What Workplace Teams Can Learn From Ocean Racing

A Metaphor for Success in the Rough Waters of Today’s Business Climate

Forget images of wealthy yacht owners and regattas. Ocean racing is a demanding sport for serious sailors. The demands placed on a crew of ocean racers are strikingly similar to those faced by any team working to overcome tough challenges. And I believe that, by understanding the things that make ocean racers successful, we can draw useful insights for a broad range of team challenges.

To understand why the metaphor of ocean racing applies to any team facing challenges and uncertainty, consider these core characteristics of the sport:

  • Ocean racing is a complex team endeavor. Every crew member has a critical job to do. And crew members have to work together, seamlessly, to keep the boat on course.
  • Ocean racing is a test of endurance and tenacity involving a journey into the unknown.
  • During races of long distance and well offshore, boats must be completely self-sufficient for extended periods of time, capable of withstanding heavy storms, and prepared to handle emergencies.
  • Like today’s business environment, ocean racing is characterized by constant change. The weather can be sunny one minute, and gusting with gale force winds the next.
  • Ocean racing is competitive, stressful, and anxiety-provoking.
  • While there is still a skipper in charge of the boat, leadership can be distributed among other members of the crew.
  • A team that fails to execute flawlessly can lose a race. There are winners and losers in the sport.
  • Ocean racing requires the courage to take calculated risks.
  • Winning an ocean race requires clear vision, a cohesive and committed team, and the ability to learn and adapt.

Adapted from INTO THE STORM: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race by Dennis N.T. Perkins with Jillian B. Murphy (AMACOM; November 13, 2012; $24.95 Hardcover; ISBN: 978-0-8144-3198-6).

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