The Power of People and Teamwork
Published March 2, 2020
From a very young age, we are continually bombarded with dogma on the value of teamwork. LinkedIn feeds, corporate memos, consultants, and management gurus all continue to preach this mantra as the ultimate solution to any operational or business challenge. But is teamwork always the best approach? There is almost always an individual or small group that can find a way to outperform, or at the least perform more efficiently, than their larger counterparts. If teamwork makes the dream work, then shouldn’t a larger team be able to accomplish larger dreams?
On corporate and investor balance sheets, this is the prevailing wisdom, but as teams and the global economy continue to grow, it is important to draw a distinction between collaboration and teamwork. Is your team simply collaborating or actually performing team work? Effective collaboration requires an exchange of knowledge and best practices; however, by definition, it is merely one worker sharing their knowledge and experience to advance the project of another worker. Is this help and assistance from team members in a timely fashion? Is the collaboration at the expense of employee time that could be more productively spent elsewhere? Who or whom is responsible for seeing this project to completion? Often collaboration may take place, under the guise of teamwork, without pertinent answers to these questions.
To dive a little deeper into this concept of what it means to actually perform team work, and not just collaborate, there is no better example than a tried-and-true sports analogy. Sports analogies have become cliché in the world of professional and management coaching, as aspects of almost any team sport can be applied to a corporate team competing in the marketplace. Let’s face it, they are great examples. In theory, every team member has a goal, and together, in coordinated harmony, their individual efforts will be amplified.
In recent years, sports analogies have fallen a bit out of the mainstream, as they have a tendency to be most effective to those who enjoy and understand sports and may alienate those who are not sports fans. However, the sport of rowing, not widely understood or known by most people, is the perfect example of how teamwork, when applied effectively and efficiently, can have exponential effects on the entire group’s efforts. Rowing conveys extraordinary teamwork, both visually and metaphorically, but the real reason rowing is the perfect embodiment of the value of teamwork comes down to one thing: physics.
While rowing shells come in a variety of sizes (even individual), for this example we will focus on the eight-person shell, which contains eight rowers, each with a single oar rigged out to alternate sides of the boat, and a ninth member, a “coxswain” who steers the boat and gives commands.
From a physics perspective, what moves the shell the fastest, and hopefully wins the race, is synchronized power, applied via the oar, at the exact same time, at the exact same angle. An ideal crew would be made of up athletes who are the exact same size (height, weight, wingspan, etc.), the exact same strength, have the exact same level of endurance, and the exact same level of skill and style with their stroke. When factoring in varying body types, weather, fatigue, and psychological factors, you will quickly realize that applying the same amount of power, at the same angle, at the same time, is next to impossible. Some of the strongest and fastest crews in the world, Olympic champions, are only moving their boats with around a 50% efficiency rate. Believe it or not, a smaller, less powerful, and less fit crew, rowing at 100% efficiency, will beat those Olympic champions 10 out of 10 times.
There are few other analogies in sports, or in life, where a group of people are doing the exact same thing, in perfect synchronicity, and in pursuit of a common goal. Here are a few examples of how teamwork, applied effectively in a rowing shell, can accomplish amazing things.
What many people do not realize about the rowing shell, is that the boat contains a sliding seat which enables the rower to apply power to the oar handle using their legs, the largest and strongest muscles in the body. When a rower “crunches” up their legs and reaches forward in preparation for the next stroke, the angles of all eight oars must match in relation to the center of the shell. Think about it, the power applied to the water from the end of the oar must be in the same direction as the others. If some oars are entering the water are varying angles, their path through the water, and application of power, will be extremely different. In the sport of rowing, power applied at an angle different from that of the “majority” of the boat, is actually detrimental to speed. Rowers go to great lengths to gain flexibility and alter equipment to achieve these ideal angles with each stroke. From a business perspective, it is important to understand the angles from which your team members are contributing. Are these angles/approaches aligned? Are there fundamental strategies or goals that are not understood by all team members that could be holding your team back?
If you’ve ever tried to row a boat or paddle a canoe with another person, you quickly learn that timing is everything. In rowing, the tip of the oar, or the blade, is the part that enters the water. Simply put, a blade in the water is either accelerating the boat or stopping the boat. There is no middle ground. In an ideal rowing stroke, all eight rowers will reach what is called the “catch,” the point of the stroke where the oar enters the water, at the exact same time. While human faculties can get us pretty close, this is technically impossible to do, especially repeatedly over the course of a race. But there is so much more to timing than just getting the blade in the water at the right time. Power must also be applied simultaneously and in coordination with the rest of the crew. It’s not just about being there together, but about working together. If your oar is not there and accelerating with the others, then it’s putting on the brakes. Is the timing of your collaboration efficient? Is the timeline of the project or collaboration meetings getting the best out of your team? In business, as in rowing, showing up early/late or without a shared intention is only slowing down the boat.
Perhaps one of the most ironic things about the ultimate team sport of rowing is the obvious accountability for each and every rower. As in accounting, the numbers don’t lie, but in rowing, it’s the puddles. To a trained coaches’ eye, it is easy to see the puddle emanating from each rower’s oar and infer their level of power and effort. Additionally, it is not hard for other rowers to see the puddles of their teammates during a race. This level of accountability in a rowing shell keeps the team honest with each other and their commitment to a common goal. From a business perspective, does your organization have clear indicators of accountability?
As you may have inferred from my brief explanation of rowing physics above, tall and powerful people are typically the best rowers. They can achieve the best angles and apply more power than shorter and weaker athletes. However, the most important person in the boat, the coxswain, responsible for steering and commanding the crew, is always the smallest. In fact, coxswains are usually very small and loud people, as the less they weigh and the louder they yell, the faster the boat can go. To maximize power application, rowers face backwards in the boat, and the coxswain serves as the eyes and ears for the entire crew. They are responsible for directing which rowers row and at what speeds, not only in racing situations, but also in critical safety and boat traffic situations. For these reasons, and it is generally accepted in the sport, a coxswain’s orders should never be defied on the water. These interesting power dynamics between people with different athletic abilities and different skill sets, all critical to the boat’s success, are a microcosm of the business world. Are team members aware and appreciative of what other team members are bringing to the project, even if it is in a different capacity than themselves? Are team members willing to trust a leader sees the big picture, even if they themselves are “rowing backwards”?
While sports analogies have explored the value of teamwork ad nauseum, the sport of rowing leaves no room for interpretation. Very complex, but also so simple at the same time, the example of rowing provides a very real and physical result to effective teamwork, or lack thereof. So, the next time you are talking to your team about teamwork, make sure your angles, power, and timing match up, or you could be sinking the boat.