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By Todd Balf
Take 10 talented businesspeople, put them on a rapids-choked Idaho river, watch the temperature rise to more than 100 degrees, and what do you get? A radical experiment in warp-speed team building. Was the experiment a success? You be the judge.
"Do I or don't I have the green light here?" demands Shannon Stowell, general manager of Altrec.com.
"You don't have the team's buy-in," CEO Mike Morford fires back, adding that Stowell's plan is risky and lacks consensus.
It's high noon, and the senior team at Altrec.com, an e-commerce startup that sells outdoor and travel gear, is having it out. But instead of sitting in a climate-controlled conference room at its Bellevue, Washington headquarters, the 10-member team is standing knee-deep in Idaho's lower Salmon River.
The team is three days into a 75-mile rafting descent of the Salmon, one of the wildest, most rapids-choked waterways in the lower 48. Within the towering desert-canyon walls, the July temperature is 100 degrees and rising. A few ominous miles downstream roars the Slide, which at high water is the largest rapids in North America. If the quarrel -- which is about a portage Stowell wants to make, not a $1 million business deal -- continues unabated, the team will have to run the Slide after dark.
In every way imaginable -- on the river and in the marketplace -- the heat is cranked for Altrec. In the eat-or-be-eaten world of e-commerce, Altrec must grow big and grow fast. To do so, it must execute a plan of action at a murderous pace in the coming months. On its to-do list: Find a major investment partner, launch an all-out national-branding campaign, overhaul its Web site, and outsmart two other gear-hawking Internet startups.
But its biggest challenge is to meld a battle-hardened senior team out of a collection of talented but untested players. Of the 10 people here, 6 were hired within the past six months -- 2 within the past five weeks. The newcomers hail from a wide range of companies, such as Nintendo of America and Eddie Bauer. On paper, this cross-pollination of talent should yield a new and evolved creation. In practice, nobody knows one another -- much less how to work together.
Ultimately, the members of Altrec's senior team put themselves on this white water for one reason: They have to. The trip down the river, they hope, will force them into becoming a cohesive team. If it doesn't, they're roadkill.
A little unnervingly, this week's training program is a lot like the Altrec team itself: untested but wildly promising. An adventure-based corporate outing, in itself, is nothing out of the ordinary. Experiential education specialists like Pecos River and Outward Bound have been training corporate teams in outdoor settings for decades. What's new here is that this program is laser-targeted toward business. Altrec hired Seattle-based AlfresCo (a program-management consulting firm), which has allied itself with Project Adventure (one of the leading adventure-based consulting companies) and a pool of top expeditionary outfitters, including O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), the white-water experts who are guiding this trip down the lower Salmon.
The basic concept behind this collaborative venture is straightforward: Let the guides guide and the consultants consult. Project Adventure's Moe Carrick, 37, this trip's facilitator, is a senior consultant whose clients include Starbucks, Nintendo, and Sprint PCS. In the two months preceding this trip, Carrick has met with Altrec's leadership team, completed a comprehensive needs assessment to tease out specific learning goals, and prescribed an expedition: a four-day shoot through the Salmon's churning white water.
In Altrec's case, choosing a bad-ass white-water trip over, say, a breezy cycling tour of Sonoma's vineyards makes sense. In the marketplace, Altrec must navigate a minefield of known and unknown hazards. On the river, they'll need to blast through 10-foot-high waves and dodge punishing, boat-sucking hydraulics. They must adapt to a watery environment that's always moving and changing. In addition, they must complete a five-day trip in just four days.
Between the rapids and the portages, the team will tackle equally tough challenges: Who will fill critical support roles in the organization? Who will call the shots? How do they get beyond the polite, getting-to-know-you stage, so they can give one another no-holds-barred feedback? How can they build the kind of trust that will enable them to make independent, rapid-fire decisions?
Knuckling into those questions will mean holding late-night feedback sessions by campfire. They will forge a six-month game plan for their company. And there will be follow-up: The team will continue to revisit, in conversations back at the office, the takeaways and lessons learned on this odyssey down the Salmon. At least that's the plan.
To get a firsthand look at this experiment in warp-speed team-building, I grabbed my water sandals, entered the unwired void of Green Canyon, and claimed a berth on one of the two Altrec paddle rafts putting in at Hammer Creek. Our flotilla would include three more rafts that carry supplies, five river guides, and a waterproofed library, ranging from the writings of Peter Senge to those of Max DePree. Herewith is a survival guide to extreme team building -- on the river and off.
The part of the team-building adventure in which the guide
counts heads and asks one very important question: "Is everybody on
Day One, the Red Lion Hotel, Lewiston, Idaho. At 7:30 on the evening of the launch, Carrick, energized and athletic looking, ushers us into a closet-size room off the lobby for the first of our daily briefings. Each leader gets a 28-page booklet that covers session goals and outlines the theory to come. Juxtaposed to the abstract is the reality -- namely, the five O.A.R.S. river guides, a pile of dry bags to house our camping gear, and metal "ammo'' boxes for stuff that we don't want squashed. David Geller, 36, Altrec's chief technology officer, takes one look at the intimate setting and moans: "Is this where we have the group hug?"
Anything touchy-feely raises everyone's guard. But a report on the river mitigates the threat that political correctness will take over. The lower Salmon is running abnormally high, says head guide Chris Quinn. The possibility that a boat will hit some big white water and flip is very, very real.
In an introductory exercise that follows Quinn's update, Carrick asks each of us to tell the team something about ourselves that everyone should know. Encouragingly, nobody holds back. Geller says he doesn't much care for outdoor recreation and isn't sure why they're here, given the hellish workload they've left behind. Raymond Calvert, the finance director, admits he can't swim. "I'm not proud of it, but there you go,'' he says.
Twelve hours later, we're heading into Roller-Coaster Rapids. Our boater's guide describes the Class-II turbulence as a "long string of big, fun waves.'' Quinn suggests that the team swim Roller-Coaster. Calvert looks dumbfounded, but he suddenly leaps overboard with his life jacket on and shoots the rapids with everyone else. As Calvert clambers back on board, the group whoops and raises its paddles in a river-style salute. But Calvert shushes them: "Did you notice that I never let go of the boat?''
Later, Carrick says she's not surprised that Calvert didn't have enough self-confidence to let go. Teams in a hurry confront a catch-22 dilemma: You can't build a team without trust, and you can't build trust without time -- or at least until you're confident that everyone will deliver in the clutch. Of course, none of the Altreckers has been around long enough to know who'll come through and who won't. On the upside, they are being pushed -- on the river and off -- and are apt to find out soon enough.
The part of the adventure in which the question is raised: "If
I'm doomed to work with teammates who don't know what they're doing,
when do I save myself?"
Day Two, midmorning at Killer Goat Beach. Good news: Because of yesterday's high, fast water, we traveled 19 miles with just a half-day's work. Today, with eight hours of paddling ahead of us, we might double that time. Carrick, however, tosses up a deliberate speed bump. The guides are under new orders: Each Altrec team member will take longer, more independent turns as paddle captain. Each must read the river, chart a course, and instruct the crew as to when to paddle forward -- and when to hold on.
Carrick's exercise aims to get at the nub of Altrec's decision-making problems. A major issue is Morford, 29, the company's well-liked CEO. He asks for gobs of input and gives every indication of being a consensus builder. But he isn't. He tries to delegate but can't quite fully trust individuals to execute. The result? Confusion, frustration, and frequent delays. The company, like a poorly steered raft, is pinwheeling through a turbulent marketplace, in danger of dumping at any moment.
But now, as they take turns at the helm and attempt to steer these rafts through raging white water, Altreckers will have the chance to prove that they can lead. For the moment, Morford loses the reins: He's just another paddling grunt.
In large part, the exercise goes well. The day's designated leaders are ecstatic to be at the helm. The others get to see, in a larger-than-work situation, whether their teammates really can take charge. Calvert's turn, for example, is fairly typical. He has his good points: He's confident, enthusiastic, and eager to kick the other boat's ass. But he also has some weaknesses: He tends to overwork his crew, steer erratically, and miss the signals that his teammates are occasionally terrified.
But what strikes Carrick as the most telling take-away aren't the miscues. It's that Calvert, like the others, is unaware of how his leadership style affects the rest of the team. On the flip side, team members aren't doing the leaders any favors by withholding gloves-off feedback. Later, at the evening's campfire session (where the day's leaders are reviewed), the make-nice atmosphere prevails. In fact, Calvert's captaincy is regaled. But the stress of holding back is gnawing at people.
That night, Morford lies awake nearly until dawn; his heart is racing for reasons he only vaguely understands. Mostly, he's got this feeling that the team will sink or swim because of one person: him. He's the leader, but he's not letting others lead -- and nobody's calling him on it.
The bottom line, says Carrick: "Everyone thinks they need to build teams. Often, they need to build leaders."
The part of the adventure in which you ask yourself, "Is
conflict resolution all that it's cracked up to be?"
Day Three, Wapshilla Rapids sandbar. It's dawn, and the temperature is already nearing 100 degrees. We have 24 hours to reach the take-out -- which is 30 miles away. A few miles downstream is the notorious Slide. But first, a potentially backbreaking portage awaits us. There's no real reason for the portage; it's a team reason, says Carrick. The idea: Put the decision makers in a tough spot, and see how the group responds.
The tough spot is this: Run Wapshilla Rapids, take out at the nearest sandbar downstream, then carry two of the boats and the gear back to the original starting point, upstream of the rapids.
The team's run-through of Wapshilla is textbook. The rest is anything but. The disagreement kicks off when Shannon Stowell, 31, and Chris Doyle, 34, the day's designated leaders, return from scouting a portage route. Stowell and Doyle announce that they've hatched the safest, most viable plan: The team will bushwhack with the boats, heading briefly inland through briar and prickly pear cactus back upstream. They say the other option, lining the rafts upstream with ropes and scrambling across the boulder-filled shoreline, is too risky.
Morford catches Chris Quinn, the head guide, rolling his eyes at the plan. So Morford tells Stowell that he doesn't have the team's buy-in. But no one else is criticizing the plan. For Stowell, what's missing is what's always missing when push comes to shove: Morford's buy-in. The mood sours; the battling starts in earnest, first about the portage, then about deals gone bad.
"This is just like that cable-channel deal,'' says Stowell, starting to boil over. "You said I had decision-making authority. So you let me get 99% of the way to closing it, and then you said it wasn't my decision to make, and you killed it.''
Morford retorts that he did what he had to do, and that if he'd been kept in the loop, he wouldn't have had to put the last-minute kibosh on the deal.
"Kept in the loop?" Stowell fumes. "You gave me every indication that you didn't want to be kept in the loop." In the case of the portage, Stowell continues, "we told everyone that we were going to scout and that all were welcome. You could have come with us, but instead you chose to sit on the beach.''
"The way I see it, you didn't come back to discuss what you found,'' Morford responds, wondering whatever happened to consensus. "You came to tell us what we were gonna do.''
Now the rest of the team jumps into the fray. Don Pickering, 28, who never favored the overland plan and wanted the leaders to line the rafts up the shoreline, backs Morford. Debbie Steinberg-Kuntz, 29, VP of merchandising, tells Pickering to butt out. Steinberg-Kuntz isn't one to get in someone's face, but Pickering, himself, raises sore issues. His exact role at the company -- he's coprincipal with Morford and his title is executive strategist -- is a tension-loaded mystery.
"You went on the scout, you made your case to Shannon and Chris, and you were overruled,'' Steinberg-Kuntz tells him. "You agreed to the decision, but now that there are others who agree with you, you want to reopen the discussion. And that's not right.''
Round and round they go. They're not really arguing about the portage; the quarrel is about who leads and who follows. It's about delegating versus consensus building. It's about their inability to trust one another fully. But at least -- at last -- they're not holding back.
Ultimately, the matter is left to the day's leaders. After consulting with guide Chris Quinn, who says they'll have to deflate all of the boats to prevent a potential puncture in the scrub, Stowell and Doyle decide that half the group should hike the luggage, and the other half should line the boats upstream. Ironically, the portage is a cinch, taking only 30 minutes.
As for the blowup, nobody knows exactly what to make of it. People are sure that it needed to happen, but it's impossible to say how and when the roles and leadership issues will be addressed. They certainly don't have the luxury of dealing with it right now. The Slide is only 30 minutes away. "We can't close the loop on everything,'' says Carrick, "but we can keep moving.''
The part of the adventure in which total immersion is no longer
just a concept.
Day Three, early afternoon. From the start, shooting these rapids has loomed as the trip's most-feared event. At the prolonged scout, Quinn pronounces the rapids particularly "flippy.'' The final two waves look diabolical. One faces upstream; the other crashes in from the side at a 90-degree angle.
Until now, this journey downriver had been a metaphor for competing in the Internet economy. Now the trip is just plain scary. A few people ask to ride in the supply boats, which are bigger and less prone to flip. Chris Doyle, a new father who stopped rock climbing after a friend's death several years ago, painstakingly assesses the risk and decides to stay in a paddle raft.
As it turns out, Doyle's boat -- the last one through -- is the one that flips. The crash is spectacular, with the 18-foot boat rising straight up, then toppling over. Doyle is still paddling when the boat plummets from a height of a story and a half. Everyone is dumped, and the white water takes each teammate on a different underwater trajectory. Geller and Tim Shannon, 36, another of the most recent hires, pop up almost instantly. Doyle and Pickering are pulled into the deep and have their sandals ripped off.
"I started to panic, so I began to count underwater,'' says Doyle, who recalled the guides saying a bad dunk might last a few seconds at most. "When I got to 10, I got scared.''
Ten minutes later, it's all over. Led by the guides, the rest of the Altrec team swiftly swings into action, pulling swimmers and gear into the intact raft. Everybody is okay. In fact, everybody is more than okay. If the portage temporarily tore the team apart, the spill brought them back together. There are no epiphanies per se, just the knowledge that they took on something that was bigger than all of them, and they all survived.
The part of the journey in which the real-world adventure
Day Four, a mile away from the takeout at Heller Bar. In the boat and on the beach, Carrick pushes the team to produce an action plan for the first day back at the office. If they don't come up with specific goals, the team building will have begun and ended on the Lower Salmon.
What emerges are two items: First, the team devises a plan to scrutinize the current and future roles at Altrec. The tension centers on Pickering. He revised the company's business plan and helped recruit top industry talent. But people can't figure out what he's doing now, or what influence he has on their day-to-day work. Before the trip, neither Morford nor Pickering, who are friends, has had much motivation to resolve what's obviously a prickly situation.
But hours before takeout, the two announce that they'll use an upcoming business trip to hash out the problem. Another team will brainstorm a job description to fill the current leadership void.
As for the second item, the group will begin to draft a road map of four critical team-building areas: decision making, communication, feedback, and respect. Perhaps their most impressive work is how they've zeroed in on decision making. Heading the six-part series of norms: "We trust people to make and own their decisions.''
"Sometimes this group needs to be a team, and sometimes it doesn't," concludes Carrick. "But what the group members always need to be are leaders who are also strong team members.''
After taking on big-time rapids and a turbulent team, Mike Morford can't wait to find a safe harbor back at the office. But he says he's bringing back one big lesson to Bellevue: Leverage, don't cripple, the team's strength. He has assembled a group of aggressive decision makers, and sometimes it's best to skip the consensus building and get out of their way. If it took four days in Idaho to learn that lesson, then hell, they were four days well spent.
Overall, the group is happy with the trip's outcome, but no one hazards a prediction of the river experiment's outcome. Geller, the tech guy who four days ago announced that he gets all the outdoor recreation he needs while mowing his lawn, admits he's glad he made the trip. He got to see people step up and perform in a very public way. But, Geller points out, people still have plenty of proving to do. In six months, if this group of star soloists has found a way to be a team, he'll never say another bad thing about the great outdoors. And that's a promise.