Making the boat go faster

Strip away those things which have no impact on achieving your business’s crazy goal

Barry Shannon HR Matters
If what you do in your business doesn't make the boat go faster, then ditch it (Greg Pease/Getty Images)

In 1998 Great Britain had a pretty underwhelming men’s coxed eight rowing team. The 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia were on the near horizon and there wasn’t a huge amount of hope that they were going to make a dent in the medals. In fact, Great Britain hadn’t won this event since 1912 and this particular team had lost every event they had entered in the previous seven years.

By the end of the final race in Sydney, GB had won by around four fifths of a second, beating Australia into second place. A remarkable transformation.

Ben Hunt-Davies (one of the team), along with Harriet Beveridge, co-authored a book about how they closed the gap called ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’. In the book they detailed the remarkable transformation in attitude, performance and goal setting the team applied to get themselves up to that gold medal winning level.

Essentially, they created a laser focus on winning. And the formula was simple. To win, they had to get the boat moving quicker than all the others. It was therefore logical for them to put everything they did in pursuit of that goal under a spotlight, analysing it by asking the simple question: ‘does it make the boat go faster?’

If what they were doing didn’t help the boat go faster, then it was ditched.

They challenged the existing orthodoxy, the methodology and each other. Politeness took second place to honesty. They questioned everything they did, from gym work to diet. How will any of this help them win gold. They considered if they were just working hard every day to no real purpose, or whether they were working hard but in a way that was designed to help them win.

They set layered goals. They had their ultimate ‘crazy goal’ of winning the Olympics, then more concrete SMART goals, all the way down to their daily training targets. Importantly they knew how each impacted the other. Everything had a purpose, everything flowed, everything was connected.

They kept visual logs of their improvements on the wall of the gym they trained in, they called it the ‘evidence wall’. They could see that while they were not quite where they needed to be, they were improving week on week, month on month. The trend was in the right direction. They could see that what they were doing could logically take them to where they needed to be. To gold.

So how does this translate to the workplace? Quite easily to be fair.

Think of what your company’s ‘crazy goal’ is: to be ranked number one in the work? To have an office on every continent? To produce a million widgets a day? Decide on whatever that dream is then work backwards and apply the layered goals.

Consider what are the SMART targets and milestones right down to what needs to be achieved every minute/hour/day. Make sure they all link and follow on from one another. Next, sit down and work out what needs to happen for these to be achieved in real life, day in, day out. Then execute the dream.

Keep a track on progress and make sure everyone involved can see it.

At the same time; strip away those things which have no impact on achieving that crazy goal.

Ask questions. Challenge, even though people may not like that question (or answer). Do you need a certain standard of luxury packaging wrapped around your product, or will basic do, as your customers don’t really value it anyway? Do the local radio adverts you pay for really work or are they just for show? Does that graduate program you implemented really produce results, leading to a supply of employees who contribute to the company, or is it simply a way to tick boxes? Do you need a complex set of competencies, KPIs or OKRs, or would a more informal performance management system work better? Do you really need five management meetings a week or is it better to have one and let folks get one with their job?

Now, there are no definitive, generic, right or wrong answer to these questions. Some business may say yes, we actually do need these things in place and can point to evidence to back that claim up.

What you need to do therefore, is to figure out what is right or wrong for your particular business. Each Company is unique, so examine all the things you do and ask if they if they help you achieve your crazy goals and make your boat (not anyone else’s) go faster.

What you should try to avoid when doing this however, and which is one of the common mistakes companies make when they undertake this type of analysis, is to start ditching everything that does not immediately, directly, on the surface, have a connection to the company’s overall success.

For example: you might think that social events only cost the company money and potentially expose it to trouble, if too many drinks are consumed. At a basic level pizza and pints don’t help me make more widgets (you might say). Well, maybe not directly but they could they actually help people get to know one another better. In turn this can help build trust among colleagues and break down silos. Maybe then folks could work better together, solve problems together, be less protective of their own areas and think more on the greater good. Could that not ultimately lead to more widgets being produced? It potentially could.

Barry Shannon
Barry Shannon

The other thing we need to be careful with is sustainability. It may be ok for a sports person to work frantically toward a set, short term goal and then retire after winning gold. Companies need to keep going over a longer period.

That’s why some boats may need to get faster in increments, with plateaus in between to avoid burnout. Once the interim increase achieved becomes the new normal, you can go again, still working toward your overall objective, but doing it in a way that makes it sustainable when you get there!

  • Barry Shannon is a specialist in HR matters