top of page
  • Michael Kerman

5 Important Business Lessons from Whitewater Rafting

A few weeks ago, I went with some friends to western PA to camp and go whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny river (extra points if you can pronounce it!). Because we had a group of (relatively) novice rafters, we opted for the lower part of the river which was considerably tamer than the upper portion. We also went when the water level was pretty low, so the risk level was acceptable to everyone.

That said, whitewater rafting can be quite a rush at times. In between the bouncing around and the few times we felt we’d flip the raft, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between our day in the raft and work. Here’s what stuck with me:

1. Importance of a Clear Leader. We opted to have a river guide in our raft and it turned out to be a great decision. Like many teams, we had a lot of intelligent, experienced and opinionated people in our raft. Without a clear leader, that can lead to a lot of debate… do we paddle left, back-paddle-left, go to the right of the giant boulder and so-on. There’s certainly a time for discussion, but not when you’re in whitewater rapids and you’re trying to stay alive! Our river guide barked very clear orders and we followed (as best we could). As a result, we had a great ride (only 2 people fell into the river) and nobody got hurt. In this world of collaborative, cross-functional teams, it is important to remember that there always needs to be a clear leader, someone who can consistently set direction, balance tradeoffs and priorities and make and clearly communicate quick decisions when needed.

2. Strategy Matters. Before each of the major rapids, the guides would tell us how to approach the rapid and the nuances of navigating the river. Often times, the route we took was not the most direct or obvious. Success usually resulted from a series of rapid paddles, pinpoint turns and adjustments to what we encountered. In fact, the rafters who took the more conventional route usually ended up either beached on a large boulder or fishing one or more people out of the river. The same is true in business. You’ve got to have a solid business and go-to-market strategy that avoids certain obstacles and enables you to adjust/pivot based on the conditions. For example, the largest market segment may look attractive but the competition could be fierce and the margins slim. On the other hand, smaller or more niche segments may be more defensible and deliver greater profitability, although it takes more analysis and greater focus to enter.

3. Preparation is Critical. In business, we spend so much time trying to keep up with the daily demands that we don’t always think about preparation for troubling situations. For example, many companies still do not have an effective and well-tested business continuity/disaster recovery plan. Similarly, many organizations don’t devote enough time and resources to scenario planning. What if major company XYZ enters our market? What is a harmful regulation gets passed? What if we have a major product recall? In these cases, preparation is critical. I couldn’t help but think about all of this as we were gathering our gear to go rafting. The paddle, of course. Life jacket, makes sense. A helment. Really? A helmet? Yes, we were going on a class III-IV (closer to III) river, but this wasn’t the Gauley or Colorado river! We took our helmets and then spent another 20 minutes talking about safety and what happens when someone falls out of the raft or worse yet, the raft flips. We were all getting kind of hot and antsy to get on the river. Nevertheless, we paid attention. As the day progressed and I saw people being tossed from their rafts by the whitewater, I was reminded about the importance of preparation and protection, even if it doesn’t seem likely.

4. Exceeding Customer Expectations. Customer expectations or “CX” is all the rage today. Everyone (or at least the best companies) are trying to gain a deeper understanding of their customers, their preferences and buying habits and be able to measure this down to excruciating levels of detail. However, how many companies focus on “exceeding” their customer’s expectations? Not many, I’d imagine. Our raft trip was approximately 5 hours and lunch, about half-way down the river, was included in the price of the ticket. All of us were looking forward to getting off the raft, stretching our legs and probably having a very mediocre lunch. After all, there were about 70 people (12 rafts) in our group and that’s a lot of mouths to feed. After giving the guides a few minutes to set up, we were presented with a veritable feast… chicken salad lettuce wraps, black bean salad, peanut butter and jelly bar, cookies, fruit, water and iced tea. In fact, there was so much food that they invited people up for seconds (any remaining food was consumed by the teenage boys in our group!). As we got back in our rafts, I couldn’t help but think of how that lunch vastly exceeded my expectations and what that felt like. When is the last time someone blew you away? How did you feel? How often do you deliver that kind of experience to your customers?

5. Be the “Right” Kind of Tired. It’s almost cliché to come home from a day of back-to-back-to-back meetings and declare, “I’m so tired”. However, are we really tired for the right reasons? Are we tired from really concentrating on solving truly critical problems or challenges? Or are we tired from sitting in meetings and stressing-out over all of the emails that are piling up or the higher-priority work that isn’t getting done? In most workplaces, it is this stress and anxiety that makes us tired far more than it is the mental or physical exertion. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had nights where you couldn’t stop thinking about things and were up most of the night. Now, contract this to the kind of tired we had being on the river and paddling to-and-fro for five hours. This is the “good” kind of tired that makes you sleep well at night (after a good shower!). All of this reminded me yet again how good exercise feels… the endorphins that are released and the relaxation that comes from being truly, physically tired. My goal is to seek more of that kind of tired and less of the other.

I am a believer that there are lessons to be learned all around us, every day. The day on the river was no different. The combination of direction, teamwork, effort, passion, fun and adaptability made for a great experience and wonderful reminder of what a successful business needs.

26 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page