Sky-Walking: A Metaphor for Organizational Learning

Mindcamp Random

Between the railroad ties of the Kinzua Sky Walk in Northwestern Pennsylvania, one can view the valley floor 301 feet below — offering a chance to confront fear. Image: Nicholas A. Tonelli

by Kristen Barney

“Not even my foot could fit in that gap,” I told myself, “so how could I possibly fall through?” I was stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie on the renovated half-bridge that soars 301 feet above the Kinzua Valley in Northwestern Pennsylvania (see photo). Yet my legs would not believe these platitudes, and continued to wobble and ache.

My partner, Anthony Hyatt, and I were returning home to the Washington, DC area from Lake Couchiching, north of Toronto, where we presented a workshop at the Mindcamp creativity conference. We planned a relaxed journey so we could explore local sights around the Allegheny National Forest: the quirky Zippo museum, the Timberdoodle Flats birding trail, and the Kinzua Sky Walk. Little did I know I would come away from Kinzua with an experience and metaphor about how people learn in organizations.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” I thought, as I walked on the ties until I could no longer stand the aching and anxiety, and moved to the walkway. Back on the ties, back on the walkway. On and off, on and off. (Sounds like a train!) Anthony and I reached the end of the Sky Walk and took in the sweeping valley where in 2003 a tornado dashed this miraculously long and high railroad bridge to the valley floor, leaving scattered piles of steel wreckage which are still there. Or were they crumpled dinosaur skeletons?

After we enjoyed the view, joked about bungee jumping, and were photographed by some amiable men in Harley-Davidson jackets, we returned on the railroad tracks to the park entrance. Anthony began to walk on the rusty metal rails, and I followed suit. Suddenly I could walk over the same space without fear. The continuity of the rail across the same space, while requiring me to balance, gave me confidence in my safety. I walked down the rail feeling free and light.

Now the test: I walked again on the ties. And voilà! No fear, no aching, no anxiety. Gone!

My attention had shifted from an imagined plunge to the valley floor to the experience of safety, solidity, and continuity. I had a new memory that gave me confidence. It was an emotional and visceral message that my body could take in and make use of. (My body ignored the mental platitudes I had offered earlier.)

Sky-Walking in Organizations

In that moment I saw a way to express what happens when I partner with clients in organizations. The fears I felt on the railroad ties were irrational: I could not even fall through if I tried. Yet my primal response of aching, wobbling legs was overwhelming. Then when I walked on the solid rail across the same territory, I had a visceral experience of success, a new memory, and new confidence and trust.

In the same way, we sometimes feel anxiety when anticipating change in organizations. Consciously or unconsciously, we think: everything will fall apart if…, everything will grind to a stagnant halt if…, and so forth. It feels like we will fall through the cracks, and mental, rational messages have little impact. Sometimes only an emotional, visceral experience of safe space and positive outcomes will make a difference. That is why I help people create positive learning experiences in organizations, even as we face difficult issues together. Metaphorically these joint experiences are like walking on solid, continuing rails when there are frequent glimpses of a 301 foot drop nearby. Through positive experiences in facilitated processes, leaders and team members gain new skills, awareness, and new ways of thinking. Experiences may include:

  • finding safe ways to release some control and allow opportunity in the door,
  • exploring how to increase accountability while preserving space for freedom and creativity, or
  • learning to include diverse stakeholders in creativity, strategy, and decision-making through constructive processes with positive outcomes.

In short, we partner to create cultures that are healthy, balanced, and appropriate for an organization’s mission and resources – and for today’s complex and shifting world. We do this through manageable, experiential activities that create safety for everyone to learn and have insights that support wise choices at strategic junctures and in daily interactions. Ironically, creating emotional safe spaces helps people to take risks, and evolution requires that we take risks – inside and outside of safe spaces.

The True Self as Change Agent

Our work together is also about being true to oneself, because this is critical in healthy organizations. Some days after our visit to the Sky Walk, I asked Anthony what he had been thinking when he decided to walk on the rails – the action that had prompted my experience and insight. He said, “I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. I was being playful and spontaneous.”

Being playful and spontaneous can be powerful catalysts for change in organizations. For example, during a group process, one of my clients blurted out a phrase that became the theme of the remainder of our project because it so perfectly embodied what the organization wanted to create. Organizations that create safe spaces for playfulness, spontaneity, and being true to oneself are more likely to be able to evolve and be resilient in changing times.

The stranger I wrote about in my last blog post was from Afghanistan, and his way of speaking and acting with me was unexpected from my American standpoint, and it was catalytic because I opened to him, learned from his gift, and wrote about the insights. He was, as Tony Bond commented, a change agent. (By the way, the pepper plants gifted by the stranger turned out to be pimientos, also known as cherry peppers. They have produced two dozen heart-shaped, cherry-red mini- peppers with mild heat.)

Conclusion: Share Your Stories

On the Sky Walk, a new pathway of experience formed inside to help me navigate challenging territory without anxiety, and my clients report such changes in our projects together. They see new ways of being that allow them to work more freely and more productively and allow the organization to achieve greater results.

What experiences have you had that provided support to overcome anxiety and gave you confidence to cross fearful territory, metaphorically or otherwise? When has being true to yourself triggered a positive chain of events?

Kristen Barney and Anthony Hyatt presented Reflections of Nature at Mindcamp 2012.

Comments 2

  1. Kristen

    I enjoyed reading about your adventure your risking your fear against experience.

    Anthony I would expect would walk the rails or the ties….”just for fun.”

  2. Kristen,
    Thanks for your story and the connections you are making. Sounds like in a way this was an opportunity to acknowledge the fear and return to the present experience of being with the railway ties and the steel rails, enjoy that experience,and your own surprise at enjoying and deepening into the learning around that.

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