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Talking About Teamwork

This paddle is my celebration of success and it helps me envision my future. Fourteen years ago I was thrust into a situation I didn’t want to tackle, but I had no choice. I was told I had cancer. After that first shock, I had several questions.

How do I stay alive, how do I reduce my chances of recurrence, how do I get through the next few months?

What all those questions boiled down to is “What works and what will work for me?”

It was a long, hard struggle. After the surgery and radiation, the medication I was on triggered a severe depression.

I had to dig myself out of a black hole. Not only did I have to re-build my health, but I had to start over and re-build my business, which was on its knees as a result of my illness. What worked for others didn’t seem to be working for me.

Finally, a friend suggested I check out Bosom Buddies of Nova Scotia, a dragonboat paddling team for breast cancer survivors. When I first met them, I decided just to stay in the background and watch. I really don’t like being cold and wet, I don’t like boats and I certainly didn’t like paddling when I first tried it.

I guess the only things I liked were the people and the challenge. A year later we had competed in our first race, I was President of the organization, we had found a generous corporate sponsor and I still didn’t like paddling. It took me more than two years to learn to rotate my body correctly, so I can pull with my back instead of my arms. When I finally learned that, paddling became easier.

Being part of the Bosom Buddies team saved my health and my sanity. With them, I have experienced individual success and team success and I know I can reach and celebrate success even in adversity.

As human beings, we are never happier than when we are challenged to our limits and when we beat the odds. You have celebrated a lot of success in your life. You have set goals, figured out where you are starting and what you have to do to reach the goal, then you have got to work and done what is necessary. The greater the struggle to reach the goal, the greater the sense of success when you got there. Learning to swim, learning to ride a bicycle, to drive a car, to be successful in your job was to experience a great sense of accomplishment and success.

Reaching individual goals is very satisfying, but if you want real excitement, try being on a team that is working to achieve a really challenging goal. Many of you probably have had that experience in a number of different ways – as part of a sports team, being in a play, in a choir, maybe on a debating team or part of a business or community project.

The higher the goal, the harder the struggle, the more people worked together, the greater the camaraderie and the sweeter the success.

When our coach, Colin Brien, first took on the job of teaching 20 women how to paddle a dragonboat, he knew lots about paddling a canoe and a kayak, but nothing about paddling a dragonboat. He is a wonderful teacher, but he had to learn too. He set things up so we could learn and there was lots for us to learn, not just about paddling but also about being in a boat, having a coach, contributing to a team, building stamina, and increasing speed. One of the most important lessons we had to learn was that we had to listen to our coach – all the time – not just when we felt like it. And when we were doing paddling drills, we had to stop talking and paddle.

Now as we head to the last race of our 5th season together, we learn so much better and faster. We have learned several procedures, and procedures within procedures, so when somebody new joins our boat, she learns what she needs in a tenth of the time it took us.

At Bosom Buddies, we don’t dwell on the negatives. We focus on the good things we can do with our time and energy. We have people ranging in age from 30 to over 70, with a wide range of body types and levels of fitness. We expect everybody to learn to paddle correctly, to arrive on time, to do proper warm-up and stretching routines, and to do their very best.

We know that we can only win as a team, if we can paddle exactly together. Now when our coach says, “I want you to paddle at 70 strokes to a minute for 500 metres, we can do it. Twenty of us can rotate, reach, extend, dig, pull and recover exactly together – we are awesome and we are so proud of ourselves.

Robert Fritz is a well known writer in the area of Systems Thinking. When he taught music at university, he noticed that some people set goals, figured out what they needed to do, worked towards success and once they reached that success, they set another goal and built on their success.

Others did the same thing, but as they got close to their goal, something seemed to pull them back, so they seemed to drift back towards where they had been, then they got dissatisfied with pulling back and worked towards the goal again. He called this second situation oscillation and the more he studied it, the more he noticed how widely it occurred.

Look at this rubber band. We could say that here is where I am now and here is where I want to be. As I move towards my goal, the tension increases – the further I move towards my goal, the greater the tension and the greater the pull to move back rather than to move forward. So unless there is a structure in place that makes it easier for me to move forward than to move back, it is likely that I will move back.

We see this in many, many situations in our lives.

Take keeping our desks tidy, for example. Now I know some of you do have a structure, a system in place to keep your desk tidy, but many of us don’t. You might start out at the beginning of the week with a nice tidy desk, but before long – like the tide coming in – your desk becomes covered with documents, files and papers.

Eventually, you can’t stand it any longer, you make a mammoth effort to tidy everything away and the whole cycle starts again.

Let’s look at the oscillation factor in going on a diet. Many of you feel better, look better and are healthier if you weigh 10-15 pounds less. You decide to do something about it – you get a book or you sign up for a program, you shop for healthier foods, you change your eating habits, you track your points or your calories, you even start some regular exercise, and success – you lose a few pounds.

Now you are really motivated and you keep yourself on track for several weeks or even months, but eventually something slips and unless you have a structure in place
to get you back on track, old habits prevail and the weight comes back. As we all know, the really bad news is that as we get older, this battle gets worse.

It was only when I was faced with a life-threatening illness, that I finally found a way to get enough exercise and to keep my weight down. When I got involved in Bosom Buddies, there was a structure that motivated me sometimes, disciplined me other times.
Sometimes it simply supported me or persuaded me, but overall it worked to make it easier for me to achieve my goal, than not to achieve it.

Robert Fritz calls this “The Path of Least Resistance” He points that the path of least resistance occurs in nature over and over again. Water follows the path of least resistance. Electricity follows the path of least resistance – we saw that demonstrated in the 2003 Northeast blackout. Electrical power was lost from Ohio to New York to Northern Ontario in 9 seconds. Sheep travelling over a moor create the paths of least resistance – the easiest way from A to B.

Robert Fritz also points out that in nature, it is the underlying structure which dictates the path of least resistance. So water flows downhill, sheep go around an obstacle,
buffalo find the easiest path across the prairie. Although we tend to think of the phrase
“following the path of least resistance” as implying that perhaps someone is being lazy,
that path is a natural law.

We all follow the path of least resistance. That is why routines and habits
are so important when we are learning and when we are running an organization.

Do you remember when you first learned to drive, how awkward you were? How carefully you had to concentrate. Now that you have developed the habit of driving, you can drive clear across the city, before you realize that you should be going the other way.

Driving has become an automatic skill for you. We all think in patterns and we respond very well to routines. As a leader of a complex organization, if you want to change behaviour, look at the structure, the processes and procedures that may be supporting the behaviour you don’t want. See what you can do to change those processes and procedures to support and encourage the behaviour you do want.

So it makes sense to consider the practice which is so crucial for success in corporations:

Structure builds and maintains a fast, flexible, but structured team

This means several things. It means simplify, simplify, simplify –
make it easy to work in and with your team and your organization. It means promote wide distribution of information. It means put your best people closest to the action. It means establish systems for seamless sharing of knowledge.

It means that once you have a clear and focused strategy, once you know exactly where
you want to concentrate on improving, once you have developed a performance-oriented culture, make sure you set up processes, procedures and routines that make it easy for all those good activities to continue.

When you get behaviours you don’t want, study the underlying structures that support those behaviours and change those structures.

These practices are going to help you get ready, and get started and monitor as you go, and give you your early successes. They are going to help you build momentum, and before you know it,

You will be flying towards your goal.

As we say in the dragonboat,

Paddles Ready,

Paddles Up,

Take ‘er Away.

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