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Learning From the Mistakes of Others

As I was putting my resume together, I was thinking back on some of the Team Building activities I have created over the years. My favorite one was the Drainage Ditch Determination. That was 26 years ago. I wish I still had the original notes. I know we didn’t call it by that name but I cannot remember exactly what we called it. I do remember the activity and the lessons. I can take you back there in a heartbeat.

(Thump-thump)

That’s me holding the ropes on a rock climbing trip back in 1991

After a day of basic team building activities, the group was given a new challenge. A handful of canoes needed to be transported at dusk from one location to another. The only map available showed a lake and a drainage ditch that led from their current location to the destination (approx 2 miles). The map also showed hiking trails leading to the destination (approx 2 miles) but had the disclaimer that although the trails were well-defined, they were unmarked (and crisscrossed the region.)

The group was then split into four subsets.

  • Leadership. They got the final decision on what the group did.
  • Logistics and Planning. They were responsible for determining the options, presenting them to the Leadership group, and making sure everyone had what they needed to complete the task.
  • Communication. One of the rules of the activity is that there was no verbal communication on open water. This group had to plan out all communication and how it would be implemented including internally and externally.
  • Safety. They had veto power over all the other groups if ever they felt an activity was unsafe. They also had to set the parameters for safety such as wearing life jackets in the canoes, etc.

The challenge itself was fairly straightforward. The most obvious choice based on the information given was to paddle the canoes as far as possible and carry them the 40-50 yards necessary to the final destination. What the map didn’t make clear was the difficulties traversing the drainage ditch because it didn’t show the barbed wire fence or culvert obstacles to be overcome. What made it even more interesting is that the activity began at dusk. By the time the group reached the drainage ditch, it was fairly dark and only one flashlight was permitted.

You can probably see where this activity went. The first issue usually arose on the lake when members of the group realized some of them didn’t know how to paddle a canoe (and they had no verbal communication for giving on-the-spot instruction.) We had eye-opening conversations about the importance of making sure everyone has the basic skills necessary to complete a task and whether that was a leadership problem or a logistics problem.

Once in the drainage ditch, issues of safety, logistics, and decision making all came into play. On top of that, there was the issue of perseverance.

One group I facilitated got within ten feet of a split rail fence. Their destination was just on the other side of that fence, but because of major breakdowns in communication, concerns for safety (emotional and physical), and low morale, Leadership threw in the towel. We had a powerful talk about what to do when morale falters, and the importance of emotional safety. (Note: it was the right decision for them to quit when they did. In Team Building, completing the task is always secondary to safety and never necessary to learn the lessons.)

Even the groups that successfully completed the task had breakdowns along the way. It was in the failures that the best learning occurred.

We had discussions about how the division of powers, while fine on paper, tended to be fallacy in practice. Everyone had to be on board for safety. Everyone had to be on board with the logistics and plans. Everyone had to be on board with the communication. Leadership simply had to make sure everyone was on board. If someone didn’t understand or didn’t want to go along with the group, completing the activity was in jeopardy.

We had discussions about the importance of Leadership listening as much as leading. When Leadership didn’t listen to Safety or Logistics, that group was doomed to failure.

We had discussions about the importance of being able to stay calm and solve problems when unforeseen obstacles got in their way. Climbing out of a canoe in a drainage ditch to avoid a barbed wire fence in the dark was a challenge most people had never faced. One group mapped out a new policy for unforeseen obstacles for the next time they faced one on their real job (they were a group of Resident Advisors for a college dormitory.)

Back in 1991 my boss and I facilitated several groups through this activity that ranged from high school groups to the corporate leaders at Domino’s Pizza (including Tom Monaghan himself). I doubt the insurance companies would allow such activities any more.

Good thing you and I can still learn the lessons from the groups lucky enough to slog through that ditch.

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” -Eleanor Roosevelt/Groucho Marx/Sam Levinson (depending which quote site you prefer)

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS One thing I have always found head-scratching in business is the knee-jerk reaction to immediately fire someone who screws up. Screw-ups happen. Wouldn’t it be better to keep the person who has already learned the lesson the hard way rather than hire a new person who hasn’t yet learned that same lesson? Just some food for thought.

PPS You might recognize the subset groups better by their corporate names

  • Leadership = Management
  • Logistics and Planning = Sales and HR
  • Communication = Marketing
  • Safety = Legal

Go back and plug those words into the post and see how those lessons become even more apparent.

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