I spent seven months with the Cambridge University Boat Club as an organizational ethnographer, from the first day of training until the race, and witnessed coaches using a team-selection technique that business managers might profitably adapt.
Few environments test the ability of team members to balance competitive and cooperative instincts as well as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race does. The event now attracts a television audience of about 120 million worldwide yet remains more or less what it was when first staged in 1829: a distinctly private affair. Despite the public spectacle, celebrity treatment, and media circus, the race remains a profound, primal test of individual character in the context of a team. Indeed, the elite oarsmen who win coveted places in Cambridge’s Blue Boat are those who compete most ruthlessly—away from the glare of the cameras—to secure a seat and then collaborate seamlessly with whichever crew members are ultimately selected. How do coaches identify these rare individuals?
Selecting the fastest eight from among 40 athletes is difficult, not least because the eight strongest are unlikely to make for the fastest combination. More important than sheer strength is a talent for coordinating with other crew members. One selection technique used by Cambridge is seat racing. Two four-man crews of similar strength and ability race each other under the same conditions over a straight 1,500-meter course. After the first race, two rowers, one from each crew, swap places; then the boats race each other again, with the aim of isolating the effect of a single rower on an entire crew. This exercise gives coaches a good indication of each oarsman’s boat-moving ability—and of the relative speed of combinations of rowers. And so the process continues, each time with two different rowers swapping places. The nature of seat racing is such that rowers have no choice but to fluctuate between viewing a fellow rower first as a foe then as a friend, as they strive to cooperate flawlessly with someone who was a competitor just moments earlier.
Business teams aren’t rowing crews, of course, but the same principles of competition and coordination apply. The next time you’re trying to assemble a team, why not have two groups face off on a series of problem-solving challenges, swapping members between the groups until you arrive at an optimal combination? It may seem like a cumbersome exercise, but it could identify your strongest and most cooperative team. Not a bad way to get both oars in the water.
(This blog was originally published as an article in the Harvard Business Review)
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