“It’s not an obstacle, it’s an opportunity!” A direct quote from one of my colleagues, during a recent offsite meeting I attended with my team. My colleagues and I, made up of business line managers of education technology products, recently spent 3 hours, attempting to conquer the Aerial Obstacle Course at Tree-to-Tree Adventure Park, near Hagg Lake, Oregon. I don’t often have high hopes for offsite teambuilding events, but in this case, the event delivered, not only for our team as a whole but for me as a leader and professional.
While I learned so much about how my team and I work together and how I as a leader can be more effective, I think that the lessons can apply to any team of innovators – be they engineers or educators – who are working together to institute real change, truly the essence of innovation.
Here are some of the things I learned on this amazing team-building event.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
When we arrived at the park, we were given our harnesses and a quick tutorial on how to move from tree to tree, including rules of safety, tips for balance, and the answer to the big question of, “what happens if we fall?” I have to say that the staff did a fantastic job at instilling confidence in all of us about the strength of the harness and cabling equipment and I can honestly say that I climbed the first platform knowing that the only thing I had to worry about was my own fear of heights, NOT of being injured. I was committed to attempting the course because I knew that the reward of completing the course would be greater than my slight fear of heights. And so I hooked my belay line in, and took that first, crazy step of the day.
You have to risk leaving the platform, if you want to reach new heights.
After our initial orientation, we were released to our first adventure – the certification course – where staff members observed our technique of transferring from tree to tree. Although the elements in this course were only about 4 feet from the ground, just getting to the second platform felt like a huge accomplishment. I remember thinking, that’s not so bad – I could do that again; and I did… again, and again.
We ended the certification course with the first of many zip-lines, which we came to learn was the reward for all the hard work of the obstacle course. Honestly, that first zip was frightening! Once we completed it, we were ALL ready for a bigger challenge. Throughout the challenges, I remember that fleeting moment just before stepping off the platform, was always the same, no matter the level of difficulty or height. Each time, I had to make a choice to move forward, to grow, to leave the safety of the platform and challenge myself to do something new. Many of the elements presented a challenge that I was not completely sure I could do, but I knew that in order to reach that final zip-line, I had to get through the challenge staring me in the face, right at that moment.
Every once in a while, you need to stop, assess your situation, then plan your next move
Throughout the adventure trail, the obstacle course continued to get more challenging, with not only more difficult elements to climb or traverse, but the distance from the ground continued to grow. Each time we finished an element, we had a moment to congratulate ourselves before realizing that the next obstacle was new and even more challenging. The amount of physical and mental focus required was intense. Just as I arrived at my most difficult element, I realized I had exhausted my mental and physical reserves; my arms and fingers were screaming and I couldn’t even imagine attempting the enormity of the challenge in front of me.
I decided just to stop, take in the moment, and do a quick mental and physical recharge before I committing to the next step. By this point, I was on a platform about 40 feet in the air and had completed nearly 30 aerial obstacles – everything from swinging rope bridges, to floating rock walls and in one case, walking across a single cable wire from tree-to-tree. Each and every one of the elements had presented me with something that I would have never, in a million years, imagined myself doing. In those brief 30 seconds of reflection, I was able to reflect on my accomplishments up to that point and summon up the energy to attempt the challenge in front of me: a single rope attached to a pulley that I was to ride until being ‘caught’ in a web of rope… in mid-air!! 40 feet from the ground!! Crazy? Yes. Impossible? No
When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.
This adventure was a wonderful metaphor for the dynamics of my team. We all manage a line of products and do not work directly together on many projects, but we work really hard to align our strategies with the overall company strategy. In the trees, we were all facing our own fears, and pushing ourselves beyond our own personal limits. But throughout the course, we could all see each other pretty much the whole time and were consistently sharing what we learned about the course and yelling out what to pay attention to.
By the end of the 4th course, 3 of the team, myself included, had reached our limit, but the remaining 2 were still continuing through an ever increasing level of challenge and height through the 5thcourse, appropriately named the black diamond. I remember feeling so happy for them for getting as far as they did, even though I knew it was well beyond my own physical capabilities.
I had reached my personal best, given it my all and was frankly, really proud of myself. I wanted the same for them and was truly amazed at their accomplishment. As I watched from the ground, our teammates literally jumped between platforms about 10 feet away from each other… 55 feet in the air!! Because the two of them achieved that height, the whole team was able to share in the experience. We were all so proud, amazed, and just plain pumped…
When one of us hits a challenge, it is the team’s challenge. We are all in this together.
Of course, we are all different, and so there were points in the course where one of us would hit a challenge that was difficult or just plain scary. It was at that point where we all would just stop and offer our support and encouragement. Of course, each of us had to complete the course alone, but the team would all pull together and provide the encouragement and support that our team member needed to mentally and physically get through the obstacle. This was powerful! If anyone of us needed help, we knew that none of us could continue. That is the definition of a team, in my book.
If you don’t push yourself to your limits, you’ll never know what you are fully capable of.
There was a point in the course where everyone has to attempt to scale a 40 ft wall of junk – rope ladders, floating tires, and at the very top, a hanging rock wall. This obstacle is the gating factor for participants who want to continue to the black diamond course; you can’t climb it, then you can’t even try the black diamond. A safety precaution, I’m sure, but also an opportunity for everyone to actually find that limit to your abilities.
I was a bit discouraged when our orientation leader shared that if you couldn’t do the equivalent of 10 pull-ups, then it’s unlikely you would reach the top. Considering the fact that I was lucky to do 1 pull-up, I had arrived at the conclusion, even before the first step, that it wasn’t likely that I would reach the top. And I guess I could have accepted that and moved on to the next challenge. But I was committed to giving it a try, because I wanted to know how far I could go.
Looking at the wall from the ground, it appeared simple – the steps laid out at somewhat regular intervals. The illusion is in the transition from tires to rock wall, because between them, there is a point where your lower body cannot help, and you have to rely on your arms to pull the weight of your body to the first rock foot support. Here’s where the pull-ups come in; and precisely where I found my physical limit. As I slowly climbed back down to safety, I remember feeling relieved, as opposed to disappointed, because I had literally stretched to the point of failure. I had found my physical limit, and I was ok with it. Had I stayed on the ground, without attempting the impossible feat, I would have never known if I could reach the top. At the end of the day, that would have been the bigger failure.
We all left the park physically and mentally exhausted, but in the car ride home, we reflected on the day and agreed that it was a good kind of tired. One of my colleagues summed up the experience in his description of his thought process on the black diamond course. “My first thought was to plan how I would attempt this seemingly impossible task. And then I realized that I’m like way, way up here!” Amazing, just amazing!