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Design Like a Sailor
Avoid multiple course corrections and no voyage planning
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic Looks at Product Development and Program Managment from the perspective of sailing. More specifically, why it always seems like we are changing direction with no idea of where we are going or how to get there? Join in as we tackle the headwinds of change and understand how to achieve true innovation by learning to design like a sailor.
There’s an axiom around project management that describes execution as:
Multiple course corrections and no voyage planning
Many of us have been there. Something is not working quite right and so leadership abruptly changes course, discarding the work, specifically around processes, for the new direction, often what’s in vogue vs. the tried and true. The change will be justified under some guise of agility or adaptability but more often, it’s neither. It’s just no voyage planning.
The oft-missed understanding of adaptability and agility is you have to have something from which to adapt or be agile. If all you have is chaos, any direction, any change is as good as where you were. That’s not adaptability that’s incompetence. Let’s instead take a look at the importance of voyage planning and how that step creates the disciplined execution that actually allows agility as well as ensuring what you are developing hits the mark at the end.
Headwinds of Change
There’s rarely ‘smooth sailing’ and any mariner worth their salt is almost more on edge when this happens. It’s not that you can’t enjoy getting the weather, the wind, and the direction you want to go line up, it’s just that you know you have to keep paying attention to take action long before you get in trouble.
Sailors also know that they have to deal with headwinds. This just means tacking into the wind by adjusting your sails to behave more like a wing than a net. In fact, they’ve gotten so good with the physics that it’s actually possible to go faster than the wind by not actually sailing with the wind. That said, headwinds aren’t a problem for a sailboat as long as you know where you're going and you understand how to get there.
So too with the headwinds of change. It takes knowledge, skill, and foresight to know both your organization (your boat) your stakeholders (the weather), and the objective. (your voyage destination) Yet this is not how many leaders look at the task. All they see is the goal and imagine a straight line to get there never really doing the complicated planning and strategy to fully appreciate the nuances along the way.
The simple solution is to have a voyage plan. Where do you want to go, what are the constraints along the way, what does your team constitution look like, and what other obstacles need to be considered along the way?
For example, you might find yourself navigating in a constrained channel against the wind. You might also have a moderately competent team who’s familiar with hobby racing boats. There might be other boats in the channel to consider but they are a variable right now on the plan.
So, you put together the end state and the interim plan. Most importantly you need to determine the processes and communication systems you will use through the execution and ensure it’s one that everyone is familiar with and able to quickly implement.
As you embark, you’ve created as much stability as possible through planning and execution discipline and so, can adapt to small changes such as the movements of other boats and the changes in the wind. Most importantly you know that at any given time, your progress will not be pointed toward the ultimate goal and that’s OK! Because you know where that goal is and how this tack will take you closer as well as when to change tack to maintain that progress. Rarely will a path take you straight to where you want to go and knowing that, and knowing the path, helps you make informed decisions along the way.
A Caveat on Agility
One theme I run into regularly is that people assume agility does not require discipline. They want to do Agile or Scum methodologies. They want Lean Engineering or Manufacturing. They want Six Sigma processes. Yet these require incredible discipline to achieve agility.
Agility without discipline is just chaos.
Take an NFL agility course. These athletes are fast not because they are chaotic, but because they are precise. That precision takes discipline and is not something an untrained or unmanaged team can achieve without practice. The US Army Special Forces are the same. Their incredible agility is due solely to their even more incredible discipline.
Agility and Adaptability take an incredible amount of disciplined execution.
Sailing Applied to Design.
When it comes to design, we love to throw this concept out the window and claim we have agile execution, claim we do scrum, claim we do DevOps, or any other disciplined design framework. Yet when I’m brought in to help these teams, that’s not what I find. I find leaders constantly changing course without really knowing where they are going, or what their team is capable of, but always proud that they’ll change course and ‘adapt’ regularly. I have to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t adapting, it’s reacting.
This is where the metaphor of sailing comes into play very well. It captures the nuances of Systems Thinking and puts into perspective in an undeniable way something we like to mask with tropes and slogans.
Sailing requires disciplined execution even if you are a solo racer let alone an America’s Cup team with the highest technologies available. In fact, the discipline of the America’s Cup teams leaves no room for error and the years of training and grueling standards make for an incredible display of competency and aptitude.
Along with the discipline is the voyage planning that we often either skip or pencil whipped in an attempt to placate leadership. I’ve literally been part of several organizations where I was told the goals were more ‘nice to haves’ and that if we didn’t make them, we’d either re-write them for what we did do or just ignore them and move on to the next steps.
Clearly, this is not the voyage planning that wins America’s Cup, it’s not the planning that captured Osama Bin Laden by the Military, it’s not the planning that actually achieves design success on time, on schedule, and on budget.
“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” - John Maxwell
Contextualizing the relationships between sailing and product development provides an unshakable visual where the justifications and the claimed agility start to fall apart for what they are: Chaos, not true performance.
To truly execute a successful design you have to have voyage planning and you have o have disciplined execution. When you pair these two together you get agile and adaptable development. Without these two simple things, it doesn’t matter what method or model of development you claim to be following, you’ll never achieve the same results as those who design like a sailor.
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