July 24, 2013 in True Strength, Intent, Action, Book reviews

Will it make the boat go faster?

Most people, teams, and organisations that I know are busy; really busy with both plenty of work and plenty of additional things that they should/could do to the extent that they simply can’t do it all. I often come back to David Allen’s comment (which I quote in my manifesto) that “You can do anything, but not everything”. I know it isn’t always easy to choose but you’re going to end up making a choice one way or another so you might as well do it intentionally. Even worse, I sometimes see people, teams, and organisations do things that seem to achieve the opposite of what I think they want.


So, how do you choose what to do? One approach that I’ve used a number of times is the one that Ben Hunt-Davis & Harriet Beveridge describe in “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? – Olympic-winning strategies for everyday success”. Hunt-Davis draws on his personal experience of the journey to an Olympic Gold Medal as a member of the men’s coxed eight rowing team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He uses this to illustrate many aspects of what it takes to succeed with Hunt-Davis recounting a story and Beveridge unpacking this to identify the underlying strategies.

I think the most powerful story of all relates to goal-setting where Hunt-Davis talks about the rowing squad having absolute complete clarity over what success looks like, of knowing that on a certain day and time they needed to row 2,000 metres in 5 minutes 18 seconds. This gave the team a very simple aim of making the boat go faster and Hunt-Davis cites the benefits of this simple, shared goal as:
– Helping you figure out what to do – Will it make the boat go faster?
– Providing clarity when you’re uncertain – Will it make the boat go faster?
– Resolving differences of opinion in the team – Will it make the boat go faster?
– Helping you bounce back after difficult times with an unrelenting focus – Will it make the boat go faster?

It is quite similar to the obsessive focus that Sir Dave Brailsford is known for in British Cycling. I know it sounds really obvious but there are loads of people, teams, and organisations who don’t have that focus.

I was looking for an example to illustrate organisations making poor choices and, as I write, I’ve just seen this tweet from Amanda Arrowsmith:

I’m assuming that their payroll provider want to keep clients happy, retain them and win new clients on the basis of recommendation. So why on earth would they be doing something that is totally at odds with this and irritates Amanda to this extent? It is far too easy to find examples of customer service organisations who do things that seem designed to have the opposite effect. Asking a guiding question in everything you do can be a powerful way to keep your focus on what matters.


The book has a bit of a self-help feel to it and I struggled with it a bit as that is a genre that I’m not a fan of but there’s lots of good material in there, with some great points on goal setting, motivation, and resilience and I found the book worthwhile just for the one illustration that I’ve quoted.


I think this can be a great technique to aid focus and unite a team around a clear goal. If you want to apply this, it is very simple with just two steps.


The first step: Define your reference question. Mine is ‘Does it help people, teams, and organisations be resilient and realise their strengths?’.
The second step is even simpler: Ask it. Keep asking it.


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