Fear, excitement, change – be prepared, it’s coming for you!


I am speaking at the Cambridge launch of the HubSpot User Group – HubSpot is an inbound marketing and sales software that helps companies attract visitors, convert leads, and close customers – so it will be something that I will be using in due course! I was asked to write a blog for them ahead of the event in November with a theme around change and how quickly things can divert from expectation and the plan we had carefully formulated…..this is it below:

We join Ian’s story as they leave the African coast behind…

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Big ocean, big challenge – the Atlantic Odyssey where it all began

Our ocean challenge was billed as ‘The Atlantic Odyssey’. We were 6 men brought together after an intensive 9 months of sea trials; some people dropped out, others could pay their way but looked unlikely to be able to row their way – there was a conflict between who had the funds to join the crew and who had the ability, physical and mental.

In the end, the crew, or so we thought – was selected on physical and mental merit – the one big gap in our testing being that we never tested the physical capability of all of the team; physical fitness comes from a simple willingness to train and train again. To train when we don’t feel like it, to train because we have our team-mates to support, to back ourselves and not least to have our eyes on the prize.

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Lasting the distance: Key Business Lessons from the sport of rowing

This is an article by    Director at Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia & Conference & Key Note Speaker, published on his Linkedin Page.

It gives a good insight into rowing over the standard 2,000 metre course – remember the ocean is 5,000,000 metres…

There is no doubt that businesses in every country around the world, regardless of sector and industry, are experiencing some pain in the current economic environment. In my home town of Perth there are numerous iron ore businesses experiencing significant pain right now. There are increasing pressures to become more nimble, cost effective, efficient, more innovative and higher performing.  I have recently observed a number of organisations on the brink of collapse, and not lasting the distance.  This prompted me to consider what is required for an organisation to thrive and last the distance. My mind immediately leapt to my experience as a rower, from rowing in high school to representing my country.

If one had to ask any rower around the world, from club level through to Olympic level, what makes rowing such an incredibly tough sport, I am confident that the one singular agreed response would be this: “The level of pain experienced”.  There a number of studies exploring the effectiveness of different pre-race and during the race strategies for managing the experience of pain during a race. Ultimately the key is to last the distance with the consistent delivery of maximum power output throughout the 2000m.

Below I will describe a number of strategies that rowers typically would implement to assist in lasting the distance that are equally applicable to business.

1.    Ten Strokes at a Time

Rowers race over a distance of 2000m, which is typically around 240 strokes.  Breaking this down further, every 500m is 60 strokes and every 250 m is approximately 30 strokes.  Rather than breaking out of the start with the mindset of “I have 235 strokes to go”, rowers typically focus very specifically on sets of strokes.  Some crews break the race into sets of 15 strokes, others into sets of 30 strokes.  Some of the best crews around the world break their race into 24 sets of 10 stroke pieces.  In addition to breaking the race into sets of 10 strokes, each set of ten strokes has a different and specific focus e.g. finishing square.

The primary reason for this specific focus for 10 strokes is to manage pain.  The evidence from the research shows that cognitive strategies that include focusing attention on specific technical aspects or elements of the stroke reduce the experience of pain.  The research also indicates that attentional focus contributes to a higher power output than when rowers are not focusing their attention on specifics elements of the stroke.

 Lesson for Business (10 strokes at a time)

  • During tough times, not only is it critical to have a clear vision and goal, this goal needs to be broken down into much smaller manageable sub-components (this could be time based / process based / frequency of activity based).
  • Create specific focus items during each sub-component e.g. quality, behaviours, language etc.
  • Regularly change the focus i.e. different focus each week e.g. week one – quality of verbal communication; week two – clear agendas for every meeting etc.

My observation is that many organisations implement KPI’s, goals etc. but are poor at breaking the work into clearer sub-components.  Furthermore, very few leaders provide a clear and specific focus for each sub-component. A classic example in the resource sector is the use of pre-start meetings to set the context for the shift’s work.  We observe over and over again pre-starts done so poorly, with no clarity on the progress to date, some clarity on the tasks for the shift, and no specific focus for the shift.  No wonder the crew are half-asleep in the back.

Anecdotally I observe that organisations that have outstanding pre-starts also have outstanding sustainable performance.

To last the distance organisations need to break the primary objective into much smaller specific sub-components with specific identified focus.

 2.    Plan Your Pushes (and Limit the Number)

Almost every crew would have a well-developed race-plan, which would not only articulate the specific focus points for each set of strokes, but also identify the timing for a 10 to 15 stroke push.

A ‘push’ is essentially a set of strokes where the crew lift their intensity (usually by 10% or so) and stroke rate.  The lift is unsustainable over 2000m, but can be used to create points in the race that create mental stepping blocks as well as put the opposition crews under pressure.

One of the biggest mistakes rowing crews can make is calling for push after push after push.  Ultimately the unsustainable additional effort causes an earlier than planned increased experience of fatigue resulting in a significant decrease in power output, which then usually leads to dropping off the pace.

The key to successful pushes is being highly disciplined about the implementation of a push, which includes a 100% absolute commitment for each crew member to input as required, as well as sticking specifically to the agreed timing and number of pushes.

Ideally the intention of the ‘push’ is to have a significant impact on the race and on boat speed. Don’t overuse pushes and don’t waste a push.

Lessons for Business (Plan your Pushes)

  • Be very careful about asking your people to do ‘more’; and if you do ask your people to do ‘more’ then it needs to be planned
  • Limit the number of times you ask your people to do ‘more’
  • Specify exactly what is expected when asked to deliver ‘more’
  • Build capability to deliver sustainable high quality rather than using a ‘push’ to deliver higher quality

To last the distance leaders need to anticipate and plan as much as possible for times when people need to do more, and then be very specific about the time, quality, and effort required.

 3.    Judge Effort Required by Evidence and not by how it Feels

One of the keys to success for the fastest boat over 2000m is a consistent power-output over the entire race.  This is surprisingly difficult.  The reason being that at the beginning of the race lactic acid levels are low, experienced pain is low, and the delivery of the required power-output feels easy, sometimes resulting in rowers working too hard too early on in the race, which ultimately leads to a significant drop in power output by the end of the race.

If a rower judges the level of effort by the way they feel, the power output would start really high and then drop significantly over the 2000m.  Seasoned and experienced rowers know that they need to judge the level of effort by the actual boat speed and power output, which means that the first 1000m (120 strokes) actually feels relatively comfortable.  Over the remaining 1000m the experience of pain and fatigue increases exponentially, but the actual power output should remain relatively consistent all the way through the race.

The key here is a highly disciplined and deliberate choice (decision) of effort required for every stroke set over the distance.

I hear many leaders talk about how ‘busy’ they are or the response from their team members is “I am too busy”.  “I am too busy” is a feeling, a perception of workload, and not a specific measure of activity.  There are times when people say they “are busy” but not actually delivering the expected outcomes.

Application to Business (Judge effort by Evidence)

  • Establish daily measures or mechanisms that provide evidence of effort
  • Ask people to explain what is keeping them busy when they respond with “I am too busy”
  • Create visible clarity of current priorities
  • Establish a practice of deciding where to focus effort
  • Eradicate the language “I am too busy” from the team

To last the distance organisations and leaders need to enable their people to judge their daily effort and make conscious choices about where to focus their effort.

4.    A Clean Boat is a Fast Boat

An attribute evident in all successful rowing crews is discipline.  This discipline is evident in every aspect of a rower’s life, from eating and sleeping to focused effort and concentration every stroke.  Establishing a culture of discipline is the key to success.  One of the best practices and rituals to establish the culture of discipline is maintaining the equipment.

Before each session the crew need to check their equipment and particularly prior to a race the double checking of all the settings and quality of the equipment is critically important.  Equally important is the discipline of cleaning and washing of the boat and the blades after each session. There is no doubt that crew’s that have an established culture of discipline will ultimately perform better in the boat. This discipline is evident in the cleanliness of the equipment.

In organisations and businesses, I can walk into the kitchen area or a meeting room and very quickly assess whether or not there is a culture of discipline.  Furthermore, anecdotally, all those organisations that have neat and tidy kitchens and meeting rooms are also performing better than their competitors.

Application to Business (A Clean Boat is a Fast Boat)

  • Establish an agreed practice of tidying up meeting rooms and shared areas
  • Expect every team member to implement the agreed practice and immediately address any team member not doing so
  • Establish agreed practices around behaviours, language and attitude
  • Give permission for each and every person to hold any other person accountable to the agreed practice
  • Establish a culture of disciplined practice

To last the distance leaders need to establish agreed practices then expect everyone to not only practice the agreed practice but also hold each other accountable to the agreed practice.

Race Your Own Race

An outcome of a crew that has a well-established race plan, clearly defined pushes, conscious choice around effort, and a culture of discipline, is that the crews are confident in their ability and the race plan.  A crew that is confident in their race plan is then able to race their own race.

A mistake that lesser experienced crews make is being sucked into racing the other crews and disregarding their own race plan.  Of course there is a balance. The crew does need to be aware of what is going on around them and then make a conscious decision about whether to push early or respond to an unexpected pace of a competitor.  However, crews who have an element of flexibility and adaptability, but race their own race perform better.

The key to making this work is to assign the responsibility of scanning the surroundings to one member of the crew as well as assign the decision of changing the race plan to one person.  There also needs to be an agreement that once the decision is made to change the plan that everyone gets on board and commits to the new plan.

Crews that are reactive i.e. race based on the pace of others end up making incorrect decisions as well as very often don’t have a collective effort, which is inefficient and reduces boat speed. Furthermore, crews who have team members who are all scanning and looking out the boat end up losing focus and effectiveness.

The crew need to agree on the criteria for changing the plan prior to the race.  For example, the crew might know that one of their competitors goes out really hard, and so they expect to be down by one length at 500m gone.  However, the crew might agree that if in that first 500m this particular crew gains more than one length that they will then bring their push forward to attempt to counter the larger gap.

Application to Business (Race Your Own Race)

  • Establish confidence and belief in the plan
  • Gain a verbal and demonstrated commitment to the plan
  • Assign responsibility to scan the environment to one person and expect that person to report back regularly to the team on any changes etc.
  • Assign responsibility for changing the plan to one person
  • Stick to the plan

To last the distance businesses need to have a clearly articulated and believable plan that the team commit to follow, but at the same time have an agreed flexibility to the plan with specific agreed criteria.

Visibility of Individual Performance

Common of many sports, but in particular rowing, is the visibility of individual performance and feedback.  Typically every crew member would know what every other crew members best and current ergo times are, and in many cases are published on the notice board.  The crew would also typically train in the gym together and know exactly who is stronger and can push more weights than the others.  The crew would also be asked to verbalise their heart rates during training sessions as well as other measures such as power output (from pressure gauges on the gates) and lactate levels (blood samples taken at end of set pieces).

Furthermore, the coach would be providing feedback to each crew member on what they need to be doing better or differently during the session in front of every other crew member. The coach would typically also use video and then following the session in slow-motion review each crew member’s stroke with the entire crew present. Essentially, there is an absolute visibility of individual performance.  There is no hiding.

I believe if there is one thing that business needs to learn from sport and rowing, it is that the visibility of individual performance improves collective performance.

I would love to see organisations use video rooms in which leaders need to run a meeting as well as an individual coaching conversation once a month.  Following the recorded session the leader’s line manager debriefs the recorded session and works through what could be done differently.

Application to Business (Visibility of Individual Performance)

  • Gain acceptance and agreement from the business/team on what individual performance measures will be visible
  • Establish a visible performance board with each person’s individual performance mapped against others (for the agreed measures above)
  • Have regular team discussions with feedback and input from team members on each person’s performance

To last the distance leaders and organisations need to have the courage and skills to move toward a visibility of individual performance measures and discussions.

Lasting the Distance – Amundsen vs Scott

Many of you would know the story of Amundsen versus Scott in the race to the South Pole in 1911.

Scott’s last diary entry on the 29th March 1912 shortly before he and his men died:“Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from the W.S. and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.  It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write any more. R. Scott”

In contrast:

Amundsen’s diary entry on the 14th Dec 1911: “So we arrived, and we were able to raise our flag at the geographical South Pole- King Hakon VII’s Vidda. Thanks be to God. …”

 Source – Race for the South Pole: Expedition Diaries

There has been much written about the difference between the two men and the way they managed the race to the South Pole.  Below are a couple of the key differences:

  • Amundsen was a meticulous planner: he spent time living with Eskimos; he experimented with different food sources; he tested all of his equipment and ship. Scott did very little testing of equipment.
  • Amundsen flagged his primary depot as well as marking his return path. Scott did not mark his return journey.
  • Amundsen stored three tons of supplies for 5 men. Scott stored 1 ton for 17 men.
  • Amundsen took four thermometers. Scott took one.
  • Amundsen chose dogs. Scott chose ponies and motorised sleds that had not been tested in minus 50 degree temperatures.
  • Amundsen arrived back at home base on precisely the day that he’d identified in his plan.

Source: Jim Collins – Great by Choice

Jim Collins in his book ‘Great by Choice’ describes the differences between Amundsen and Scott and writes a compelling argument for use of three core behaviours for sustainable success: Fanatic Discipline, Productive Paranoia, and Empirical Creativity.

The above described lessons from the sport of Rowing are not new, and are supported by stories such as Amundsen and Scott and the research such as that by Jim Collins.  If we know all this then why are we not implementing these strategies in our day to day business?

I believe there is much we can learn from sport, but in particular sport of rowing.  I hope that the strategies for ‘Lasting the Distance’ described above have stimulated your thoughts on what you could be doing differently in your business to help your organisation last the distance.

Finally, not only does a rower know and acknowledges that pain is part and parcel of racing, but they also know that the better one is able to manage and cope with the pain the more likely one will last the distance. For those organisations going through pain right now I recommend the following:

  1. Focus very specifically on the next ten strokes (short period of time).
  2. Plan when and how you will expect the collective ‘push’
  3. Judge effort by the evidence and not how it feels.
  4. Expect a highly disciplined approach to work in every aspect of work.
  5. Establish and articulate a clear plan to manage the pressures.
  6. Make everyone feel accountable with visible performance measures.

Great rowers are physiological freaks; but, that quality is minimal compared to their psyche and to their ability to essentially experience pain – and experience discomfort – and yet be able to do the work knowing that it’s going to continue.

— Fritz Hagerman, Sports Physiologist

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.