There are many many books about teams. How they work, how they fail. Almost everything about teams has been written up into trendy business books of one form or another. And many of the books use sporting analogies for teams. Baseball seems to be a common one. (see here for examples).
Me, I sail. And I prefer sailboats as analogies for teams in business for a bunch of reasons.
A large racing sailboat depends on the team, from beginning to end. Success and failure is a collective result as well as an individual one. This applies across the whole range of relevant areas;
- from the initial technical and structural design
- to the logistics and planning
- to the training
- to the on course strategy
- to the ability of the crew to execute maneuvers
- to the onboard decision making
- to the ability of the crew to make the boat go fast
- to the process of learning from mistakes and getting better for the next race.
Everything depends on the team. Individuals come and go, but the team goes on.
Before we start, here’s a typical maneuver on a big boat.
Now, why is a sailboat a good team analogy?
Here’s my view;
- Everyone wins or loses together
- A sailboat finishes a race with everyone on the boat. Everyone is within a few metres of each other.
- Unlike soccer or baseball, no-one outside the boat will look and say “ah, but the trimmer had a great day”. Individuals can shine on a losing soccer team. That doesn’t work on a sailboat. You win or lose together. Similarly, while a moment of individual genius can often win a soccer match (Leo Messi, for instance), that almost never happens in business or in sailing.
- Command and control
- Ultimately only one person – the skipper – is holding the steering wheel and decides which way the boat is going to be pointed.
- However, the skipper needs to take input from everyone on the boat, all the way from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom; from the tactician to the sewer man packing sails below decks. The tactician says what the wind and the opposition are doing; the sail trimmers say whether the boat should be sailed higher or lower to the wind; the bowman calls time and distance to marks; the sewer man could have the crucial piece of information about a loose shackle that could bring the mast down or that a sail is damaged. Listen. To. Everyone. All. The. Time
- Holding the steering wheel may seem to mean that the skipper is “in charge”, but he’s not really. He’s is really in charge of the decision making process. The decision is a result of what everyone inputs…not something the skipper comes up with by himself.
- The skipper needs to keep the boat moving smoothly even while coordinating a major change in direction.
- The skipper still holds the wheel and is responsible for making the right call. The decision is sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Sometimes the decision is postponed. But there must never be confusion about what the decision was.
- Related to the above – comms on a boat is difficult. It’s loud and a bit chaotic. The race doesn’t stop and you can’t call a time out.
- Comms needs to be well planned and clearly delivered. Listen to the countdowns on the boat in the video. The plan has been worked out in the quiet times and then the comms is about executing the plan.
- The style of comms can change a lot. Plans are discussed quietly. Input is solicited. Suggestions and alternatives are considered. Once the plan is agreed then comms can sometimes become very directive. “5,4,3,2,1, DROP THE SAIL NOW!” Similarly in business. Most of the time a manager/skipper leads by listening. Sometimes he has to push. Often he has to stand back and let the team get on with it while he just keeps things going.
- Specialization & cooperation
- Everybody on the team is a specialist, yet everyone on the team needs to know clearly how their role fits with the roles around them and they need to be able to help out during moments of pressure.
- Everyone depends on everyone else. Asking for help is a good thing to do, not a sign of weakness.
- People have different skills. Exploit them all while developing new ones.
- Baseball, rugby, soccer, etc. are all sports where the playing field and rules are very clearly defined. They’re sports where the team effort is totally directed at one opponent. Business just isn’t like that.
- Most sailboat races have multiple opponents. The playing field is constantly changing. Different wind. Different waves. Different currents. Success comes from reading the playing field correctly from more than it comes from conflict with an individual opponent. Reading the wind and waves gets you around the course quickest. Keep doing that and you’ll win races. Conflict just slows you down and stops you from concentrating on what the “market” needs.
- Design and planning (product or strategy in business) are key
- Related to the above point is another. It’s very hard for a good team to overcome bad decisions. If you get a great team sailing a slow boat, it’ll still be a slow boat. A great team selling a bad product? They’ll do ok…but the product is still key. Hard work won’t make up for bad decisions.
- Good planning and design requires input from everyone. Right down to the sewer man. Better hull design – the focus of much design concentration in a skipper’s mind – might make a boat go 50m faster on a 2 mile leg. But a better layout for the crew might make every maneuver 2 seconds faster….100 times a race…plus every member of the crew can now look around for 200 seconds for changes in the wind. The team shows the importance of feedback, feedback, feedback. Not every decision is right so get feedback, fix the bad ones quickly and make the good ones even better.
- Team building
- Racing on big boats, like business, mostly doesn’t require a very specific physique. Bowmen should, generally, not be big heavy guys but that’s about it. Sailing a big boat also doesn’t require very much athleticism.
- As a result, the raw material you need for a successful team isn’t outrageous talent, it’s commitment and enthusiasm. Yes, you can’t have idiots on board, but talent can be developed and coached. No-one is born with talent as a mainsail trimmer or as a SaaS salesperson or customer support rep. It’s developed and developable.
- The biggest reason to move someone off the team is lack of commitment. The biggest reason to get someone onto the team is lots of commitment.
- Practice, improve, practice. Together.
- Success comes from persistence and practice before you win races. You’re quite likely to fail and lose a bunch of times before you win.
- Make sure everyone has what they need. Make sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing. Make sure everyone has time and resources to do it.
- Success comes from making, admitting, analyzing and eliminating mistakes….and doing it completely openly and transparently and immediately. Dennis Conner’s book “No Excuse to Lose” is a tad hard-assed, but the point is right. Eliminate error, eliminate excuses. Making mistakes isn’t a problem….refusing to learn from them IS a problem.
- Success comes from being able to execute the everyday tasks so well that there’s time to look around and exploit the changing winds and currents, from being able to exploit last-minute opportunities that no-one else could grab, from realizing that a design change would make the boat a lot faster. As in business, innovation happens best on a base of confident competence.
- Success comes from maintaining commitment and enthusiasm in the team and from keeping a team together for a long time. Positive reinforcement is better than negative. Fun is better than misery. There’s no substitute for appreciation. Teams that start to win and manage to stick together can win for a long time.
- Part of the magic behind long term success comes from a team having a character, a spirit and a personality. People want to stay because they’re in a group that means something to them.
- Matched ambitions..
- Sailing has competitions at every level, from the Olympics or America’s Cup to local club contests. Whatever level you’re going to play in, there needs to be ambition and a plan. Are we going to win? Are we aiming to win the club races this year and then move up to regional? Or are we happy with being 3rd in the club races?
- Mismatched ambitions leads to unhappy teams.
Now, don’t get me wrong… I’ve made mistakes in every single one of the points on this list, both on boats and in business. But I’ve learned from them and will continue to learn from them.
And when I see a sailboat winning races again and again, I know it’s not an accident. And when you see a happy team kicking ass….it’s probably not an accident either. So ask them to tell you how they do it. They just might.