Team Building and the Art of the Swing

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Jul 28, 2016

After Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he referenced the book, Boys in the Boat, a memoir about the Olympic quest by the 1936 University of Washington men’s rowing team, in a memo to the entire company. He said,

There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define… It’s called ‘swing.’ It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.

So, what exactly is swing, and why should companies strive to find it? As George Pocock, the great philosopher of rowing said of swing, “Therein lies the secret of successful crews: Their swing makes the work of propelling the shell a delight.” Swing allows regular people to achieve extraordinary results. Companies that have swing overachieve beyond the sum of the individuals on the project, and companies without swing never move beyond the sum of individual efforts.

Could your company benefit from better swing? Here’s how rowing can help:

Rowing breaks down barriers

The odds are likely that very few people at your company have rowed before, so when you put everyone together is a rowing shell, they’re on an equal playing field, and similarly out of their comfort zone. Learning to row is like learning to ride a bike — challenging at first, but once you’ve figured out how to do it, together your crew will hit their stride. This creates a tangible experience of swing. As the group learns how to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the boat, it will be clear that the more people swing together, the faster they will all make the boat go.

Rowing fosters multi-level communication

Synchronization is vital to rowing, but for it to happen every member of the boat has to be aware of communication on multiple levels. When you are in a rowing shell, you can see only the back of the person directly in front of you — everyone else in the boat is out of sight — but you can feel them move. As a result, you experience the swing very tangibly as a cohesive unit as the boat surges through the water after each stroke. Rowers instantly learn to pay careful attention to the person in front of them in addition to feeling the motion of the entire crew. Adding to this non-verbal communication, every shell has one very verbal person in every boat — the coxswain — whose main responsibility is to lead the actions of the crew with verbal cues. Like a great team leader, the coxswain keeps the rowers focused on their collective goal, especially when conditions become unstable or challenging.

Rowing creates tangible results

When you watch a rowing shell glide down a stretch of water it looks effortless and beautiful, but it is no small feat to move a 65 foot long hull from point A to point B. Rowing requires a team of individuals to come together and work in perfect unison. The boat will only reach its potential when every team member is challenged to their personal limit and, at the same time, they are working toward a common goal. When the boat starts to swing, your team will cross the finish line first. Unlike other team building sports, when you hit that stride in a rowing shell, your success can be easily measured — in meters, in time, and swing together.

Think your company needs to find its swing? It may be time to get out of the boardroom and get into the water.

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