The business world loves to turn to sports when talking about team work, as it is such a compelling visualization of what teams in action can do. When strapped for a metaphor, using baseball or other team sports can feel like a good fit. However, in my estimation, the most potent business metaphor from the sports world is that of the rowing team. Whether you’re working on a plan for your online marketing in Orange County, or any other project your team is approaching, striving for the teamwork, synergy and endurance of rowers is the ideal goal.
Acting as One
It’s been said that a rowing team is highly egalitarian. If you’ve seen a rowing team, you’ll be familiar with the person sitting at the front of the boat, facing the opposite direction of everyone else. Dubbed the coxswain, this person may appear to the uninitiated to be the leader of sorts, commanding the rowers to row harder, faster, and so on. But the coxswain shouldn’t be confused with the cartoonish drum-pounding master of a Viking slave ship. The coxswain does, in fact, offer motivation, but most importantly, he’s there to steer if needed, and as a safety precaution, so that the rowers don’t unwittingly hit something. There is also a lead rower, called the stroke, who officially sets the pace. he must be empathetic with the team so that he can set the perfect pace for everyone. And, essentially, it should be noted that a rowing team always rotates these positions, so that everyone serves in each position. There are no star rowers.
The Perfect Stroke
With the team in place, the rowers are united in pursuing one thing: the perfect stroke. This is when every movement of each individual rower is united toward the singular goal of moving as one. Michael Jordan went down in history for averaging 30+ points per game, but a rower will never have that luck. Far more than basketball and other team sports, where great players can stand out and distinguish themselves, in rowing the team is everything. The rower has the exact opposite goal: the rower is there to strengthen the collective, and to have their efforts disappear into it.
The achievement of the perfect stroke balances on razor-thin timing. If one rower dips their oar into the water just an eighth of a second before or after the others, the disturbed water works against the efforts of the rest. The synergy of the team is lessened. If you ask any rower, individual strength, while important, is nothing compared to timing. Unanimously, the stronger team will be outdone by the weaker team if they excel in communication, timing, and form.
The Goal of Rowing
The implications for businesses are many. Everything from product development on through online marketing in Orange County is fueled by team work, and the way we talk about team work matters. Too often the sport metaphors we employ at work aren’t about the team at all. We encourage an employee to hit a home run, or go for the Hail Mary. Subtly, these sayings reinforce the individual and the ego, not the power and integrity of the team. As you can see, with rowing, we’re talking about a different kind of team work. That’s because a rowing team holds a different kind of goal. Rowing is essentially about efficiency and endurance, which is why it’s my favorite metaphor for a business. While it’s true that different teams have different kinds of goals, we must not let the longer-term, endurance-oriented team building go to the wayside. In order to reach a level of consistently good team work with long-term quality, a rowing team, and those that want to emulate them, must act with empathy, meaning they feel the needs of their team and adjust accordingly. The ideal pace is the pace that works for everyone, and when we find that pace, our efforts are magnified.