Systems for Success: Salmon Style

Photo courtesy of Casey Bartrem.

Last week my life looked very different than it does this week…and I still found myself thinking hard about conflict, its prevention, and its resolution.  To be clear, I was not practicing any mediation or facilitation.  I was not drinking coffee with potential clients or collaborators.  I wasn’t in Colorado, or even in Oregon.  Instead, I was rowing my raft through eighty miles of the Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.  I was hanging out with 18 fellow whitewater enthusiasts, out of cell phone range for days, completely and utterly… on vacation.  The photo above is from last week.  This shot shows most of our motley crew scouting Black Creek Rapid before jumping in and running it. This image, and the linked video may capture some of the essence of what most people think of when they think about a whitewater rafting trip.  You see water, beautiful scenery, life jackets, sandals, a sense of excitement… What this image doesn’t show, at least not to the untrained eye, is the complexity of actually pulling off a trip like this.

For most people, the biggest challenge of a rafting trip would be, well, the rafting itself.  For most of us, the simple idea of safely navigating inflatable boats through churning water would consume most of our thoughts and energy.  In reality, the biggest challenge of a multi-day trip has far less to do with the boats and the water, and far more to do with the people in those boats and the systems, the social and logistical structure behind their trip that support them. Consider these points:

  • On the most basic level, the task of feeding and watering nineteen people for six days (without refrigeration, electricity, or running water) would challenge most of us.
  • Once they’ve been fed and hydrated, the logistics of disposing of these people’s, ahem, waste is a whole new challenge that takes careful planning.  For the record, you cannot simply dig a hole and poop in it on a river trip.  Read a quick primer on groovers if you’re curious.
  • Between the cooking, eating, and pooping, there’s a whole challenge of how to make sure things (like hands) stay clean so people don’t get sick.  Gastrointestinal distress on the river is not a pretty sight so good practices for hand and dish washing matter.

With nineteen people who, in most cases, don’t necessarily know one another super well, you can imagine the planning and work involved of simply getting people safely fed, hydrated, drained, and cleaned.  And believe it or not, these things TRULY matter.  Having a good meal and a smooth camping experience before and after each day on the water matter, not just to make the trip fun but to make it safe for all the time you do spend actually on the water.

Reflecting on these tasks and the outstanding success of our trip last week, I appreciate not just our (phenomenal) trip leader Brian, but the systems that he creates to make these trips successful again and again.  Clearly, the tasks outlined above (and the many, many others that weren’t even mentioned) are not something that one or two people could sustain, especially on a private trip when no one is getting paid or tipped generously to make it all happen.  In these cases, it takes “the village” to get it all done but the “village” doesn’t simply know what to do or how to do it. Even on a trip full of experienced boaters, clear coordination of efforts is paramount.

Brian is a river guide, professor of water policy, and nonprofit leader.  He’s a put together, educated, thoughtful, experienced guy who has a real passion for rivers.  Above and beyond all of this, Brian is a facilitator.  He works to make things easy for people, to help groups do their best work together.  As I marveled with, and benefited from, Brian’s organizational thinking, I found myself compiling a list of his systems and behaviors that set us up for success.

  1. Communicate early and clearly- Facilitation starts well before you even step into the room (or onto a raft). Think about what information people will need at different phases of their time together and pace your messaging accordingly. Include enough specifics and details that people know what to expect and do but not SO many details that people are overwhelmed.  Provide examples and counter examples.
  2. Communicate often– People don’t remember things on the first go.  Reminders shouldn’t be seen as annoying but necessary component of keeping people on track.
  3. Create multiple paths for communication– Think of ways to reinforce information that doesn’t require you vocally repeating yourself.  Brian had print-outs of our job schedule, meal plans, etc. stashed in smart places throughout our gear.  We didn’t have to ask him for the information, we could ask one another or find it ourselves.
  4. Clarify roles– Everyone doesn’t have to do everything all the time…but everyone contributes.  Share the responsibility for low-skill tasks that simply have to get done throughout, then build on strengths and differentiate tasks/roles accordingly where skills matter more.
  5. Build relationships-Learn about your team and help them learn about one another.  Affirm your people and let them know you’re glad they’re there.
  6. Build connections– Uncover connections and shared interests across members of a team.  Reinforce those in authentic ways that help build shared identities and mutual accountability to the team.
  7. Plan ahead– Think through tasks all the way down to the small details.  Don’t just let them hang there.  Make a plan to get them done.
  8. Ask for help– It isn’t necessary to do it all yourself.  Beyond creating a more self-sustaining system, people LIKE to contribute.  Having a role to play and authentically contributing to the group builds relationships and connections in the most sincere ways possible.
  9. Celebrate success– Set out a positive vision for people and then affirm and celebrate all the ways that they are succeeding.  Celebrate with rituals, costumes, hugs, and smiles…often.
  10. Lead by example– Don’t ask others to do things you wouldn’t do yourself.  Model the behavior and tone you want others to follow.  In criticism and in praise, assume that others will follow your lead.

Each one of these items calls to mind specific actions and forethought that I know made our river trip a success.  Beyond just having the “right people” in our crew, we had the right systems to bring out the best in all of us.  In this way, Brian obviated many of the challenges that a group of nineteen might otherwise experience in the wilderness.  No one fought over dish or groover duty.  Everyone pitched in, often complaining not of the tasks they had to do but that they didn’t feel like they could do enough to help.  Brian’s planning prevented conflicts and helped us quickly and positively resolve the ones that arose. For Brian, these habits and systems come naturally; yet many organizations I work with do not have them.  Even on relatively smoothly operating teams, I see people “paddle” about in circles, get angry with one another, feel like they can’t really contribute or that their contributions don’t matter, or worse.  Simple misunderstandings grow into long-term grudges and no one is having enough fun.  I feel like I could use the list of ten practices above and use it as a diagnostic tool for a whole slew of teams I see in the course of my work.

When we think about vacation, I think we often consider its benefits as a source of rest and relaxation.  While this is certainly true, I also appreciate how this vacation helped remind me of what’s also important in my work.  I used to use the analogy of whitewater rafting to set classroom expectations for my students at school.  Perhaps there’s a way to use these lessons from the river now in my work in facilitation and mediation.

As you reflect on your own workplace, your own teams, what’s missing?  Which of these simple lessons from the river might boost your team from one that squabbles to one that soars?

If you’re looking for just one last bit of inspiration, check out NRS’s new #DrawnToWater campaign.  It has nothing to do with mediation or facilitation, but it’s beautiful.  As you watch, see if you can look beyond the pretty pictures and the adventure.  See if you can see through to the thoughtful planning and systems that make those adventures possible. Think through the ways that thoughtful advanced planning and attention to the details that matter are keys to adventure, and to our desk jobs when vacation is over.

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