The innovation workshop facilitator scribbled on the flip chart and then turned to us for discussion:
The seeds to a problem’s solution are often contained in the problem itself.
My mind raced back to an event that took place some three decades before – an event where I would experience that wisdom first hand.
Masters of the Universe
Sitting around the campfire that night, it seemed like a reasonable plan.
My brother and I decided to break camp before sunrise, paddle the remaining 10 miles or so back to civilization, take showers, pack up the car, drive into the nearby Canadian town for lunch – anything but fish, please – and then drive west for 90 miles to Fort Francis, Canada. Once there, we would turn left and knock on Minnesota’s door. So, as the last embers from our last campfire lifted toward the stars, and as we finished the last few drops of scotch we religiously sipped every night before retiring to our tent, the plan sounded reasonable.
After all, we had been to Quetico Provincial Park – a wilderness canoeing haven in southern Ontario – numerous times. And while we were suburbanites, we were calloused suburbanites: we had admirably co-existed with nature for a week or more during each of our visits. We’d become adept at starting fires in a downpour; traversing mud-soaked, bug-infested portages with a canoe and a fully loaded pack on our back; and paddling against wind-driven waves that threatened to sink us.
“We got this,” we thought.
For the first few miles, everything went according to plan. There was no wind, so our paddles bit easily into the river, which in the pre-dawn light was the color of Macadam. Our visibility was somewhat limited because of the early hour, but this stretch of the river was nearly a straight shot, and we could easily make out the forests growing up from the banks on either side of us. We tracked to the center of the river we had paddled numerous times before.
With the current at our backs, we moved along rhythmically.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
Then we came to a sudden and abrupt stop. I don’t remember hearing a sound as the submerged tree – long since toppled by a storm, disease, or age – caught us. We began a slow, clock-wise rotation. The current, which had been our friend only moments earlier, was now our enemy. As our canoe rotated perpendicular to the current, it was clear that any panicked move on our part would cause water to spill over our gunwales and scuttle us.
My brother, who was in the bow, craned his neck to look at me.
We began to speak in snippets of less-than-attractive solutions and worse–case scenarios:
“Capsize. Lose everything.”
“Swim to the river bank. Very wet. Very cold.”
“Walk out to civilization? No accessible portages.”
“Wait for other canoeists to pass by – at a sane hour – who can alert the authorities?”
I was reminded at that moment of my favorite Winston Churchill: “When you are going through hell, keep going.” So, for the next few minutes my brother and I tried various actions to free us:
• Paddle like hell to power us off the limb. Stuck.
• Shift the packs to make one end of the canoe lighter and lift us off the limb. Stuck.
• Lean our bodies over the side of the canoe – without tipping it! – to reduce the weight on the center. Stuck.
We slowly turned like the second hand of a clock, and watched the tress on one side of us rotate into view, then the river behind us, then the trees on the other side, then the river in front of us. Repeat. Just sitting quietly, we realized we were in no danger of capsizing. We were stuck, but we were safe. Safe, we momentarily retreated into our own reflections of “What if we. . .”
My brother then leaned over his pack and slowly poked the water with his paddle. It sank deep, touching nothing. He poked again. Nothing. He poked the water a third time, and the paddle stopped.
He looked up at me.
We rotated, and then he pushed with as much strength as he could muster lying in a prone position across his pack. The center of the canoe raised ever so slightly. Our boat seemed to move ever so slightly.
He pushed down again. Our boat inched a bit more.
As the boat rotated a third time, he pushed down hard. We moved further off the limb. And then we floated free with the current.
The answers reside within.
Back in the innovation workshop, I thought of our efforts that morning and smiled. My brother had used his paddle not as a paddle, but as a rod to push against the limb that was at once rigid in its grasp, but also water-soaked and pliable.
The seeds to a problem’s solution are usually contained in the problem itself.
And it’s a lesson that has always resonated with me. Today as a leadership and career coach, I abide by a key principle of our discipline:
People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.
My clients’ answers don’t come from the outside; they don’t need me to solve their issues for them. They just need me to help unlock the beautiful solution that already rests within them.
So, we dance in a mutually agreed upon choreography, sometimes acting and sometimes just being with what is. We paddle one way, and then another. We hold thoughts up to the light and look at them from different angles. We acknowledge the limbs that keep them stuck. We poke here and push there. I ask, “What… .? My clients respond. I ask, “What else… .?”
And slowly, with their hands pushing on their paddle, they float free.