Teamwork Afloat in the Harvard Business Review


In the September 2008 Harvard Business Review, Mark de Rond wrote an interesting short piece in the Forethought section entitled Lessons from the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (free article after accepting terms of use) which is derived from his recent book The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Crew Race. Here’s a link to the book blog.

In the HBR article, de Rond writes:

Few environments test the ability of team members to balance competitive and cooperative instincts as well as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race does… 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?

de Rond, Reader in Strategy and Organisation and Fellow of Darwin College at the University of Cambridge, explains seat racing, a process used in rowing to identify the most effective crew among a pool of individually qualified and competent candidates. Basically, teams of rowers compete with and against each other as individuals are swapped out after each training race until the most effective team is selected.

He then goes on to suggest a similar application in business.

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.

I always find it very valuable when new team members are introduced into problem solving since they often bring new skill sets and perspectives and can challenge the process already underway.  Of course, this has to be balanced against the potential disruption that can occur when you already have a high performing team. But if you are trying to build a team to tackle a tough problem, seat racing may help get you to the finish line before the competition.

Photo credit: crew by emurray on

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Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

One thought on “Teamwork Afloat in the Harvard Business Review”

  1. Hi Peter,
    Thank you for posting this fascinating article. I wish that more college administrators could read articles like this, as I believe the value here is quite similar to that of the sail training experience. Wouldn’t it be great if they could provide this type of experience to dozens of their students at a time? There are also similarities between this race, and what we have tried to do in organizing the Tall Ships Challenge.

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