The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. Construction has a lot to learn from yacht racing.
Offshore yacht racing with crews of a dozen or more doing complex tasks quickly and safely has long been used for team building and modelling how a high performance business might work. When I decided to buy a boat in 2004 to go racing I was about to find out why, the hard way. On reflection, I wonder if the construction industry as a whole might learn a few lessons from teamwork at sea.
I’ve raced boats and sailed pretty much all my life, dingy racing as a teenager, cruising with my family on holiday and chartering the odd boat for racing. But in 2004 at the age of 52 I thought it was time to buy a decent boat and take it seriously. It looked toe-curlingly expensive but I was egged on with thoughts that “you’re a long time dead”. So, I bought a successful boat and set about finding a crew. That proved difficult as people with the skills, time to spare and the right attitude are rare and are usually already on good boat campaigns. Nevertheless a motley crew was assembled and off we went racing. Who was going to do what was my first dilemma. I decided to rotate the crew through all the boat’s positions, helming, trimming, navigating etc. It was a comedy of errors: sails were torn, tempers were frayed and results by the end of the season were disastrous. At worst, it was dangerous. We needed a plan, all change.
Everyone needs to know what’s happening, where you are going and what their job is in the business. Knowing that your colleagues are relying on you just makes you up your game.
At the start of 2005 I hired a professional tactician to sail with us, announced that we would try for a place in the British team for the 2006 Commodore’s Cup and hired the GBR Olympic sailing coach, the amazing Jim Saltonstall, to train us. We had a clear ambitious goal, decent equipment, and a convincing training programme. Suddenly, good people wanted to join the boat and we were off to the races.
We became specialists and allocated a position in the boat: bow, mid bow, mast, pit, upwind trim team, downwind trim team, main, helm (me), tactician and navigation. We did our job, and nobody else’s. We focused on our task and trusted others to do theirs. My job was simply to make the boat sail at the right speed in whatever direction I was told to go in. The boat began to do better, if not well.
During one race a crew member was tidying the cockpit on a crucial run. “What are you doing?” barked the tactician. “Tidying the sheets,” came the sheepish reply. Then came the line that has stayed with me ever since. “Does it make the boat go faster?” “Well, no but …” stuttered my crewman. “Well, stop doing that and find something to do that makes the boat go faster.” That’s how you win races, everyone focuses on doing something that achieves the goal that has been set.
Jim Saltonstall is the guy who made the GBR team great in sailing at the Olympics. He videoed our attempts at racing to show us where we were going wrong. He made what we thought were complex issues seem simple. Everything was clarified so everyone understood what was going on and what their part in every manoeuvre would be. Our results improved through the season and we scraped into the GBR team, had a credible showing in the regatta and learned a massive amount about racing boats.
Appalling cost and time overruns 20 or more years ago has bred a culture of risk management which simply makes projects go slower.
And a massive amount about running a business. The parallels are obvious. If you set ambitious, attractive goals and give top class support, you will attract the very best people to your team and it’s the quality of people you have that counts. Then you have to make the best of what you have, so loyalty and training are important. Everyone needs to know what’s happening, where you are going and what their job is in the business. And knowing that your colleagues are relying on you just makes you up your game.
The wider construction industry rarely feels like this. Goals are often not clear; information can be on a “need to know” basis. Communication can be patchy and a different story often given to different parts of the team. The destination is often changed mid project. Checkers check you are doing your job, then a checker checks the checker. Rather than a lean team, there can be too many people and not enough of them doing a good job. Often, it just doesn’t feel like one team. Appalling cost and time overruns 20 or more years ago has bred a culture of risk management which simply makes projects go slower, more conservatively, rather than more accurately and at higher speed.
We need to make the construction industry’s boat go faster.
A version of this post appeared on Building.co.uk (subscription required).