“We keep you alive to serve this ship – row well and live”. These were the words spoken to Judah Ben-Hur in the classic 1959 movie. On the rowing team it became something of a warrior’s creed, a code by which every boat was governed. Rowing is fairly unique as a sport, in that the individual is largely absorbed into whole – there is almost no opportunity to recognize standout performance. Sure, during practice some people will be able to run faster than others, or lift more weight, or pull a faster time on the machine, but on the water all of that evaporates. Each man’s success is tied to the others in the boat, and no matter what happens they will all cross the finish line at the same time. In the boat, it is also nearly impossible to ascribe blame to an individual. Even if a rower’s oar gets stuck in the water (catching a crab), causing the boat to list and drag to one side, the fault may have been with someone else in the front, shifting their weight slightly and causing the dip. The crew all share in each other’s successes as well as their failures. You certainly need to be physically fit, and have skill with an oar, but more important is the mindset. That is, actually, the most important thing the individual can contribute to the boat – internalizing the “row well and live” creed and bringing that with them each day. Having that shared purpose is what ultimately drives the physical fitness and the skill, and the camaraderie that seems to be in ready supply on the best crews.
Good boat crews are largely self-policing, which is ultimately true of the best teams in a company as well. Google has done studies internally into what makes their most successful teams stand out from the rest, and the results were surprising. You would think that the teams that had the best and brightest in their field would obviously outperform all the others—but this was not the case. The teams that were able to create a sense of shared purpose and align that with the objective of the company almost universally outperformed other teams. This shared purpose allows them to be self policing – because the team(s) are motivated by a common goal, they are more likely to hold each other accountable, and more likely to hold themselves accountable to their share of the work in achieving it. Teams where the only motivating factor is external, ie. In the form of a coach or a manager, will quickly disintegrate under pressure. They become driven only by the consequence of failure rather than the motivation of success, and lack internal mechanisms to bind them together.
If you want a pretty inspiring example of what a shared purpose can do, take a look at the Navy SEALs. There are a lot of good nuggets of advice in Admiral McCraven’s speech, not just for life, but also for Agile teams. He recommends starting small with one simple task, and then another, and then another. He also talks about an experience similar to the one at Google, where the unlikely heroes end up taking the day. Just as you would expect the best in the field to create the ultimate winning team at Google, you would probably expect the biggest and strongest guys to create the ideal winning boat crew in the SEALs. But once again this is not necessarily the case. The smallest guys, from totally different backgrounds but sharing a common internal motivation, won in competition with the odds against them again and again.
So when it comes to rowing practice, winning boat competitions in the SEALs, or working with a team to create great products, the most important success factor is the team’s shared purpose and alignment with the organizations goals. If you happen to be a member of the latter, you can never go wrong with building a shared purpose of serving and creating value for your customers. Try coming to the office each day with the “Row Well and Live” mindset toward your team, and your customers. Is your organization aligned toward this goal today?