When Drowning Prevention Meets Business Strategy

My children love the water. They swim, they splash, they laugh. 

My children, like most children, are fast. They dart, they scurry, they hide. 

Therefore, when my children encounter water, it can be an exhausting experience for my wife and me. We must be vigilant. 

The pool we frequent has lifeguards. But their vigilance will never match mine. 

Unless, of course, we’re talking about lifeguards at Great Wolf Lodge. Their vigilance surpasses mine 99 percent of the time (at least when it comes to paying attention to all of the children in an area, not just my own).

And one reason, I suspect, has to do with business strategy. 

For the unfamiliar, Great Wolf Lodge is a large, growing chain of indoor, family-friendly water parks. They’re open year-round, and children of all ages can swim, go down slides and splash around with a host of water-related valves and buckets. My children love it. 

But Great Wolf Lodge realizes that regardless of how fun they make the water park or how attentive they are to the overall customer experience, there’s a chink in their armor.

They have an Achilles heel.

There’s a specific type of failure that could severely damage their reputation and their business. 

It’s drowning, leading to the death of a child. 

The entire business model of Great Wolf Lodge depends on the safety of the children and a fun experience for everyone. If the safety of the experience—either real or perceived—came into question within the minds of potential customers, their business would suffer dramatically. (And the safety of children is intrinsically good, of course.)

And so, back to the lifeguards. During the times I’ve visited Great Wolf Lodge, I couldn’t help but notice that they:

  • Avoid eye contact with people outside of the water
  • Continually scan their gaze back and forth on their area, focusing on the water itself, not on individual children
  • Seem to rotate on shifts more frequently than lifeguards at most pools
  • Get tested unexpectedly by training personnel who nonchalantly toss a dummy child into the water and time how fast the lifeguard reacts

In this way, Great Wolf Lodge lifeguards and their managers are preoccupied with failure. They have specifically identified what they must avoid as an organization. And they have constructed hiring, training, cultural norms and incentives to guide behavior accordingly. 

Photo from: https://www.greatwolf.com/culture 

Photo from: https://www.greatwolf.com/culture 

To be fair, Great Wolf Lodge doesn’t have a zero-incident safety record. I highly doubt any park of its magnitude does. But it’s also fair to say that the probability of any specific child having a serious incident at Great Wolf Lodge is very, very low.  That’s the way it should be. Safety is boring. It’s a non-event. 

For businesses not in the amusement park industry, however, I think there are some lessons to be learned from Great Wolf Lodge, its lifeguards and its preoccupation with drowning. 

These lessons include:

  • Focusing on the positive might be warm and fuzzy, but it’s critical to identify what your organization must avoid
  • Avoiding failure—and really risk management in general to some degree—involves creatively thinking about what could go wrong
  • Once you’ve identified these potential internal weaknesses or external threats, you should consider what you can do about them
  • Leaders can use these risky areas of their operations as a focusing mechanism for employee behavior through hiring practices, training and incentives
  • Managing for non-events requires ongoing vigilance, which must be shared and replenished

The key is to figure out what “a drowning child” looks like in your organization, and then to identify how it can be detected as quickly as possible. Having a reliable organization doesn’t mean that you’ll never encounter a “drowning child,” but it does mean that your people will recognize what it looks like and take mitigating actions—before it becomes a catastrophe. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.