Monday, 1 September 2008

The Relevance of Rowing for Business

The celebrated Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is both a public spectacle and a long-standing trial of strength between two rival universities. Over a quarter of a million spectators watch the race from the banks of the Thames, while a guestimated 120 million TV viewers follow the twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies of this private match, held each year between late March and early April. The first Oxbridge race took place in 1829 and, with the exception of the first and second World War years, the race has been held continuously since 1856.

It is on that four mile and 374 yard length of tidal river, between Putney and Mortlake, that the outer limits of human performance are explored, where two student crews row alongside each other until one of them decides it can no longer win. It is the ultimate varsity race.

What is the enduring appeal of this extreme sporting challenge? Is it that the protagonists represent two of the world’s oldest and grandest institutions - the intellectual homes of Nobel laureates, philosophers, mathematicians and politicians? Is it the secrecy surrounding crew selection and race preparation? Or is the enduring appeal of this British sporting institution due to the sharp contrasts it throws up: at once passionately amateur and yet holding to professional standards, exhibiting mutual respect yet intense rivalry too, where it’s all about taking part but where the pain of losing is both physical and mental, and laid bare for all to see?


Differences between Cambridge University rowing and business are easy to spot. Not all teams have as clear and unchangeable an objective as the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC). Founded in 1828, it exists for one reason only: to defeat Oxford in the annual Boat Race. Moreover, not all business teams can cherry-pick their membership. CUBC begins its season with around 40 keen athletes, from which it needs to select one crew of eight, plus a coxswain. Also, physical training has a degree of transparency not often found in business. Whereas everyone involved can see what weights you are lifting and how fast you are on a rowing machine, in typical business teams it is rather more difficult to isolate individual contributions.

Nevertheless, rowing contains some surprising similarities. Firstly, it requires a superb sense of coordination – something that remains relevant irrespective of whether you are doing the same thing (as in rowing) or are engaged in different, but complementary, activities. If, for example, the success of one’s work depends upon the input of others (as it so often does), the better coordinated the team is, the more efficient and successful it should be.

Secondly, Cambridge oarsmen – just like members of business team – are intelligent individuals, impatient of jargon or ‘management speak’. They easily see through any attempt at manipulation. Thirdly, rowing is an environment in which cooperation and competition co-exist in a necessary but socially often awkward relationship.

And, finally, rowing crews and business teams alike suffer from the Ringelmann Effect. Based on a set of experiments conducted in the 1880s and 1970s, Ringelmann and subsequent researchers discovered the inverse relationship between team size and individual effort due to a combination of increased coordination costs and social loafing. In other words, as more and more individuals are added to a team, the contribution of each individual team member decreases as they find it increasingly more difficult to coordinate their efforts with others and easier to get away with suboptimal performance.

Six parallels

But there may be further parallels between crews and teams. Here are six that we think are most relevant to the workplace:

1. What makes them good makes them difficult too. Cambridge oarsmen express individuality in wishing to remain on the coaches’ radar screens but togetherness in building team spirit. They are strong-minded yet rife with self-doubt, masculine yet unafraid of male intimacy, extraordinary in some ways yet so very ordinary in others too, ever prey to thinking that they can do always what they can do sometimes. For what makes them good makes them difficult: they are smart, which makes them have near-perfect faith in their intuitions; they are quick thinkers, meaning that they can be bad listeners; they are intolerant of failure, theirs as well as that of everyone else; they take an extraordinary level of performance as given; they will rarely admit to being wrong, and have little idea of the sort of impact their attitude has on others. As with most generalizations there are many exceptions to this characterization. But by and large Cambridge rowers are alphas, painstakingly cultivated yet a raw and instinctive cast of alpha males in a Dead Poets Society world.

How then do you craft a high performance team from a dysfunctional group of high performing individuals? It’s never going to be easy, though the following suggestions may help: don’t fall into the trap of cow-towing to these individuals (after all, everyone else does); confront them, if need be, with concrete examples or ‘hard’ data on their performance; be patient and empathetic as they argue their case (which may include blaming circumstances, or others, for their failure to perform), but be resolute. Remind them regularly of why this team exists and what you expect of them in very specific terms.

2. To collaborate effectively may require you to give up what you know has worked for you in the past. As with many organisations, the Cambridge squad is composed of various nationalities. This is relevant to the extent that rowing styles differ across the globe – from Canada to the US and Germany to Great Britain. These differences can be slight but, given the degree of coordination required in a crew, important. What this effectively means is that one is asking decorated oarsmen to give up a technique they know made them go fast in the past, and to adapt to that quintessential Cambridge style – something which takes some time getting used to. This can create much insecurity as rowers who might have been top dogs in their respective national squads are now slowing down their crews.

3. High performance crews, like business teams, are often characterised by tensions. However awkward this may feel at times, it does not mean they are dysfunctional. Far from it. And here is why. In most teams competition and cooperation co-exist, as do trust and vigilance, control and autonomy, unilateral and democratic decision-making, confrontation and compromise. The only way for rowers to compete effectively for a seat in the Blue Boat (or the crew that races Oxford) is to cooperate seamlessly with the very same individuals they are competing with.

Take the example of seat-racing as a selection tool. Here two crews of four race each other over a 1500 metre course. After finishing times are noted, two individuals (one from each crew) will swap places. The crews race each other again over the same course. Again, two individuals swap places after which the crews are raced once more. This process continues until the coaches are satisfied that they have been able to isolate the contributions of each rower to a crew. What this means, of course, is that oarsmen can only make their crews go fast by coordinating perfectly with those they were competing with only minutes ago. And what is true in rowing is often true in business too: competition must still weed out the inefficient and keep the fire at the heels of those involved. Yet cooperation is imperative to achieve organisational objectives. It too can improve efficiency in distributing information. Control likewise ensures efficiency even as autonomy may make organisations more creative. Trust is good but dangerous in the absence of vigilance. Thus these tensions must coexist. They are an ordinary characteristic of extraordinarily healthy teams, though sources of considerable anxiety.

4. Conflict occurs even as people agree on what’s important and why, and try hard to coordinate their efforts with others. It sometimes takes the shape of disagreements on how particular goals are best achieved, or it results from simple misunderstandings. What is striking is the degree to which crew and team members alike often resort to questioning each other’s intentions when faced with conflict. Behavioural science suggests that this is partly because we tend to think that our views of the world are more common than they actually are, or that we often believe ourselves to have access to an objective reality that those around us, if only they were more rational or clairvoyant, would have too. And yet experience tells us there are few things more destructive or alienating than for one’s intentions to be called into question. Our work with the Cambridge squad suggests that reality is actually often more benign than they think it is, leaving them with few justifications for paranoia. Imagine how much more efficient organisations would be if only they were to accept that the intentions of others are more often good than bad?

5. Individual performance is only ever meaningful in the context of a specific crew or team. What is interesting is the degree to which the performance of individual rowers can fluctuate depending on (i) who else they row with, and (ii) whether the seat they’ve been assigned caters to – or minimises – their self-concept. Some oarsmen, for example, dislike rowing with people they don’t rate, causing them to subtly under-perform. Or they fail to give their best if they feel undervalued by having been placed in, say, the middle section of the boat rather than the more technically demanding stern and bow sections.
These issues raise dilemmas for coaches and managers alike. After all, should one cater to someone’s ego to get the best out of him or her? Can this be done successfully without setting a precedent? Or should one fight that ego in the interest of fairness to the rest of the group?

6. Sometimes it makes sense to sacrifice technical ability to gain social skills in the interest of team performance. This would seem counter-intuitive in a sport as technically demanding as rowing. However, a socially gifted individual may help provide the glue to keep the crew together and thus minimise the Ringelmann Effect.

For example, the 2007 Cambridge crew included one oarsman who was included in the crew not based on his individual technical skills but because he seemed able to get a higher level of performance out of the rest of the crew. His affable personality was able to defuse conflict and help the crew gel socially.

There exists an interesting parallel of this in the management literature. In 2005, the Harvard Business Review carried an article provocatively entitled ‘Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks’. In it, the authors examined trade-off decisions made by managers when recruiting: does competence trump likeability, or vice versa? Unsurprisingly, most responded that it would be considered unprofessional not to hire the most competent for the job. However, in practice, managers more often sided with likeability as a criterion, suggesting that personal feelings play an important role in forming job-oriented relationships.

Of course this tradeoff relationship is contextual. If one requires brain-surgery, one should care infinitely more about competence than likeability. And a team of only likeable individuals may get little accomplished. However, it might make sense occasionally to trade one technically competent individual for one that is socially more gifted (even if technically less competent) if that improves the cohesiveness of the team.

Will social cohesiveness ensure team success? No it won’t. However, it will allow you to get the most out of each of the individuals involved – and that’s no mean feat.

The process of training and selecting the teams that will compete in 2009 begins soon. They will face six months of intensive coaching to mould them into a winning crew with just one chance to get it right on the day. Luckily, business teams get more than one opportunity to show what they are made of and pull together to achieve success.

(This article was first published in Professional Manager, Volume 17, Issue 5, September 2008:

Another short article on the link between business and rowing can be found in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, Vol 86, No 9, p. 28 (2008)

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