The Canoe Revelation

My wife and daughter needed a break from the frustration oozing out of me, so they went into the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. I stayed behind by the railing overlooking the river to finish my coffee. One of my clients was stuck in what I like to call the “circle of frustration,” and my mind was struggling to figure out the root cause of the problem—and a solution to it—for him.

As I gazed at the river, I noticed a canoe-ride boat pull away from the dock. The leader—a Disney guide dressed in frontier clothes—paddled hard to get the canoe moving forward. Some of the guests in the boat behind him barely paddled, other more eager guests paddled hard, and still others just sat there. It reminded me of my client’s situation. How long can the leader paddle that hard while most people in the boat don’t really know what to do? I thought.

But the guide only pulled the canoe clear of the dock. Then he stood up, faced the new crew, and set out to transform this group of strangers into a team.

After introducing himself, he raised his “fun stick” (paddle). Even though it was second nature to him and obvious to most people, he demonstrated how to hold it and how to use it to propel the boat forward. Then he said there were three rules:

  1. Never stop rowing—“If we don’t row, we don’t go!” He smiled and energetically asked them to repeat it until they got it.
  2. No splashing—it used to be blue water (“You don’t want this type of water on you; trust me”).
  3. Don’t stand up—only a fool stands in a canoe. “I am a trained fool,” he added.

He also explained where they were going and what to expect. Then he introduced his partner in the back of the boat and explained her role: to steer and watch out for other boats.

Wow, look at that, I thought. Disney did not expect the guests to spontaneously align their efforts. The guide told people what was expected and how to do it before they got going. He didn’t assume everyone would know how to hold or use a paddle, or know the invisible lines not to cross. Disney spent some time asking what was important for paddlers to know and how best to communicate it in order to align the riders’ efforts.
With that simple process, in no time, everyone is on the same page.

I considered the contrast that canoe team made with the dysfunctional companies I had been working with for years. If the business leaders I knew were to operate this ride, they would barely say anything to the new people getting in the canoe. They’d just expect them to know the obvious, and if the new people didn’t contribute fully, the leaders would just put their heads down and paddle harder to make up for it.

They wouldn’t explain ahead of time what kind of behavior was unacceptable. Or they’d wait until after someone stood up to point out that the person had crossed an invisible line. “Why don’t people already know not to stand up?” they’d say. “It’s so obvious.”

That was when it hit me. No wonder these dysfunctional businesses were paddling in circles. They weren’t getting people on the same page to align their efforts. Instead, they assumed people would just “get it.” The questions of what was essential for people to know so they could work together effectively, along with how and when to communicate it, were not answered. Bam!

It was so clear.

When my wife and daughter returned from the Haunted House, they found a different person waiting for them than the one they’d left twenty minutes earlier. “That was some cup of coffee!” we laughed.

I sensed a starting line. And it revolved around this question:

How do we get all the pieces of a business to paddle together?

The Beginning: Business Alignment

I always knew inherently that there was a place to start taking the dysfunction out of a business—and a way to keep it out. The canoe ride gave me a glimpse of the starting line.

The name of that starting line is business alignment.

Business alignment really boils down to a set of essential questions. You as the leader of your company ask these questions about your business. Then you and your team use the answers as reference points to make big and small decisions.

It sounds simple, but business alignment is incredibly powerful. It provides clear but invisible lines and guidance for people throughout the company. Using these lines, people are able to calibrate and coordinate their efforts, so that you can finally get the results you’ve been expecting.

Alignment always starts from the inner core of a company. In my experience, companies that try to align starting from the outside—where they interact with customers and suppliers—are never able to change.

Business alignment is a logical place to start transforming your company into a business that actually works. It’s where you get people on the same page—before they start getting frustrated with each other.

The power of business alignment is that it addresses the real cause of the symptoms that make your life hell as the leader of a dysfunctional company—the horrible meetings, the email quagmire wars, fighting fires all day, and so on. Problems like these always come back to people not knowing the essential reference points: where they’re going, how to get there, what behavior is acceptable, what is expected of them, and how to get back on course when they get stuck.

Business alignment is the missing business school subject.

We see cover stories of uber-successful entrepreneurs who seem to go painlessly from startup to billionaires in a few years. But those magazines ignore the stories where the excitement wears off, the frustration sets in, and years or decades go by without any forward progress.

How do you transition from you and a couple of people in an open room to tens or hundreds of people who work together effectively? How do you actually get your business to where you want it to go, without everything depending solely on your effort and energy?

It all starts with the question “How do you get people on the same page?”

Not “What planning system do you use?” Not “What is your management system?” But “How do you get people to paddle together in the right direction?”

Business alignment really boils down to the same principle they use at the Disneyland canoe ride: “If we don’t row, we don’t go.” You as a leader are responsible for getting people to effectively row together. And you do that by asking essential questions and then communicating using the answers.

At its core, business alignment helps you find a starting line, so that you can finally plot a successful course to the finish line. And just like any journey, before you take the first step, you need to know where you are and what is standing between you and the destination.

Many of the business leaders I work with start out in a similar situation: moving in a frustrating circle, but with different things keeping them stuck

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