The Cliff of Every Project

artisan logo

Student made wooden LED window with the Hive’s artisan symbol.

T.J. Edwards and I (Trey) just completed a module for Innovation Diploma called Transformational Design and Leadership. This module served on-boarding iD students with an introduction to how to leverage their strengths through collaborative project work. It also introduced our students to the Hive, our maker-community on the Glenn Campus, giving students an opportunity to touch nearly every tool and machine we own.

Over the past five weeks students were given 3+1 projects in a five-day maker-roulette (A.K.A. each of the three groups of students rotated through each project over 5 weeks). The first project was to build a cornhole board choosing from a variety of Instructables builds. Another was to prototype a space for MVIFI nucleus members to share work and have creative collisions with other faculty members. This project was based on our recent visit to IDEO where they literally “cut the fruit” to collide community and idea sharing around food in their kitchen. The last project was a create your own LED display project that turned out to be a much more challenging project than we thought it was going to be. We ended up shifting the project to a wooden LED sign with a carved logo as a center-piece. This turned out to be a much better project involving no soldering whereas the other required 90 points (it was tough!!!).

One of the frames from the concluding discussions centered on the topic of what I have heard others term “The Cliff” in situational leadership.

When groups first form members are most likely driven by the compelling vision, mission, or task before them. In these projects students were very excited to experience new tools in the Hive and leverage their own creativity. In these moments, teammates show high-commitment to the project while often times are of their incompetence. They don’t know what they don’t know yet, but they have a clear idea of the potential result. As it is in white-water rafting, everyone is excited when they first get into the boat, but we all have experienced when projects hit the first rapid. We arrive at The Cliff.

This term derives its meaning from Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey’s situational leadership model and 3DM’s leadership square. The Cliff is the moment when the group has to face the choice to bail or fail. Now that teammates are conscious of their incompetence the trend for groups is to deflate or change the project goals entirely. They either get out of the boat, refusing to keep going, or they head back up river and try to change what they came to do.

When teams bail leaders have to jump in to help them realize that you can’t change the nature of the river. Although the vision, mission, or task you start with never actually goes the way you might plan, the direction should always point down river where you intended to go in first place. At the same time, getting out of the boat gets you no where. Successful teams learn how to embrace their incompetence and lean into failure. They pause after the first rapid and remind themselves of the task (scope, directions, how awesome its going to look), their team (the excited feelings they had going in and the strengths of their team) and evaluate how to learn from the first rapid in order to be prepared to try again.

As leaders we need to remind ourselves and teammates that on the other side of The Cliff teams need both the grace to fail and the time to do it often. This gives teams space and experience to learn from their failure and eventually leads teams to regain confidence. The result begins the process of stewarding their acquired skills on their own.

At the end of the day our hope is to develop the creative agency of our students. One student, Claire, admitted that at first these projects seemed daunting, but now she appreciates the confidence and creativity it brings to helping her turn ideas into something tangible for others. Another student, Brady, came in the following week to make his own skateboard. This is the intended result Tj and I hoped for, that students would encounter the cliff and develop a personal sense of agency through grace and time to make their ideas happen.


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