A couple of weeks ago I went white water rafting down the mighty Ottawa River for the first time ever. I was excited and nervous all at once.
It ended up being a fantastic experience. We went with my husband, Warren’s, office group. We had seven rafts of people and it turned out to be a real exercise in teamwork.
The odds were that at some point in the adventure our raft would tip, capsize or throw people overboard into the dangerous rapids. As much as that sounds exciting, at the time it really was quite scary. Isn’t real life like that? Experiences that in hindsight often sound exciting can be unnerving as they are unfolding.
In order for our raft to safely scale the waves and rapids, we needed to work as a team. Fortunately, my team functioned well but some of the other teams did not, which made it much more difficult—and dangerous—for them.
Our rafting team, like teams at work, required certain qualities in order to be successful.
1. Respect. The biggest rapid of the day was “The Coliseum,” and I can tell you that the leaders began telling us scary things about it before we even arrived. In order to be safe, we had to assume that everyone on the team could follow the instructions given to us. If we wanted to survive, we needed to swim to the right. If the raft was empty, we weren’t to swim to it because it couldn’t save us. We needed to keep our feet up so the rocks wouldn’t cut the skin on our legs. We had respect for our rafting leader, and a healthy respect for the power of the rapids. I was scared to death that our raft would capsize. Although I can swim and I had a life vest, in order for us to make it through the rapids safely we had to respect what the leader was saying, what the water could do, and our team members’ ability to abide by the leader’s guidelines.
2. Flexibility. The leader was constantly changing orders as we ploughed through the rapids. One paddle forward, two paddles back. We had to listen and obey instantly or our odds of going for a very cold swim would be substantially increased. One raft of the seven did capsize and when we watched the video afterwards, it was clear that they didn’t paddle through the wave. They hadn’t followed the leader’s changing commands. If they had obeyed without questioning, and remained flexible, they would have made it safely through the rapids. They didn’t listen, they weren’t flexible, and they paid the price.
3. Diplomacy. Sometimes the group needs to question the way things are rather than blindly following the leader. When we first got into the raft we sat wherever we wanted to. I sat beside Warren in the second row. Greg sat beside his wife, Kim, in the first row. Kim was terrified—but there was nowhere else to sit. When we were on the approach to the second rapids of the day, I mentioned to our leader that perhaps Kim should sit beside me in the second row and Warren should join Greg in the first row. She thought about it and then quickly rearranged our seating. It wasn’t that I was questioning her judgment, but I felt I had a more successful option and she agreed. Part of the reason that our leader agreed was the way I posed my idea. I didn’t challenge her authority, but offered what I thought would be a better scenario. Moving Kim and Warren was instrumental to our success in making it through the big rapids. Before the switch, the right side of our boat was significantly weaker than the left side, leaving us very vulnerable to tipping over. She could see that, and made the adjustment without worrying that I was questioning her expertise.
4. Support. Our boat made it through the big rapids. The team immediately following us didn’t. We could see many reasons why they didn’t, but what we focused on is what had gone well. There had been no major injuries (although there were some minor ones) and the team had been able to continue. Prior to the big rapids each rower had the choice to avoid the rapids and instead walk down on land, joining their team after the rapids. The team that capsized did have a member of the team who decided the rapids were too dangerous, and she declined to do it. She walked down and joined her team at the bottom. I think this “lack of support” put doubt into the minds of the paddlers. Once one person said, “This isn’t going to be good,” the others doubted their chances of success as well. If I could pick one team in advance that I thought wouldn’t make it through the rapids this would be the team. They seemed unsure, tentative and generally weak. When their raft did capsize, they didn’t follow the guides’ instructions. They all panicked. They didn’t support each other and they didn’t support the rescue team.
We were successful because we didn’t capsize. However, even if we had, I’m not sure it would have been considered a failure; sometimes things don’t go as originally planned but it doesn’t necessarily mean you were unsuccessful.
Think about your teams at work. Are you following the four steps above to ensure that your team is on-the-right-track? Can you see where your team is failing and where it is successful?
We didn’t tip our raft, although in hindsight part of me almost wished we had (it would have been a great story). We worked well together to perform the task we needed to perform. I had a fantastic time and my experience was so positive I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Given the chance, would you work with your team again?