Will it make the boat go faster?

Will it make the boat go faster?”  This was the title of a keynote speech I recently attended by international oarsman, and Olympic gold medal winner Ben Hunt-Davis MBE.

By his own admission, Ben’s crew had a poor track record in the years leading up to the Sydney Olympics, and they were not favourites to win a medal in the 8+ races.  The spotlight was firmly focussed on many other medal hopefuls (most notably the coxless four, of Stephen Regrave, Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell and Tim Foster).  What we didn’t know at the time was that the entire crew had become dissatisfied with their performance and had decided to do something about it.  Their reward/ work ratio was just not good enough.  International athletes make a massive investment in their time and their personal lives in order to compete at the highest levels, and this all makes a great deal of sense if there are rewards.  But without the rewards – winning medals – it just doesn’t make sense.  It’s absolutely not about taking part.  For these people it is the winning which counts.

The entire crew had had enough, and following the old adage “if you keep doing the same old thing, you’ll keep getting the same old results”, they decided to do something different.  Every element of their training regime was analysed; every personal motive was questioned; every plan was scrutinised, each time answering the same basic question – Will it make the boat go faster?  See more from Ben here and get his excellent book:It is all too easy to lose sight of what’s important in a business, in our everyday lives or in a sporting pursuit – there are so many distractions, little details which throw us off course.  So it is particularly important to keep the original objective in mind.  In the case of Olympic oarsmen, it is clear – it’s making the boat to go as fast as possible.

Many people have used the phrase “No campaign plan survives contact with the enemy”, but Helmuth von Moltke the Elder seems to have a reasonable claim to its origin, so the concept is more than 150 years old. We all know from experience that despite painstaking plans, things derail us, distract us, irritate us and cause us to lose focus. When that happens, we divert energy into the wrong thing, often changing tack completely. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we ask ourselves the question “now, where was I?” or “what was I doing?”, before dragging ourselves back onto the original course. It is so much easier if we have a simple objective to focus on: making the boat go faster; selling more icecream; reducing the costs; designing the thinnest phone.

The key is to get the clarity of thought needed in order to distill down what the underlying objective is, so that everyone can keep it in the front of their minds where it can survive contact with the enemy.

In the meantime, read this excellent book by Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge.

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