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A River Runs Through It: Nature’s Lessons on Organizational Life

It’s tough to say what draws humans to water as it courses its way through the landscape, crashing over rocks, or meandering through meadows. In the decades spent in and around the river as a fly fisherman, whitewater kayaker, and rafter, I’ve found that nature has a lot to say about the principles and practices of organizational performance. Sure, it’s a metaphor, but those stories we tell ourselves are how we make sense of the world. Isn’t that foundational to understanding how work gets done?

Four Lessons from Nature on Organizational Life

  1. Mindful Action

  2. Turning Rocks Over

  3. Change Can be Slow

  4. Know Your Place

Mindful Action

The need for organizational action is often motivated by a desire for rapid results. In contrast, there’s wisdom in what an experienced firefighter once told me, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” His advice was a reminder to pause, look, and listen – to be mindful in action.

Every time you see a river, it’s new. Flow, water quality, and the hydraulics at work can change by the minute. Just like experienced anglers take time to survey the river’s conditions, we, as organizational leaders, understand and meet people where they are. The time taken for reflection means a smoother ride through the rapids or less chance of spooking a fish – and both have clear parallels to understanding work from the perspective of those doing it. Sometimes, just observing is more helpful action than jumping straight into the work.

Turning Over Rocks

We talk a lot about curiosity in the world of organizational performance and reliability. Being curious is more than just asking questions, though. It’s a commitment to deeply understanding the conditions and constraints around work.

At the banks of a river looking for trout, a successful day on the water starts with literally turning over rocks to find the bugs that fish might turn into a meal. When you take the time to find what’s there – and what isn’t – you’ve got a lot better chance of picking the right fly to hook into that trout you’ve been watching all morning. We turn over rocks in organizations looking for the right tools, too, but the process is arguably more difficult.

Curiosity is a choice, and making time for it, even in familiar places, takes purposeful effort.

Change Can Be Slow

Appreciation of a river, at least for me, often involves trying to imagine how its landscape began. The thousands or millions of years it took to carve a canyon are almost beyond belief, and the immediate effects a flood or rockslide can have on such a powerful landscape are equally awe-inspiring.

Like a river, the culture of an organization is the result of years, maybe even decades or centuries, of history. What do the effects of a serious injury or fatality have on a culture? Or, what happens when an acquisition occurs? Both are examples of catalyst events akin to a flood or rockslide. On the water, a dam can change a river’s path quickly, but it’s often at the expense of the ecosystem around and in it. Are our organizational responses the equivalent of damming the river – immediate and tangible results at the expense of the systems that underlie them?

Rivers remind us that moving one rock at a time – slowly – can have a real impact, and a more lasting one than dramatic but unnatural change.

Knowing Your Place

On the river, there are plenty of opportunities for stark reminders of smallness.

I’ve been upside down over a waterfall before because I misjudged my own ability against the force of the water, and I’ve watched others pay the price for failing to scout a tricky rapid because their ego told them they had the skill to manage it without preparation.

Hubris doesn’t last long in Mother Nature’s hands. There’s nothing like casting a line in a river’s slow oxbows – and catching nothing – to remind you that without appreciating context and expertise, a fish with a pea-sized brain can outsmart you even on your best day.

The same is true for trying to operationalize humility. Complexity within our modern workforce means the small moves we make may not work as expected. Don’t let pride interfere with the progress you’ll make by learning from experience in balance with humility.

A River Runs Through It

Some of life’s most poignant lessons have been those I’ve learned on the water. Understanding human and organizational performance doesn’t always mean focusing on humans and organizations. Taking time to understand context can keep us from having to backpedal from uninformed action. Turning over rocks, even in places that have become familiar, is a tangible act of curiosity. When I’m frustrated about the entrenched beliefs within an organization, remembering that just a tiny shift in the river’s course can make lasting – and positive – change in an entire landscape is encouraging. And, spending a day being taught by the river is sometimes a not-so-gentle reminder that I’ve only scratched the surface of all there is to learn.

Learning about humans isn’t always about being around humans, and the river has a lot of stories to share.


About the Author:

Ben Goodheart is an organizational performance, safety, and leadership professional with over 25 years of experience. His diverse career began in the aviation industry, and his varied operational expertise affords him a variety of opportunities to practice within his passion. Today, Dr. Goodheart works in consultation with businesses in aviation, healthcare, public utilities, chemical processing, oil and gas, and others to design human-centered organizational systems that are resilient, safe, and effective for the people they serve. Ben is an active author, speaker, and researcher focused on novel applications within safety management and organizational climate and culture, and with a specific focus on building strong, flexible organizations through leadership and user-centered design. He holds a Master of Science in Safety Science and a Ph.D. with a research specialization in applied organizational safety, risk, and leadership. Dr. Goodheart is the founder of Magpie Human Systems.

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