Canoeing down the River Orb in Southern France, it struck me what a powerful team building activity this was.
Two men in a boat, my brother-in-law Richard and I set off with little idea of what we were doing other than our destination was four hours downstream. Launching the canoe went rather well, but within seconds we were going in the wrong direction, by which time our “instructor” had disappeared with the empty canoe trailer and was returning back to base.
We were tous seuls and quickly realised that we needed to work as a team, but there was an added dimension in that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We had no idea how to negotiate the rapids; the eddies which veered us in the wrong direction were a complete surprise and the “invisible” rocks just below the surface were to ground us several times.
Each of these obstacles could be a metaphor for a business challenge and we soon discovered that dealing with them required some pretty nifty team work. The alternative to team work was to capsize – another metaphor!
So what did we learn? Firstly, we needed a plan and a shared understanding of who was doing what. Just getting in the boat and paddling was not the answer; we remembered that the person sitting at the back is the capitaine and should do the steering. Then we worked out a system for paddling in a straight line. So far so good.
Then the challenges started coming thick and fast. The rapids. Everything had been in slow motion up to that point. Crikey, which route should we take and how do we make sharp turns in foaming water? Unfortunately, sitting at the back, the capitaine did not have a good view of the rapids so Richard was quickly promoted to navigateur. This flexibility helped us to cope with the unexpected – up to a point.
Our next challenge was to extricate ourselves from the rapids; we were jammed sideways and facing an imminent capsize. From the front, Richard had now lost the view and relied on me for instructions. We remembered being advised to “kiss the rock” – or lean against it – to avoid a capsize. That worked and we made our way down the rapids, albeit backwards, only to face the next challenge – the eddy which wanted to send us back upstream and into the trees.
We learned a lot, laughed a lot and had tremendous fun. We were reminded that effective team working does not just happen – it takes some effort and is not just about technical competence.
Keen to demonstrate our new found proficiency, we did it all over again a few days later. We had learned much from our previous efforts but still managed to go down a set of rapids backwards!