White Water in the Workplace
As I reflected on my personal and professional experiences I am struck by an interesting parallel between my white water rafting adventures and my experience as a Corporate Executive.
All of my white water experiences followed a similar process – a group of people, with varying skills and different experience levels, gathered together to maneuver a raft down through unknown obstacles and challenges. Some are friends and others strangers. A guide at the helm, whom everyone trusts, is assumed to know the river and have the skill to get us safely down. However, we all know this isn’t a one-man job.
After introductions and assurances of his competence, the guide assessed this group to identify personalities and skills. Through this assessment, he assigned roles and responsibilities aboard the raft.
He recited a very complete script. This explained the mission, vision, known hazards, strategies to navigate around them and the rescue plan if one was needed. There were rules of conduct, things like: don’t stand up in the raft, keep your paddle under control, hold onto the guide rope, listen to the guide, and follow directions quickly and concisely. These were non-negotiable.
He then confirmed that all paddlers had a clear understanding and agreed to participate fully. All were invited to withdraw from the adventure if they were not in full agreement. Some paddlers changed their minds at this point and opted out of the raft.
During the safety session of one trip I saw the guide eyeing two of my friends who were scared out of their wits. He quickly decided to put them in the middle of the raft without paddles, the safest decision for all of us. He noticed me favoring my right shoulder and quickly shifted me over to the other side of the raft, capitalizing on my strength and supporting my weakness. This demonstrated his continued awareness of his team members.
Once he was satisfied that all of us were positioned correctly we pushed out into calm waters. The gentle approach gave him the opportunity to see us in action and assess our coping strategies before things become stressful. This was a chance to reposition and re-strategize before we faced the real challenge.
As all of us relaxed into the adventure we came to know our fellow paddlers. Trust was built slowly along the way as we built relationships. Humor provided a gateway that helped to unify the team.
Down river there were a few more waves, some twists and turns. The guide reinforced his commands over and over until they were ingrained in our heads to ensure that when the white water hit the correct actions would be intuitive. This was a perfect time to test out the strength of the team. Who could call on their skills? Which paddlers digressed into negative coping strategies? Who stepped up and helped their teammates through? It was during these times that we gained insights
into the inner working of our team. This was another gateway to reassess and reposition.
Through it all, the main job of the guide was to keep the rafters safe, healthy and on course. He positioned his team, trained us and then trusted this solid unified team to navigate the roughest waters.
Great lessons come from life’s adventures and are easily transferable to our businesses. Here are some key lessons learned…
Create Organizational Clarity
In business it is imperative that all of your team members understand where you are going and why it matters. This comes in the form of a clear mission, vision and core values. The “what” comes next, providing clarity on the product or service that will support you to achieve your mission. Well defined goals, outcomes and tasks are supported by solid and clear processes and provide the “how and when”. Who will get you there? This needs to be well thought out and clearly defined, placing each team member into a position that empowers them. This is accomplished by matching the skills, strengths and weaknesses with the appropriate tasks.
Communicate Your Strategy Frequently and Clearly
It isn’t enough to say something once. Human beings learn through repetition from multiple trusted authorities and a variety of different sources. Every personality type communicates differently. It is not possible to over-communicate the vital information of the company. Say it clearly, say it often and say it in numerous ways.
Build a Cohesive Team
Once the mission is clear, it is time to build on it. Through continuous communication and reinforcement, the mission, vision and key strategies become second nature to the entire team. With a constant reminder of where you are going and why it matters, the team is motivated to get you there.
People can and should be removed from your team if they are not fully aligned with the mission. Imagine a raft with a key paddler or two, paddling in the opposite direction? To successfully navigate through the roughest terrain, all paddlers have to be working in unison, paddling at the same time in the same direction. Any one paddler has the power to sink the raft. If you have dysfunctional team members, they will have a significant impact on the progress of the mission. Eliminate them!
When you understand the personalities of all of your team members it becomes easier to assign tasks. With this knowledge you will know who can power through the roughest waters, who can motivate the other team members, who can care for the wounded and exhausted travelers and who can organize the group. Armed with this vital information, all tasks are carried out easily and confidently. Nothing falls through the cracks.
As in rafting, there will be adjustments required along the way. Some weaknesses may appear that were not previously noticed. Others may show strengths and skills that were missed on the first assessment. Don’t be afraid to reposition people. Flexibility and awareness are critical skills.
Clearly Define Your Non-Negotiables
Every company has their own definition of what is non-negotiable. These are things that are vital to the core of the company. They are the rules that must be followed no matter what. These differ from company to company but fairly standard are things such as no gossiping, always use advancing language, tell the truth and no surprises. These have to be set, communicated clearly and followed by every team member. They reach to the soul of the company.
Common principles apply in business as in rafting…
1. Optimize your team. Get to know who’s in your boat.
2. Develop a solid strategy. Communicate it to your team clearly and frequently.
3. Expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised if your boat doesn’t go where you thought.
4. Be flexible. You can’t always read the waters accurately.
5. Trust your team. You will need them to pull you through the rough times.
6. Revitalize your team in the calm waters. There will be more challenges ahead.
7. Don’t throw the good paddlers out of the boat in the calm waters, you will need them when
the white water hits.
8. Never stop paddling, even when it feels hopeless.
9. Someone needs to be in charge. It works better that way.
10.Have fun. Happy people work harder.