Change Management Lessons from Sailing

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BMW Oracle America’s Cup

As a sailor, I can’t help but draw parallels between the teams of America’s Cup racing and the project teams of major change initiatives.  Although as a change manager, I wish project leadership managed with the same integrated understanding of the factors influencing project performance.

I encourage you to check out this series from TheSailingChannel highlighting roles of the BMW Oracle team to get a sense of what I mean.  For those of you who find yourselves in change or project management roles, the videos describing the jobs of the afterguard will be of particular interest.

The afterguard are the decision-making members of a racing team stationed on the after part of the boat (the rear, for those of you who aren’t boaters).  The team typically includes the skipper, helmsman, navigator, strategist, and tactician.  The actual number and duties may vary from crew to crew, but the objective remains the same:  control the balance and course of the boat.

The video I’ve included in this post is of the strategist.  I thought the activities were most similar to those required for good change management.

Hardcore racers know I’m oversimplifying, but racing can be broken down into two sets of activities.  There are those activities that help you manage inside the boat, such as steering and trimming the sails, and those activities that help you adapt to what’s outside the boat, such as checking the wind and assessing the position of competitors.

The strategist spends most of his or her time focused outside the boat–evaluating weather, wind, and water—to determine the extent to which those factors will require adapting what’s happening inside the boat.  The job is to gather information about the context in which the boat is sailing and share it with project leadership and the rest of the team so they, and ultimately the helmsman or skipper, can decide what adjustments must be made to keep the boat on course.

So, too, with change management.  No matter whether you are tasked with leading the change work stream or you are a project manager or technical work stream leader, attending to what’s happening “outside the boat” is essential to managing any transition effectively.  If you only attend to what’s going on “inside the boat,” in the technical part of your projects, you miss important information that will help keep your sails full and your boat running at top speed.

I had to smile when the Strategist for BMW Oracle, Eric Doyle, climbs the mast to check for shifts in the wind.  It reminded me of those times during the course of an especially challenging project when I’ve been tasked with conducting a status check with employees and executives only to get an earful of objections.  Much like climbing the mast, those moments can leave you twisting in the wind!  Either you find it exhilarating or you fear it.  I’m one of those crazy ones who likes climbing the mast AND facing a potentially unhappy audience.  In both cases you get great information that helps you progress.

Good project leadership looks much like an afterguard.  They assign specific tasks for each member of the team and communicate constantly.  As a result, they are able to have the facts they need, both inside and outside the boat, to make informed decisions for top project performance.

2 thoughts on “Change Management Lessons from Sailing

  1. A GREAT STATEMENT: “attending to what’s happening “outside the boat” is essential to managing any transition effectively.”


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