Last Friday to Saturday I had the good fortune of being invited to crew on my friend Mark Hansen’s boat Sweet Lorraine (a beautiful J-145) in the 2012 Vineyard race. The course starts near the Stamford Harbor, goes up to the Buzzard’s Bay Light Tower and then returns south of Block Island all the way to Stamford for a total length of about 238 nautical miles. We are the rightmost boat in the picture below, taken shortly after the start.
The crew consisted of extremely experienced and successful sailors including several national/world champions in their respective boat classes. I on the other hand have very little race experience and even my total sailing experience was a tiny fraction of that of the rest of the crew. Everyone on board was super generous explaining things to me and being patient when I took a bit longer to get the hang of something or outright screwed up (e.g., overtrimming the spinnaker). As a result I learned a ton! I also really came to appreciate the many lessons about team work from sailing with such a great group.
First, it is tremendously useful to check your ego at the gate (the opening in the lifelines for getting aboard). Despite their tremendous individual accomplishments everyone did whatever was needed at the moment to help move the boat forward. On a boat that often includes cleanup, such as coiling lines so that they don’t obstruct movement and also can run out easily when needed. High performing teams at work take a similar approach where every team member takes responsibility for the quality of the operation (and isn’t above picking up trash in the office when that’s needed).
Second, a clear division of labor makes everyone on the team effective. On a crew everyone has a position at any one time (positions may rotate). The responsibilities for each position are well defined. I have encountered many teams in the workplace where people were not sure what they should be working on which results either in duplication or in gaps with work that doesn’t get done.
Third, communication is the lifeblood of a team. There is a nearly constant flow of information on the boat that enables team members to make the right local decisions. For instance at one point the wind was quite gusty and one team member announced incoming gusts letting both the helm and the sail trimmers adjust accordingly. I think too often in work teams there is an assumption that others have the information already when that’s not in fact the case.
Fourth, recover quickly from errors. When something goes wrong on a boat, there is no time to go sulking. Instead the problem needs to be fixed or it will generally get much worse. There is time to discuss what went wrong and how to avoid it once the problem has been fixed. Put differently, a moment of crisis is not a good time for the team to start questioning each other. That too is a good way to operate as a team at work.
Fifth, don’t get bent out of shape. Sometimes on a boat somebody will yell, especially when something is going wrong or about to go wrong and it is important to pay attention quickly. People don’t take that personally. With work teams at crunch time sometimes things are said without a ton of reflection. There too it will help a lot if people don’t take that personally and instead focus on getting back to the job at hand.
Sixth, experience is the right basis for authority. Of course there is a formal hierarchy on a boat. For instance, each watch on Sweet Lorraine had a designated watch captain. But what made it easy to pay attention was the experience that people brought with them. That I think is another critical lesson for high performing teams. The team leadership is based on domain authority instead of formal titles.
In the end we finished second in our class and sixth overall in a super competitive race where after 24+ hours of racing boats were often only minutes apart. It was a terrific experience and I will make sure to apply some of the team lessons in working with our portfolio companies.
Speaking of teams and portfolio companies: The team at Shapeways has made a great video about the power of 3D printing. You should go watch it — it does a great job conveying the excitement both inside the company and among the people using Shapeways!