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Experiential Sailing Blog
Workplace insights through the metaphors of wind, water, and weather on San Francisco Bay.
Command intent
Yarema/Windy & Cold
03/26/2010, South San Francisco Bay

My experience last Wednesday night with Boris and Ted was a perfect analogy of several challenging workplace situations.

First, as all project leads and skippers know, you don't always have the right mix of resources and experience to execute your project. You need to train and align your staff, decide how to communicate, set expectations, set standards, and establish a decision making convention. Ideally, you don't touch the mooring lines unless you have done these things.

Next, we had unusual conditions. The typical wind pattern out of Redwood Creek is northerly, but this was from the west and strong. The easy ride out the channel meant that we were going to pay for it later on the ride back. We passed a smaller sloop tacking back-and-forth on their return journey. Lesson? Watch your competitors and peers. Prepare.

The San Mateo Bridge was a straight shot from marker 2 on a beam reach. It was a very tempting objective, but clearly very risky since the wind was steadily building at 1-2 knots every 10 minutes after 6 PM. Experience and reason demanded that we take cover, fall away from the 34 kt breeze, regroup, and for me to see how the crew was doing. Lesson? Take breaks, give people a chance to breathe.

The boat was at hull speed a number of times during the cruise - but just like at the office, all that usually means is that unless you know where you're going, you can end up at the wrong place very quickly. Lesson? Take time to see where you are at. Managers: are all your software guys working on the right code? Are your IT projects efficiently integrated within a good program structure?

On our SW-bound leg, I made a mistake setting course, but kept my eyes open and corrected when we located our objective - channel marker #2. Lesson? Don't ever think your decisions can't be changed.

As a leader, I tried to display confidence even though I was stressed by the windward return up the narrow channel. I knew it was going to be tough on the guys tacking every 1 to 2 minutes for the next half hour, but we had little choice. I would use the crew's willingness, their excitement, and their sense of adventure to move us through this mess. The problem with all that willingness was that my inexperienced crew was trying to do precisely what I was telling them to do, instead of acting on my command intent. Outside the channel, we had worked out a communication standard for tacking well in advance of our 20 or so tacks in the channel, and the one time strayed from that convention and forgot to yell "BORIS!" to get my friend to release the windward sheet - he held on too long and we made a huge question mark in the water. Lesson? Teach command intent, like they do in the military. Crew (employees) need to be guided by principles, objectives and learned skills, freeing up the captain to think strategically.

Amazingly, there was no mutiny. Instead, I got some pretty good high-fives when we finally landed back at my downwind slip at Westpoint Harbor. The crew was challenged, executed well, and felt like they had accomplished something. Lesson? Experiential learning is an extremely valuable item in your Employee Engagement toolkit. As leaders, we should always look for opportunities to break out of the office in order to deliver valuable insights into how teams interact, engage, and stay effective. Call us to plan your event in 2010.

See you on Avocet!
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