Zen and the art of rapid change management

This is an article I finished recently comparing management of changes with Rafting experience. Tagged under Management, general and Rafting tags and not related to main theme of this blog which is psychological in nature:-)


I had gone some 2 yrs back on a maiden River rafting expedition and while I was reminiscing about that trip recently I came to realize how that experience had some valuable learning that could be applied to Management especially most relevant to management regarding rapid changes.

Co-ordination and teamwork: For starters, rafting demands harmonious and synchronus coordination between all rafters ensuring that all rowing movements by individuals are in perfect synchrony to the one in front and the one behind so as to enable the raft to make maximum possible movement and in the required direction. This much is apparent and trivial.

Unknowns and unpredictable: Then there are the current/wave directions and strengths that have to be dealt with and these are obviously unpredictable and uncontrollable. These are not unknowns also, as they can be discerned some time well in advance by an acute observer so as to adapt the rowing strategy accordingly.

Different stratagem’s based on changing priorities/external realities: There are different possible rowing actions and strokes and the guide who is watching the river current/waves keeps instructing the rowers to change movements on the drop of a hat, taking into account the way the wind/water is currently drifting and determining what actions would best ensure movement in the right direction…. and this is all very short term planning and maneuvering. The guide does not bother with very long term foresight into what the current/weather will be 5 hrs down the line. For taking into account unknowns that were not apparent, he would rather rely on advise of weather department and not take an expedition on the day bad weather conditions are forecasted. The guide himself actively uses an instrument situated at the back of the boat to keep steering and doing course corrections.

Apparently discordant behaviors in time and space: Not always everyone is rowing in the forward direction only. Sometimes the people in front and those in back have different instructions and rowing movements. Sometimes people on the left and those on the right have different instructions. Sometimes people on the right are REQUIRED to STOP rowing and rest and ensuring that only left rowers row, to ensure correct behavior and direction. Not all rowers need to understand why they are required to make the required actions on a particular time for ex just revering their rowing direction whereby one moment they were rowing forward and now they are rowing backwards,, but with experience they start getting insights that if they do follow the directions religiously they are better off keeping on track towards destination despite apparent short time backtracks or seemingly impossible currents which they though could not be navigated.

RAPIDS or Toppling Points: The most feared (by some) and awaited (by others) are the moments when the boat needs to navigate past the RAPIDS or areas in the river bed where there is a sudden change in river-bed depth, leading to turbulent local currents on the surface. These are avoided if possible, warned beforehand to all rowers, closely watched by the guide, forewarned to everybody that everyone needs to navigate with all their strengths during and prior to the Rapid crossing and special Tips given to each to ensure that neither the boat topples nor individuals are thrown off-board.

The Rapid Dynamics: In Rapids, though all who are rowing need to row with all their strengths, yet it is not the classical case of ‘all hands on the board’. The guide himself keeps watching, getting ready for action in case the boat topples to ensure that boat bumps back up, that all the oars that are needed for rowing further downstream are intact and not lost by the individual rowers to the water and above all to ensure that everyone (though they have life jackets strapped) are brought back on the boat as soon as possible. Also, most importantly, some people who are normally involved in rowing are asked to stop rowing, move to the front of the row and are required to strategically position themselves in the front of the boat, leaning towards the most forward point in the boat and putting their weight in the front, so as to reduce the impact of the onslaught of wave. These should ideally be people who have most weight.

The Thrill of Toppling : The most amazing insight was the revelation that some of the people most knowledgeable about water and rafting, good swimmers and experienced rafters, were also the ones who would most often ‘engineer’ the topples while navigating the rapids. Just like there are well known ways to avid the boat from toppling in the rapids, there are equally well known counter actions to engineer the topple. One straightforward, and apparent by now, way is to ensure that few like minded people lean backwards at the time of RAPID concentrating weight towards the back. No problems with that, one does get a different experience while the boat is turned upside down and one is floating by ones own in the water, and these people being good swimmers and all, would also be the ones who would put the boat back, et fellows on board and get a kick out of it in all ways: the thrill of topple and the subsequent opportunity to play the savior.

The Perils of Toppling
: Some people who have been exposed to that ‘drowning’ experience for the first time, though realistically there was no real danger with life jackets strapped, are left shaken with that experience. For them those 2-3 minutes in water, with water churning at great speed, chaos all around them with all team members floating by themselves, the boat and their guide himself in water turned upside down, some of them not knowing how to swim or even to keep afloat the water correctly with life jackets, with taste of water in mouth, over eyes and nostrils, those 2-3 minutes are very real to them and represent a reality that is not apparent to the more seasoned rafters/ swimmers. The guide of course is normally aware of this and so he avoids topples at all costs, but the more adventurous experts amongst the crew somehow never realize the repercussions or effects they may have on others. Some of those shaken by the experience react extremely with not going on a rafting trip again ( I am not one of them:-)…though unfortunately I have not managed to go on another rafting trip after that…in any case my raft had toppled but it was a genuine toppling….it was 2 of the other rafts which had the ‘engineered’ toppling.), others are just shaken to the extent that they dread the RAPIDS much more than is needed, while still others are barely affected and even enjoy the thrill- the most effect on them being some time sitting ideally recovering from panting and all, and getting back to rowing again.

Toppling: The Damage Control: The guide ‘inoculates’ the rafters (non-swimmers esp) against the bad version of toppling experience by encouraging them to float in water by themselves while the waters are calm. this ensures that they are exposed to the ‘real bad world’ and the exposure is under conditions that are not threatening. This also gives the guide time and occasion to instruct and observe whether the rafters know the correct way to stay afloat using their life jackets. More than anything else it ensures that the rafters are not nervous, but more towards being confident, when they face the rapid, or are actually thrown into the water. Also, early warning and special maneuvering, as well as very clear communication on severity of the rapid that is coming, the realistic assessment of toppling chance, and the assurance of rapid recovery ensure that not only the toppling probabilities are minimized, but the toppling experience is of a different degree.

Celebration/Relaxation/ Dangers of Rapids all the way: When the waters are calm one can relax and sing and have fun (you are supposed to have fun all the way) , when the current is strong it is not expected that you still keep rowing with all your strength, it is ensured that not many rapids follow each other on a particular course and there is ample scope for the team to recover its strength, stamina and composure before being asked to face another rapid. All said and done, rowing is an activity that demands immense physical activity from each team member- one needs hard work all the way —especially in rapids- and one also has to ensure that the hard work is done in a smart way (is inline with the directions of the guide). There is no simple trade off here between hard work and smart work. Hard work needs to be done smartly. If after exposing a rafting team to a volley of rapids that is never ending, and observing that the boat has toppled on 1 or 2 occasions, we conclude that rafters are either not working hardly or smartly enough and need to change strategy (may do more smart work than hard work) (or on a different note conclude that guide is incompetent, having a whale of time and maybe instead of doing the ‘overhead work’ needs to ensure that all rafters including himself and the ‘weighty’ ones are all the time exclusively involved in rowing- and rowing hard) and if we wonder why the rafters are finding the rafting experience not exactly enjoyable and not too keen on signing in for the next expedition or why the toppling is becoming more and more probable with time, then maybe we are missing something that should be apparent.

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