There is Always a Waterfall

Chaos exists, whether within ourselves, our families, communities, or corporations; it’s just a matter of degree, magnitude, and impact.  The chaos can often be actively managed or suppressed, but sometimes, it breaks free from constraining forces and begins to expand, to dominate.  Once this happens, tamping down on the negative consequences of that chaos becomes a more difficult and daunting task.

Within organizations, poor leadership, lingering and unresolved conflict, destructive competitive pressures, and negative cultural forces can converge, conspire, and result in ever-growing chaos.  It is the task of those charged with the organization’s success and long-term viability to untangle the mess that chaos brings and to restore a greater degree of clarity, focus and order, without which sustained success is difficult, if not completely impossible.

I often think of a small crew within a boat floating down a river.  There are weather conditions, the current of the river, and characteristics of that crew itself that can impact the boat’s forward progress.  Ahead of the boat is a waterfall.  Ultimately, without some form of effective diversion, the boat can become sucked ahead and into the roaring current such that no amount of effort will help it avoid plunging over the crest and then to its doom. 

Ahead of the boat is a waterfall.  And there is always a waterfall.


Sometimes that waterfall is nearby, and sometimes it is far away.  Sometimes you can hear its roar and see the rising mist caused by water crashing upon rocks at its bottom.  And sometimes you cannot.  It is the captain’s job of that crew to not only pay attention to what is happening inside of the boat and how successfully the crew is performing the various tasks associated with keeping the boat afloat and moving forward but also to look ahead to where that waterfall lies.  Some captains are adept at looking forward, developing reliable tools, and effective skills to do so.  In the case of the analogy here, one could say that some captains follow weather conditions, understand maps that detail what lies ahead, and possess a proper set of binoculars, which they skillfully use to peer ahead in search of waterfalls and other dangers.  Other captains are more inclined to look inward at those paddling and performing other functions associated with the movement of the boat.  Make no mistake about it, there is always a waterfall somewhere up ahead of your boat, and it’s important to track your movement toward it.

Better crews, and their better captains, will understand where those waterfalls are well in advance of encountering them.  And even though no set of binoculars can look ahead of curves in the river and expose what does not lie directly in front, those captains and crews are more prepared for the unexpected.  They anticipate what might happen someday should they round a bend and find themselves in danger.  They take little for granted and understand that not every future scenario can be predicted.  They do not rest on their laurels, and they are not ones to stay affixed to their current situation because they do not romanticize it.  They are realistic, even when being so is difficult, unpopular, or does not serve their personal interests.  

Unfortunately, some crews are not given the opportunity or are inclined to never look outside the boat; they remain fixated upon their task.  They like things the way they are or are highly protective of their current situation.  They sometimes don’t look ahead for waterfalls because that crew exists within a bubble of denial.  In some cases, the crew is infighting and contending with the consequences of an unhealthy organizational culture.  These crews do not fare well when they approach a waterfall.  As they get closer, and the pull of the current toward the waterfall intensifies, they are ill-equipped to paddle aggressively and in unison toward safety.  Little of their prior experience has prepared them for the present predicament.

When the ride upon a river is serene, when the current is mild and the scenery pleasant, the challenge of leadership is to rally the crew to make changes to avert an eventual waterfall.  When the waterfall is imminent, the great test of leadership is to focus the crew on paddling together and not to panic or abandon ship.  They must confront the past challenges, including lack of attention to emerging threats, dysfunctional culture, and ineffective leadership.  Simultaneously, they must be willing to accept the risk of staying put, remaining focused, and receiving the direction and vision of a captain who they may perceive got them into this mess in the first place.

Unfortunately, when the waterfall approaches, some will quickly jump overboard.  Others will remain but be so highly unfocused on their task that they become increasingly ineffective; infighting will intensify, blame seeking behaviors will prevail, and leaders will look for scapegoats.  This creates a cycle of failure as systems begin to experience stress, and more is asked of those who remain and demonstrate an ability to perform under pressure as signs of impending failure become more evident.  By that point, it is not difficult to convince those who are in the boat with you that a waterfall is coming because the sights and sounds of doom are unmistakable. 

This is when chaos intensifies and when the various elements at play come together and intertwine.  Many of the individual challenges can be successfully addressed, but it is typically the combination of several occurring together at the very same time that creates the often overwhelming sense of confusion, uncertainty, and dread.  This is the confluence of chaos.  And this is when an organizational transformation becomes necessary.

[Excerpted from Saving Organizations That Matter]

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