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.

How to win friends and influence people

I’ve recently been reading How to win friends and influence people, by Dale Carnegie.

It’s a great read, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.  My instant reaction would be to wholeheartedly recommend it, but on reflection I’d hesitate to do that – or at least I’d want to issue some kind of “disclaimer” beforehand.  This seems like a strange way to be thinking about a book which became an instant best-seller on first publication, and has gone on to sell more than 12 million copies.  I deliberately didn’t read reviews of it beforehand (or since).  It is, after all, such a well-known book from a highly respected author that I considered it a “must read”.

In the Preface and Introduction the book’s origins are explained, and I can absolutely understand its appeal at the time.  But it is hard to see who is reading the book now.  I suspect that there are many people for whom winning friends and influencing people comes entirely naturally.  These readers will perhaps get a better understanding of what they are subconsciously doing and how they are achieving results.  They will probably find it interesting and informative, but it won’t be an essential read.

I can imagine, though, that there will be many people for whom this is all rather unnatural, and the reason they’re reading it is that they’re keen to learn how to change their behaviour.  This is, however, a self-selecting group – and probably rather a small group.  I suspect (again, no data to support this), that people who struggle to win friends and influence people will not be the sort of people who will want to change their behaviour.  This is a massive generalisation, but I do believe it takes a particular personality type to be sufficiently self-aware in the first place, and then motivated to make a change.

Carnegie even writes about this in the book.  He asserts that you can’t teach someone – you can only create the right environment and context for them to learn.  But they have to learn for themselves.

So the “disclaimer” I referred to earlier would be along these lines:

  • If you are already good at winning friends and influencing people, then don’t buy this book unless you want to understand why you’re good at it.
  • If you generally struggle with the subject and you understand that, you’re probably capable of changing your behaviour – so go ahead and read it.

But there will be plenty of people who struggle with the subject and don’t give it much thought.  For those people, they probably wouldn’t be considering reading it anyway.  So I continue to wonder… who are all the people who are reading it now?  Are they self-aware self-improvers, or has it been recommended to them?