We were about to hit a class 3 rapid at the end of our 12 mile run for the day on the McKinzie River. The four other rafts in our group had made it through and had a blast. There was just one problem: our boat was backwards.
A class 3 rapid is defined as having “waves up to four feet and narrow passages that send the boat shimmying and water gushing over its sides.”
Class 3 is right in the middle of the river rapid scale, so it’s not something to be terrified about. It’s also not the kind of thing you want someone going swimming in the middle of if your goal is to make sure everyone has a great time and gets back to camp safely.
Entering a class 3 rapid backwards in a raft is a pretty good way to send someone swimming. We had a problem.
All day we had struggled as a six-person paddle team. Our friend serving as our river guide and boat captain for the day just couldn’t figure out why we were having such a hard time keeping the boat straight. When we stopped for a swim before the last stretch including the class 3, we swapped a couple paddlers with other boats to try and even things out.
After some practice, we finally had things under control. We coordinated with the other boats and decided we would go last so that we could see the right route through the rocks and waves. We had a good plan and we were feeling good.
Then the front corner of the raft hit a small rock, which ricocheted the back of the raft into a bigger boulder, swinging us around 180 degrees. That’s how we ended up heading into the entrance of the rapid backwards.
In that moment, our guide wanted to do nothing more than curl up in a ball in the bottom of the boat. We had royally screwed up the entrance and it felt for a moment like we might just have to buckle down and deal with the consequences.
Instead, she snapped to it, barked orders to each side of the boat, and we whipped the front end around. We paddled hard through the rest of the rapid with half the team in the bottom of the boat after falling off their perches. On the other side, we all collapsed in a puddle of laughter at how ridiculous the whole experience was.
Plans are nice. They provide a blueprint for setting benchmarks, allocating resources, and executing on each piece of the work.
Sometimes, things go according to plan and we get to celebrate. Other times, things go much more like that Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Right after you get punched in the mouth, or the boat is backwards, or your most important team member quits unexpectedly, or you lose your biggest customer… your natural reaction is going to be the desire to curl up in a ball (or anger or whatever your normal reaction is).
When things don’t go according to plan, it’s your job to put that reaction aside and make the decision the team needs from you.