Synergy: When one plus one equals three

canoeists-2Synergy is what happens when one plus one equals ten or a hundred or even a thousand! It’s the profound result when two or more respectful human beings determine to go beyond their preconceived ideas to meet a great challenge” –Stephen Covey

Have you ever been on a team where everything seemed to click? You all knew the goal, you were all committed to it and, amongst you, you had all the skills to achieve something that none of you could do alone. That is pretty much the definition of synergy. And synergy is what high performance teams achieve.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to lead a group of ten very “differently-abled” people on a 5-day wilderness canoe trip. Now, this was a trip with significant distances to cover on the water, numerous rugged portages and daily camp set-up along with all the “group dynamics” challenges that one would expect when people are exposed to clouds of biting bugs, periods of pouring rain and prolonged physical effort. That trip remains one of the most memorable and inspirational experiences of my life. I could probably draw out every lesson on team building that I’ve ever learned from those five days, but one experience in particular remains vivid.

Picture this:

It’s late afternoon on a remote and pristine northern lake. Although it’s sunny, a strong headwind has whipped the middle of the lake into a seemingly endless series of whitecaps. All but the very margin of the lake is essentially a ‘no-go” zone for paddlers in these conditions. But a fleet of 5 canoes inches its way along the leeward side of the rocky, pine-covered shoreline. Each canoe is fully-loaded. The paddlers are working hard. Their heads are down, and they lean forward into every paddle stroke to make progress against relentless wind and waves. Among the group, a pair of weary young men stand out. They paddle their canoe efficiently, periodically switching sides in one smooth motion to save their tiring arms. You can hear only an occasional word between the two, perhaps a signal or a word of encouragement. It’s only when you look closely that you notice that the rear paddler is propped somewhat awkwardly in the stern. In fact, he is the only paddler in the group with an improvised back rest holding him upright. His arms move the paddle with somewhat constrained movements. His head swivels and eyes dart as he searches for the best “line” of travel. But his legs don’t – in fact, can’t – move. You can’t see it but he is paralyzed from the waist down. His forward power is obviously limited since he invests a good part of his energy in keeping himself upright and in a position to steer the canoe. Being in the stern, steering to the best “line” is his number one job. And he does it well.

It doesn’t matter that the stern paddler lacks forward power. The man in the bow is built like a brick; solid, strong and, evidently, powerful enough for both of them. He is totally focused. His head turns neither left nor right; he always faces straight ahead. And he never misses a beat. Now, you can’t see this either, but if you could look past his dark glasses you would discover that he is completely blind. He has been since birth. He is also smiling because can sense the fresh breeze and sun on his face, and, importantly, feel the canoe respond to every well-placed paddle stroke.

This is a true story. These two people, one sighted but paralysed, the other blind but physically strong, were thrown together with a challenge that neither could have faced alone. They put their preconceived notions aside, ratcheted up their courage and performed together in a way that left me awestruck. They each brought everything they had to table, learned to work together and didn’t stop until they were done. Now that was teamwork.

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