Rowing is often called the ultimate team sport – anyone who has seen an eight-person crew race in perfect synchrony will immediately understand why. However, I have rowed competitively for almost 10 years and I can say with certainty that great teams are not formed simply because a group of people do the same thing at the same time. Successful teams must be created long before they even reach the start line.
A great team starts with selecting skilled people. Although the goal is to have all crew members moving identically, each position in the boat requires a specialist. The rhythm and stroke length are established by Stroke pair – the rest of the crew will be matching them exactly so it is very important that these athletes perform well. In the case of a typical EPC project, this role is analogous to the front-end engineering team who are responsible for optimal process and equipment design. The middle four rowers in the crew are the strongest and fittest; they follow the rhythm of Stroke Pair, adapt seamlessly to the race plan, and provide the power to make the boat go fast. On projects, the powerhouses are the design and drafting teams who produce high-quality design and deliverables throughout the project. The Bow Pair are very skilled and experienced rowers – from their vantage point, they can see how the rest of the crew is performing and anticipate subtle changes required to keep the boat balanced. This role is very much like the project control, procurement, and logistics specialists that coordinate complex requirements across multiple disciplines.
No matter how skilled your team is, it cannot be successful operating without clear and effective leadership. By far the most common misconception about rowing is that the coxswain (who sits at the front of the boat with a microphone) calls out “stroke, stroke…” to set the rhythm. It would be a very ineffective crew indeed if they required direction for the most basic of tasks! In reality the role of the coxswain is to provide feedback for how their rowers are performing, provide updates on how the race is progressing, and call for tactical or technique changes to get ahead. Each team member has valuable knowledge and experience, but unless actions are taken in harmony they will not result in success. The race plan is developed ahead of time with input from the entire team, and effective execution requires the clear voice of a project manager.
Quality work requires effective execution, but it can be elevated by engagement. Teams are stronger when they are connected by more than just tasks – they will help each other get through tough times and celebrate achievements when they have success. When my alarm goes off at 4:45am for practice, I am much more often motivated by seeing my teammates (and not letting them down by sleeping in…) than I am by the thought of mastering a technical correction or getting fitter. Although mastery requires near-perfect harmony during the race or project, behind-the-scenes the best teams are made up of many different personalities. Encourage this diversity – the Type A’s that try to control every oar measurement or schedule are balanced by easygoing types who take bad weather or scope changes in their stride and keep the team from losing their confidence. Great teams are made up of people who value each other’s health and happiness along with their skills and experience.
A unique trait of rowing is that every athlete starts and finishes the race together. There are no first strings or anchor legs, no winning goal scorers or MVPs. Rowers don’t wear jerseys emblazoned with names and numbers. Success is truly shared between team members, which is very similar to how projects are executed at Scovan. This mindset creates a culture of cooperation and encourages each team member to value everyone’s contributions, support the work of their teammates, and respect each other.
A team’s strength is not limited to that of its weakest member – teams are only weakened by members that do not contribute to their fullest potential. If you bring together skilled people and provide an environment that supports their professional and personal advancement, you will see performance that is truly greater than the sum of its individual parts.