How to Make Your Boat Go Faster

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When you’re looking at how you work as a group, if all the attention is focussed on the work, and not enough attention to how you relate to each other, nothing will really change.

Make the Boat Go Faster is a way to figure out what’s holding you back, and what you can do about it.

Make Your Boat Go Faster is a really straightforward tool. It’s based on strategies devised by Ben Hunt Davies MBE, an Olympic rower who won gold with his team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. After years of losing races, they changed the way they worked, which changed the results they got.

Make Your Boat Go Faster is a process you can do with your team, at any level.

It starts with a very simple exercise:

  1. Draw a picture of a boat on the wall. The boat represents your organisation.
  2. Ask everyone present to take some sticky notes and write down their thoughts on: What are the things that fill the sails (ie make your boat go faster)? And, what are the anchors (ie holding it back)?
  3. Place all the sticky notes on the boat. They either go at the bottom (anchors), or they go at the top (wind). It’s like a pictorial SWOT analysis.
  4. Have a conversation about how you ‘cut the anchors off’, and how you ‘make the most of the wind’ ie what are the things that are stopping your organisation moving forward and what can you do about it?

The aim of the exercise is for you and your team to stop focussing on the things that hold your organisation back – and instead to concentrate on what makes your boat go faster.

There are two ways to do that:

  1. Remove the drag
  2. Maximise the propulsion

Everything has to make the boat go faster.

The real point of the tool though is to have the conversations to call out some of the patterns that are holding your organisation back.

What tends to happen

When you run Make Your Boat Go Faster, the first thing that usually happens is that people talk about problem processes, for example they’ll say, “the CRM system is such a nightmare to use…”, or “the data quality is so poor…” or they’ll talk about “bad communication from management”, or they’ll say things like, “we don’t have enough people to do the work…”

You can use the tool to unpick what they mean. For example if they’ve said, “leadership are really bad at communicating,” ask them to explain what is happening, to understand the dynamic.

When they’ve explained, you can ask, “These things that are holding you back, could you change your response to them… to get the communications you need, to get the clarity? Who could you talk to?”

The aim is to encourage them to get away from ‘It’s not my fault, all these things are external to me’, to ‘I could influence some of this stuff, as a team.’

When they talk about the good stuff – the things that are ‘filling the sails’ – they’ll say:
“We’ve got a great team…”,” I love the people I work with…”, or “I really believe in what we’re trying to do…”

And around these good things, you can ask “what could you do to amplify that?”

There are levels of answers that come out of doing the exercise:-

  • Level 1: They talk about systems and processes, ie not having enough manpower, poor communication with leadership, poor data etc.
  • Level 2: About our own dynamic, how we function as a team.
  • Level 3: How we experience each other emotionally, and how connected we are to each other.

It’s worth taking everyone towards some of those taboo conversations about the way you work together, the conversations you never have as a group, because whilst all focus is on work, and not on individuals, it’s hard for them to be engaged.

If all the attention is focussed on the work, and not enough attention to the way you’re doing the work, you never get to fix the deeper issues.

And the real point of Make Your Boat Go Faster is to create the conditions to have the deeper conversations.

Even when the tool doesn’t get to that level at the first go it’s still useful, but if you can use it to lift the conversation to how you self-sabotage as a group, and the things that really matter, it is much more powerful.

If all the attention is focussed on the work, and not enough attention to the way you’re doing the work, you never get to fix the deeper issues.

Why it’s good for leaders

Make Your Boat Go Faster helps people get clear about problems and opportunities, and if you run the conversation in the right way, you bring the team together, and give permission for people to stop doing some things, and make clear what they should be emphasising – so it’s really good modelling.

It gives you an opportunity to ask what are we going to do? This is a chance to make some decisions around letting go of some activities and accentuating other activities.

How this also benefits your culture

If you run this exercise, you’ll be:

  • Creating clarity
  • Building trust – because you’re having a very open conversation
  • Giving permission
  • Moving people to action
  • In a very shared way – your people will be shaping the conversation, so you get more buy in and engagement
Here are some examples

1. Government Agency Reorganisation
A large government agency did an internal reorganisation which meant departments got cut up differently. Staff were understandably concerned, so we ran Make Your Boat Go Faster with them.

The boat picture provided the wider context for what they were experiencing ie what was holding them back that was out of their control, and why.

When we switched the conversation to their own internal functions, it allowed us to have the conversation about their team dynamics. The pros and cons, and forwards and backs of the first part of the conversation was really helpful for framing for this deeper part, and built a lot more trust in the group.

2. Team Leader Promotion
In another organisation, a restructure meant that a team leader was promoted and was now in charge of the department. They were a bit nervous, and wanted to do some team development.

So we ran Make Your Boat Go Faster. When they got past all the things the group couldn’t control, and started to talk about what they could, the new department head said, “I’m new to this job, I’ve never done it before, I’m worried about getting it wrong but equally I’m responsible for making sure we get all this stuff done…” her vulnerability turned out to be helpful because the others were willing to cut them some slack.

In showing vulnerability, it also invited vulnerability, and they all started talking about some of their fears and anxieties, which helped the team get over some difficult issues, and bond together more strongly. The new department head was fully accepted in the role and everyone pulled together.

3. Creative Agency Retrospective
We ran Make Your Boat Go Faster for a creative agency client, and now they use this tool every 6 months as a retrospective, to talk about what is working well, and what isn’t working well.

They look at the boat picture from the last time, and review what’s changed, and why. They can see that last time certain things were a problem for them, and other things were helping them, and they can see how the picture’s changed.

What’s interesting about this repetitive practice is that by coming back to it they’re building capability, and getting better at having those conversations.

They’re a lot better at creating the space to talk about how they’re doing as a team, and as a group of people. And as a result, it’s really helped their business.