10 Things I Learned About Teamwork From Dragon Boating

After moving to Vancouver a number of years ago I joined a corporate Dragon Boat Team. At the time I wanted to find a way to get fit after being in the office all day and I wanted to be on the water. It was an amazing activity where I developed a number of great friendships that I have today, long after the team dissolved.

There is no end to the books and articles on teambuilding. But it was Dragon Boating that provided me with a simple yet poignant metaphor for the experience of building and maintaining a high performing team. I reflected on how my team evolved from a group of individuals interested in Dragon Boating to a cohesive competitive team where each member of the team understood how to leverage his or her strengths and downplay weaknesses, their fit in the group and how to best contribute to the performance of the overall team. It was a remarkable experience. AND it was fun.

As you read through my 10 points I want you to reflect on your current team. Are any elements missing? What difference would it make if the success factor was present in your team? Would it help your team to reach its potential? In my experience there are very few teams who reach high performance.

Fast Track the Path to Success

I often work with people who want to increase the performance of their team. If you are a team, then why not be the best team you can and produce exceptional results for your organization? How do we get there? What do we need to do?

The following article points out what my experience has shown me to be some of the critical success factors. For those of you who Dragon Boat my comments may be familiar. For those who do not dragon boat, it is my hope that the fun metaphor causes you to reflect seriously on the performance of you team.

Number 1: Timing and technique are more critical than power and strength

In many sports individual performance, strength, agility etc. are the focus of attention. The first skill the coach worked with us on was to have the entire team row in time with the same technique. It is amazing that a team with less brute strength can outperform a stronger boat on timing alone. This is the

1+1 is >2 principle in action. This does not mean that individualism is lost, but that individualism serves the overall purpose of the team. Otherwise, you are a group of individual contributors in a working group, but not a team. When all the paddles stroke in time the boat moves faster than the boat with stronger rowers who are not in time; using their energy against each other rather than focusing on their timing and technique.

Focus on ensuring that members of the team are working toward the same goal. Everyone on the team should be able to tell you how they contribute to the purpose and goals of the team.

Number 2: There is no replacement for a talented steersperson

With a good steersperson, whom the team trusts, each paddler is freed up to focus on their job. They are not worried about other boats, what direction this boat is going, how the boat will navigate the wake etc. In fact, the real job of the steersperson, beyond the technical ability to steer to boat, is to instill confidence in paddlers. The team does not lose energy distracted by problems that they cannot solve but on achieving the goals of the team.

Focus on team leadership that allows members of the team to perform their roles knowing that ‘things’ are being taken care of.

Number 3: One person out of time can cost the race for the whole team

This sounds like the inverse of number one. It is about what happens when even one person behaves in a way that compromises the performance of the team? This is where the steersperson and coach come in. Often the individual does not know that their performance is putting the team’s performance at risk. It is seldom about willingness or even the ability to perform but rather an understanding of the impact of their performance. Feedback is critical in ensuring that the members of the team move forward together.

Focus on providing data based performance feedback to the team including the impact of current performance both positive and corrective. Team members need to get objective feedback on their performance and what plan corrective measures to improve.

Number 4: You train long and hard for a short and intense race

Plans mean nothing if the team is not able to achieve its goal. Teams work hard, often on long term projects but realize that the measure of the value of the work is in implementation. Results are the measure of a team’s success.

Focus on the ability to achieve exceptional results.

Number 5: There is no “luggage” in the boat; everyone contributes

Boy, we all have bad days, but guess what, the team deserves your best even on those days. We all cover for each other when it is needed but everyone contributes..

Focus on helping team members understand their contribution and seek opportunities for them to apply their strengths more often.

Number 6: Treat other teams with respect but don’t get distracted

In the heat of a race it is easy to notice where the other teams are in the race and get distracted. But you can only control what happens in your boat not theirs. There is nothing you can do about what happens in their boat. You have all the control over what you do in your boat. A team with a strong start may not have the stamina to complete the race by continuing their opening speed. Focus your attention on your purpose and the results.

Focus on what the team can accomplish with the resources it has.

Number 7: There is always more to learn

No matter what your role or how long you have been with the team, or how many races you have been in, there are always things to learn. Not matter how good you are you can always be better. The coach would move us around to different positions so that we would learn new skills and perspective.

Focus on ensuring that everyone on the team is actively learning all the time.

Number 8: The lead paddlers (strokes) set the pace

There is incredible benefit from everyone on the team working in concert towards the same goal. Leaders in the team set the direction, provide visible support for the values of the team and hold themselves and others accountable for the performance of the team. Everyone is accountable to be in time with the strokes. It is not ones business but mine to watch and pay attention. Remember, one person out of time can cost a race.

Focus on leaders holding themselves and other accountable for success.

Number 9: You paddle as hard on a bad day as on a good day

A manager friend of mine said to her employees after being challenged about the lack of loyalty in the organization, “I do not want your loyalty, I want your commitment.” It is important the each member of the team is fully present all the time, whether in practice or in competition.

Focus on every individual on the team performing their best everyday.

Number 10:Teams win and teams lose, not individuals

In Dragon Boating, teams win, not individuals. The entire boat crosses the finish line or it does not. The people at the front of the boat or the steersperson do not get more of the ‘win’ that others. The team wins or the team loses. We are all one team.

Focus on being all one team. Individual skills, style, experience and knowledge all contribute to the work of the team. At the end of the day, we are all one team who achieve the results or not.

By ensuring that these top 10 success factors are implemented you can develop your team’s effectiveness. We hope that these 10 Success Factors helped you to reflect on the factors that need to be considered and planned a highly effective, high performing team.