Saturday, 31 March 2007

Working Together

THERE seems to be something about the sport of rowing that makes it look like an endeavor meant only for intelligent individuals.

For a start, it requires perfect motor coordination from the participants— with each stroke by every member of the team timed to exact precision—so no amount of precious energy is dissipated, and everything is channeled towards making the craft move speedily and steadily forward.

Secondly, it requires careful strategic thinking. How many times have we seen it before in Olympic races–rowers starting very fast, only to fade away in the homestretch—with the eventual winner usually the team that is able to maintain a sustained pace all the way from start to finish.

Third, team selection is of utmost importance. A bunch of muscular athletes does not a good rowing team necessarily make. Abilities have to be complementary, as well as supplementary. Each member’s contribution has to be measured in terms of its effect on overall team performance, rather than on individual brilliance alone.

Come to think of it, this is probably the reason why rowing is the sport of choice for esteemed institutions of learning like Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. It just makes perfect sense—it is a sport for intelligent and thinking individuals.

For me, rowing is the perfect metaphor for how an effective organization ought to be intelligently run.

It has all the same elements that a business needs to have in order to be successful. Let us take each of them in turn.

PERFECT COORDINATION. We remember well the debacle of the American superstars in the last Olympic basketball championships. Despite an enormous wealth of individual talent, they were not a cohesive and coordinated team, with the acrobatic exertions of the gifted players sometimes actually getting in the way of the other members’ performance.

In rowing, there is no place for this. If one side rows faster than the other, the boat will start to spin and go around in circles. Even the slightest hint of an imbalance in effort is enough to hinder forward progress significantly.

TEAM SELECTION. As we have noted, pure brawn is no guarantee for success. In fact, it is a surefire recipe for failure. Selection is therefore geared towards making sure that team members’ strengths are properly matched to others’ weaknesses, so that any individual disadvantage is effectively neutralized.

How many times have we witnessed organizations where key individuals are constantly at each others’ throats, either vying for power supremacy or seeking economic gain?

Sometimes, this is disguised by organizations as embracing diversity, by allowing disparate-minded individuals to work together in a team. Sometimes this is true, and in certain cases beneficial. But uncontrolled diversity could easily degenerate into total chaos, and most teams are probably unaware which side of the diversity divide their own lies.

STRATEGIC THINKING. Of course, no team wins consistently without an effective strategy. The dominance of the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics in the 1980’s, and that of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s was no accident. It was not even due to good players primarily, though the fact that they were there helped a lot. It was mostly down to the strategic abilities of Pat Riley, KC Jones and Phil Jackson.

Without the genius that these coaches had in ensuring that their team’s skills were balanced in both attack and defense, and that they had the right complement of players to last the entire campaign to begin with, no Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson would have been good enough to win as many times as they did.

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, March 31, 2007 (

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