Sailing is the perfect analogy to use in business consultancy. Maybe even in life. It stirs the imagination. It’s all about a journey, harnessing the wind, navigating the waves, making most of all the unpredictable things life throws at you. Without getting all spiritual about it, let me show you why competitive sailing is such a great metaphor.
Boat handling is the base skill that you need to go anywhere. If you’re not able to sail the boat, to luff up, to bear away, to tack, to gybe – then all else is useless. Even the most experienced sailor will have to get used to a boat he isn’t familiar with. The basic theory and manoeuvre goals may be the same, but all else can be different from what you have experienced before.
On bigger boats, the ‘who does what and when?’ is something that needs figuring out, including all the communication that goes with it. Each team member has a role and needs to perform in order to get a smooth operation. This takes time, tweaking, and continuous improvement. Just like any business process, as a matter of fact.
In racing, sailing the boat fast is what makes you competitive. If you don’t get up to speed, you won’t win races. No matter how clean your tacks are, or how well-timed your start is. ‘Speed is king’ is what they say. The trick – or rather: the art – is to adjust the trim of the sails, spars, and stays to the conditions. A change in wind pressure or water getting choppy – you need to know which adjustments to make to make the boat going as fast as possible in those conditions, on that particular course.
For that, you need an in-depth understanding of which control to manipulate and what the effects are, wanted or unwanted. More often than not, there are many ways to skin a cat. You can adjust the headsail and the main separately, but you can also adjust the mast bend (which affects both). The rig is one, and it’s got many aspects. Again, just like just about every process in any organization that I can think of. All these levers, all these sometimes tiny effects that influence the overall performance.
Strategy is the answer to the simple question ‘how are we going to win?’ As in business, strategy in sailing is based on your strengths. First, there is the question of how to get around the course quickest if there were no other competitors (reading the wind, the current, the course configuration, etc.). In my racing days, I was kind of average in that respect. I was okay but did not have an edge.
My strength was that I taught the Racing Rules of Sailing and did some low-level umpiring at my student sailing club. That did give me an edge. These rules basically determine who’s got the right of way when boats meet. And being able to create a situation in which I was quite confident about me having the right of way, would often lead to the other boat getting pretty nervous and tack or gybe away. I wasn’t afraid to get into these boat-on-boat situations. Most others were less comfortable in those situations and would just sail away from me, even if that meant sailing on the wrong tack or wrong side of the course in terms of wind strength or shifts. That is playing to your strengths.
A sailing race is a mini world with a few players in it, all trying to be the best in ever-shifting conditions. All the same principles apply as in business. And even if you are not a sailor yourself – if you can understand this little piece, you understand what I am talking about.
I should definitely do more sailing in order to make myself a better business consultant.