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My very good client BTG plc has created a habit of getting leadership teams together into racing boats for a day, in serious waters, to race, of course. The coach team are of Olympian level, indeed some of them now part of the British Olympic Team. They get the instructions first thing in the morning, get to do some training in the water and then racing for the rest of the day. Some people may be sportive, some may have never been in a boat before. After the long day, the dinner, the social aspect and a goof night sleep, the next day the team is confronted with their own business situation to apply any learning form the day before. It works brilliantly.

There is an extraordinary immediate (organisational and leadership) learning from the model, which I’d like to unpack. The whole experience, can be unbounded into 4 components. I will explain, and, at the same time, I will make the comparison with what is more or less standard in our business life.

  1. Minimal instructions. The early morning class on racing is beautifully done, but it is one hour, max. There you have ‘all you need to know’ from safety to rules of racing; from winds to maneuvering; from strategy to tactics. BTG calls this the ‘get it’ part. Compare that with our obsession with having a perfect briefing with perfect data with all the dots in a row and boxes ticked, before we start doing anything.
  2. Minimum sense making. Nobody receives the total wisdom on racing in an hour, There is no room for absolutely, everything to make sense. It just makes enough sense to assume that that other things will emerge. Enough sense to act. Compare with our usual need to obtain maximum comfort. Is everybody on board? Everybody aligned? Does management support this and that? Are we sure that this is what he CEO wants? Have we double checked with the US? We spend our organization life creating ‘packaged comfort’ before we act.
  3. The magic trust comes in. If the team has a decent level of trust, between their members, the magic sparks. You trust that others will have understood, that others will know what to do, that others will help and jump if needed. No trust, this is where all breaks down, or at least starts having some cracks. In our organizational life trust is also the fuel. Nobody quite knows how to create it but you’ll see it when you’ll see it, or you wont. In BTG racing sessions, teams with intrinsic low or poor trust in real life, perform significanlty worse in the waters. Interestingly, the coaches who may not know about the teams themselves in rewal life, can spot and predict a bad business execution but seeing what happens in those boats. And they are always right.
  4. Then you go, go, go. And recalibrate, and execute. BTG calls these in several ways: to be ‘on it’, to ‘look out’ and to have the ‘appropriate bandwidth’. It is an imperfect world. As a guest, I have attended sessions where in the morning and during the training bits we have dealt with all possible winds and associated manoeuvring, to get into the race itself and find zero wind, nothing moves whatsoever. Prepared for high winds, what do you do with lack of it. Does it sounds business as well?

I am incredible skeptical of ‘sports analogies’ for business. This one works, because it is not an analogy, it is real experience of an full imperfect world in a day with immediate, transferable. unavoidable learning.

Dealing with the imperfect, the unpredictable, the ambiguous is part of todays business life. Part of my serious leadership development toolkits. And for the imperfect, the unpredictable, and the ambiguous, people still seek perfect training, perfect guarantees and perfect comfort. Old school that is.

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