in Dubai for what they thought was just another meeting.   While there they learned from the “Dubai Desert Sand Times” that the Red Sea Salvage Company had just arrived to solve a 300-year-old mystery about an attempted crossing of the Arabian peninsula by a band of pirates. The mystery, if solved, could yield millions.

To their surprise, they woke the next morning to find that they were The Red Sea Salvage Company. As the story unfolded there were expressions of bemusement, then questions, then a growing air of excitement as GPS devices, water, hats, sunscreen, maps, and tools were hastily assembled.  The quest began.

Duke CE, invited to Dubai to design a “high energy, thought-provoking, and out-of-the-ordinary” program, developed a simulation and integrated it with the meeting agenda.  For the client organization’s president, there was a lot at stake:  new to his position, he would be addressing all his subordinates for the first time.  Senior leaders, he had already decided, needed energy and enthusiasm; needed to work better across functions; needed to consider the whole enterprise if the organization was to continue to grow and remain competitive.

He had assigned skeptical function leaders a bold new EBITDA target—a goal which, they opined, was crazy unless the leadership team could do things very differently. This management team needed to think big, to think strategically, and to move away from their local identities if they were going to perform the impossible.  They too wanted to remain the best in their sector of the global market.  But they weren’t so sure they could get there from here.

The group needed to see, first-hand, the value of sharing resources for tasks not normally thought realistic, and they needed to be ready not merely to accept change but to lead it.

The Duke CE exercise led participants to work through seemingly impossible challenges by breaking down functional barriers, rethinking resources, and sharing talent in pursuit of a collective goal—one that, like their day jobs, required performance excellence.

When the quest began, participants assumed that they were working in small teams, competing with one another to “get there first” or “do it best.”  They had three tasks:

  • Find the desert camp and excavation area
  • Transport equipment to the excavation area
  • Excavate the site

Bandanas around their necks, sunscreen on their faces and sun hats on their heads, participants huddled, reading clues and pointing to maps. They consulted their GPS devices, vaulted into their 4×4 vehicles and raced off to various destinations in the heart of the city—a mall, a spice shop, a camel racing arena—where they encountered Arab traders in thobe and ghutra. Armed with additional clues and stories about the long-lost artifacts, the participants converged on a small cluster of palms at the edge of the desert. As they rested on Persian rugs, enjoying tea and dates, they began to consider sharing information, realizing that otherwise they’d never piece together their clues and maps. As they unraveled clues, they came to reassess their perception that they were even in competition and began to negotiate team roles and responsibilities.  It wasn’t long before they were hurrying back to the 4x4s in pursuit of coordinates N 25.11.417; E 055.37.116.

The coordinates led to a small desert encampment encircled by tall reeds. Here participants learned that the shovels, sieves and buckets needed for excavation had been accidentally airdropped some distance to the east. This time they coordinated their efforts and shared resources from the outset, accomplishing the recovery quickly and making up for lost time.

Back at camp, over Kalamata olives, pita, tahini, and burghel wrapped in grape leaves, the participants inventoried their tools. Piecing together the remaining clues, they realized that together they could find the abandoned excavation site just a little further on—but that the desert wouldn’t accommodate 4×4 vehicles in that direction. They tied their shovels, sieves, and buckets to a caravan of camels and set out across the dunes. At last, in the distance, they saw what appeared to be some old oil drums and tattered flags hanging from weathered posts: the excavation site. But to get there, they had to cross an old mine field. Again they had to collaborate to share old tires and planks in order to carry themselves and their gear safely across.

With daylight waning, the challenge now was to determine where, in all this sand, the artifacts might be found.  Some started digging randomly.

As a passing camel trader stopped to look on, one participant decided to talk with this Bedouin. An exchange of coins and grid maps over the next hour led the team to piece together overlays and begin to find key pockets of ancient sextants, utensils, and coins buried two to three feet deep in the sand. Participants needed to meet their quota of artifacts and return back to the desert camp by dark. Just as the sun was setting, they were able to mount their camels and return in time to celebrate with a traditional Arabian dinner.

At the end of the day participants were hot, tired, dusty—and happy. During the debriefing that evening and the following day, discussions indicated that team and function barriers had been increasingly abandoned as interpersonal transactions became more effective. They had practiced both teaming and leadership skills—and had seen first hand the areas in which they needed work. One participant remarked in his evaluation that the Red Sea Salvage experience “allowed us to… identify the gaps we need to work at; improve our network, and get to know people better.”  Further debriefing revealed that these leaders were now poised to think more strategically, ready to sacrifice local identity for the good of the whole.

And yes, many voiced their readiness to go after the EBITDA goal with new enthusiasm.