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Rowing Team

A Rower’s Guide to Team Alignment

Jan. 20, 2020
If you aren't in sync, you need to fix it - fast.

In rowing, the team that rows the best together will be the fastest boat. That’s not hyperbole; it’s physics.

If one of the blades goes in the water even a microsecond late or early, the boat will experience tilts, turns, and drag. The boat that wins a race is the one that makes the fewest of these mistakes. To attack these mistakes, rowers are taught to focus on gathering points.

Gathering points are the places in a rower’s stroke where you are expected to check your alignment to make sure it’s in line with that of the rest of the team. They are also a chance to get back into alignment if you’ve started to fall off the pace.

The first gathering point is right before the blade goes in the water. We call this “the catch.” The other is when the blade exits the water. We call this “the finish.” At every catch and every finish you should be in perfect sync with the rower immediately in front of you. If you aren’t, you need to fix it. Fast.

This strategy is simple enough, but as you progress as a rower, you realize something. There aren’t just two gathering points in your stroke. There are hundreds, thousands, an infinite number of moments when you could be checking on your alignment and fixing it if it’s broken. You start seeing gathering points everywhere during the race. You feel them in every stroke you take.

This is the difference between an elite rower and a sufficient rower. It’s also the difference between teams that meet expectations and those that surpass them. Because, just like a rowing stroke, there are infinite moments when your team can create alignment. But there are also infinite moments when it can lose that alignment.

The Monday meeting or occasional coffee break cannot be the only places you gather. Alignment, ultimately, has to come from gathering points. If you want your team to be high performance, you need to train each member of the team to recognize and take advantage of gathering points on a daily basis.

Here is a business example. One member of your team has been working on a project for three months. It has a very large scope, and you and the leadership of your organization have prioritized it. But as the teammate continues to work, she realizes there is way too much work for her to do on her own, the deadline is far too tight, and the deliverables were never all that clear to begin with.

This teammate is not particularly outspoken. She works very hard but isn’t one to speak up in meetings or create friction. So she just keeps plugging away on the project alone. She’s hitting her milestones for now, but a disaster is brewing in the near future.

Finally, she realizes that she can’t make the deadline on her own, so she grabs one of her teammates and asks if he can help on this one part of the project. He agrees but doesn’t really understand what the finish line is for this project, what the steps are, and how their work will actually make an impact for themselves and the wider team.

The original project owner pulls in a few more teammates to assist her, or maybe her new recruit does some recruiting of his own, but the same problems persist. Before long, you have a team full of people working on a project they don’t understand and aren’t executing very well. The deadline is still too tight. They still aren’t going to make it.

This is a team that has missed gathering points, a lot of them. There was an opportunity to gather when this project was first launched so that everyone could understand what was being built, why it was being built, and what work they may be responsible for. There was an opportunity to gather when the project owner noticed that the scope and timelines were way too ambitious for one person. There was an opportunity to gather when the second teammate realized he didn’t really know what they were working on.

If that team was aware of and looking out for gathering points, they would have noticed something was wrong.

When you’re rowing competitively, you’re hypersensitive to what’s happening with the person in front of you. I knew Mike’s back like the back of my hand by the time I left Sonoma State. I could see the hitch in his arm, watch the handle of his oar go around the fulcrum of our boat, hear his blade hit the water. I wasn’t trying to copy him. I was anticipating. It’s like a song you know by heart. You know what should be coming next, and you notice when something changes. If Paul McCartney starts rapping in the middle of “Paperback Writer,” you should raise an eyebrow. Probably both of them.

Elite teams need to operate the same way. The key to mastering gathering points isn’t to know what they all are and have a canned solution to each one. The key is just to know that they exist and to make sure that your team knows this as well. Team-size problems cannot be solved by ad hoc solutions. The only solution is to reset, realign, and lock in to a consistent, perfectly synchronized stroke. And this has to happen multiple times a day, every day, until the job is done.

Every frustrated exchange, poorly worded email, or inefficient meeting is a moment when you’ve missed a gathering point. If you aren’t watching for gathering points and you haven’t empowered your team to do the same, you’ll probably miss the next one. And the next one.

The symptoms of missed gathering points in an office are the same as they are in a boat. The office starts to feel heavier. You start doing more work to go slower. And you know you’re going slower because you know how fast you were going before.

Sustainability can be defined as what a team is capable of when they hit the maximum number of gathering points possible. Once you see that type of performance, it can and should become the standard for what you should be doing as a team from that point on. Anything less should be treated as a symptom of a missed gathering point and corrected immediately.

As a leader you first have to educate your team about the reality of these gathering points and make it clear that hitting them is everyone’s responsibility.

High-performance teams feel comfortable about communicating. And leaders of high-performance teams foster this willingness in their people. It’s not being petty for someone to tell you that John has missed the last three conference calls. It’s vital. If the goal is shared, then your performance becomes my performance as well. 

Too many leaders work hard to keep things from being personal on their teams. The best teams are always personal. Human emotions are the cornerstones of high performance, and leveraging them requires building connections through consistently looking for and hitting gathering points.

Business is not typically personal, but high-performance teams are. The members of these teams are completely interdependent. Only with the power of these emotional, relational bonds can your team move from adequate to exceptional.

Leaders can ensure that this happens in a variety of ways, and it’s different for every team. Maybe it’s improving how your office is laid out. Maybe it’s seeing that Jim works from home and Angela doesn’t. Maybe it’s getting up and walking over to someone instead of sending an email. Maybe it’s halting a project altogether until the gathering points can be hit and alignment can be restored.

Your team has an endless number of gathering points. This means your team has many chances to lose its alignment. But it also means it has just as many opportunities to get that alignment back.

No team hits all of its gathering points. But high-performance teams never stop trying to hit as many as possible. In the end the team that hits the most is the one that wins the race.

Jason Caldwell is the author of Navigating the Impossible: Build Extraordinary Teams and Shatter Expectations, from which this article is excerpted. Caldwell is the founder of Latitude 35, a leadership training firm that operates around the globe. He works with organizations including Nike, Booking.com, Columbia Business School, and the Haas School of Business, and delivers speaking programs at Fortune 500 companies and universities worldwide. A professional adventure racer, Caldwell currently holds over a dozen world records across five continents.

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