Taking On Water

Habitat for Humanity Fresno County staff and administration recently participated in a staff retreat. If you’ve ever been on a staff retreat, you know that, sooner or later, there’s going to be a team-building exercise.

Our first team-builder was “blind canoeing.” In this exercise, three people get into a canoe, one paddler in the back and one in the front. The paddlers are blindfolded. The person in the middle gives directions. We were supposed to paddle across the little lake, circle a fountain, and return to the dock.

The tricky thing about padding a canoe is If you want to go into a circle or tight right turn, both paddlers paddle on the right and vice versa. If you want to go straight, one person paddles on the left and the other paddles on the right. If you want to stop, and you’re moving at a pretty good clip, you may have to paddle backwards for a little bit.

The point of the exercise is something about communication and trusting leadership and following directions. So we did that. At least, I think we did. Nobody would tell me anything.

Our controller called out directions for one team and they did so well, they actually managed to back their canoe to the dock. They offered to parallel park if anyone wanted them to, because they are a bunch of showboats. My team came in second- let’s just leave it at that.

The real competition was for last place. One team went straight across the lake and ran up on shore. They had a terrible time getting back, but they managed it. The most entertaining team was made up of our executive director, ReStore director, and outreach director.

They made pretty good time until the outreach director noticed that the canoe was taking on water. She wasn’t blindfolded and was the one giving steering directions, but the other two in the canoe ignored her orders.

Buzzards circled overhead, waiting for the inevitable casualties. The Red Cross showed up to help the survivors. The ReStore director yelled, “Abandon ship!” and screamed for his mommy. The executive director followed the sterling example of Captain James T. Kirk when facing the Kobyashi Maru scenario: he cheated. He ripped off his blindfold and took over the piloting duties. He and the ReStore director paddled hard and fast to get back to the dock before they sank (with no loss of life among the Klingon hoards, I might add).

Upon returning to the dock, the canoe supervisor, a guy named “Thunder,” told them that he had never seen anything like that happen before. While they were on the other side of the lake, he asked us who they were. When we told him they were our leadership team, he commented, “I’m worried about your organization.”

When an organization is “taking on water,” that means it is sinking, losing momentum, stagnant, stuck, doomed to failure unless someone bails it out. The problem is that all organizations take on water eventually. That’s simply the nature of the beast. Organizations age just like people do. I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the less change I like, and the less appealing motivation looks.

Here’s the typical lifespan for an organization:

  1. Leader-driven. One person spearheads the effort, has the vision, and does all the pushing toward the goal.

  2. Momentum-driven. A movement has begun, and lots of people are jumping on the bus because they are swept up in the cause.

  3. Management-driven. This is when the organization realizes the policies and procedures are needed, and stress accountability, integrity and efficiency.

  4. Memory-driven. This is when the policies and procedures have taken over. The organization’s best years are behind it. The emphasis is on survival. There is no vision. The organization is now a mere monument to past achievement.

Every organization naturally follows this cycle unless something is interjected simultaneous with the management stage. The key to avoiding the tendency to become a mere monument to past achievement is injecting new leadership to build new momentum once the professional level is attained. That means the policies need to be under perpetual review to keep from stifling the ministry. That means that memories are valuable, but they should not be allowed to exercise authority over the organization. Monuments are heavy, and they’ll sink your canoe.

Habitat for Humanity Fresno County has a new leader: Matthew Grundy.

If you haven’t met him yet, you should. Give us a call and invite him to speak to your organization. He’s full of ideas and vision. He has lots of abilities and insights. He’s a techie. He’s young and energetic.

But should I let him in my canoe?

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HFH Office: 4991 E. McKinley Ave. Suite 123, Fresno CA 93727

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