I wish you could have seen it. Twenty teenagers and four YMCA leaders — including me — were about to embark on a two-day rafting trip.

These kids could not have been more different. Half were from the inner city; half from the suburbs. Two inner city leaders joined us two from the ‘burbs. None of us had any experience with whitewater rafting. We were enthusiastic beginners, through and through!

The good news is we hired a terrific rafting company with experienced guides. They’d been running trips on the American River in Northern California for nearly two decades. The only thing we newbies had to worry about was to learn our roles, do our jobs, and work together. And to not get hurt, of course.

There was a lot to learn. We spent three hours on the sand that first morning, learning terminology, commands, safety gear, safe use of our paddles, how to shift positions safely when “under way,” and other key skills.

We learned what to do when (not “if”) we fell out of the raft in whitewater. Key to survival: aim feet first to help yourself maneuver around rocks!

With the rafts in calm waters, we practiced rowing. We weren’t completely coordinated in our strokes. Our guide said we were getting there, but we had to get better, quickly. “For safety’s sake,” our guide told us, “I need each of you to immediately engage in the command.” Don’t wait. Don’t ask. Don’t think.

“Just do,” she said. A delay of seconds could cause the raft to hit a “hole” and dump the entire team into the brisk, fast-moving waters.

We kept working to get better coordinated with the behaviors our guide needed us to demonstrate on command. With coaching, encouragement and repetition, our skills grew. Soon enough, our guide said we were ready for our first run through the rapids.

I can’t tell you that our run was perfect. Practicing behaviors in calm waters doesn’t mean the team can demonstrate those behaviors in whitewater! There were a few confusing moments when our behaviors were not aligned. Going sideways toward a 5-foot drop-off — those were exciting times!

But we didn’t lose any team member out of the boat. Even during our first seven-minute run, we got better. With every successive run, our confidence grew and our aligned teamwork increased. When we slipped up, our guide coached us “in the moment” and got us back on track.

It was a terrific trip. The teenagers felt smart, skilled, and inspired — and we all enjoyed the camaraderie and accomplishment that came with our aligned teamwork.

The lessons from this trip made a huge impression on me and guide my work with clients today. I pose questions like, “How well-defined are desired behaviors in your workplace? To what extent do leaders help team members learn the right skills, apply the right skills in the right sequence, and team effectively with peers?”

And, “How do leaders help you and your team members ‘practice perfection’ in calm waters before setting the team loose in Class V whitewater?”

Your team’s high performance and values alignment might be as simple as formalizing desired behaviors, aligning players to those behaviors, and learning together to deliver promised products and services.

If you need expert help, consider taking your team whitewater rafting!

What do you think? How do your organization’s best teams engage in ongoing learning and teaming? How might your team find ways to ‘practice perfection’ and get better at goal accomplishment? Share your thoughts about this post/podcast in the comments section below.

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I invite you to add your experiences to two “fast & free” research projects I have underway. The Great Boss Assessment compares your current boss’ behaviors with those of great bosses. The Performance-Values Assessment compares your organization’s culture practices to those of high performing, values-aligned organizations. Results and analysis are available on my research page.

Podcast – Listen to this post now with the player below. Subscribe via RSS or iTunes. The music heard on these podcasts is from one of my songs, “Heartfelt,” copyright © Chris Edmonds Music (ASCAP). I play all instruments on these recordings.

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