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Using Rowing for Team Learning and Development

When last did you escape your comfort zone?

Written by Sue Fontannaz

Sue FontannazSue Fontannaz has 25 years of social entrepreneurial experience living through the highs and lows of leading teams in the turbulent media industry in South Africa.  This included a company buy out and reporting to the board of a public company.  She has extensive team-coaching experience for public companies (DeBeers, Deloitte, Discovery, Old Mutual and Graduate Schools of Business (UCT, NMMU) and as a lecturer for final year MBA students


‘I had the privilege of engaging with some of the experienced Mission Performance coaches, who were eager to escape their comfort zones and try rowing as a crew of 8 for the first time. Their technical skills development on the water was impressive. Even more impressive were the insights we shared after the rowing experience. One of the coaches shared how the experience of a new learning context provided insight into team learning and growth. By becoming conscious of how we work together and learn collectively, we enhance both our sense of wellbeing and team performance. This integration of well-being and team performance creates a sense of achievement worth celebrating together’.


How does rowing support team learning and development?  

Rowing offers an amplified, dynamic experience of living in a complex adaptive system, which is relevant for team facing the challenges of a  ‘VUCA’ world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). By experiencing this complexity, we develop our agility in responding to complex change. This learning draws on the experience of the Mission Performance leaders who completed the Arctic race together: don’t put your body where your mind has never been before. Rowing allows you to experience a relatively safe (no polar bears!) complex adaptive system in a fun group learning context. This space allows teams to develop their awareness of how they respond to dynamic, unstable change so that they develop agility and resilience in dealing effectively with complexity.

1. The mental demands of leadership

Our expectations of leadership are beyond our current leadership capabilities. Way back in 1994, Robert Kegan was already drawing attention to this challenge in his book:  “In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life”. He explored the demands on leaders and introduced constructive-developmental theory to explain how we can develop leadership capability. He identified different adult developmental stages ranging from the socialised mind to self-authoring and then self-transforming mind. These stages represent shifts between being social, thinking independently and then thinking interdependently as our awareness of self and others develops over time. His ideas are becoming more relevant as we grapple with developing our capability as leaders. This challenge is expanding with the growth of teams, which adds another level of complexity to leadership. One way to address this challenge is to focus on leadership as a team sport, to share the responsibility within executive and self-organising teams. We need to develop our collective intelligence and awareness of how we work together if we are going to work effectively in teams. The rowing experience offers the opportunity for us to develop our awareness of how we respond to unexpected change and work together as a team.

2. The experience of team learning

The rowing offered the opportunity to learn from the team experience. At times, the learning was an overwhelming experience for everyone. Learning a new sport is complex and there is too much to take in at the beginning. You need to keep rowing as you are learning and trying to make sense of the instructions from the coach and cox. Your foundation (the boat) can be unstable and unpredictable, depending on what everyone else is doing in the boat.  You need to synchronise your movement with the rest of the team, which is distracting when you are trying to focus on your own rowing. You’re also conscious that some of your team may be learning quicker than you, which can create doubt in your own ability.  The experience highlights that learning is both individual and collective. You learn to understand the complex adaptive system of working together in a dynamic context, while improving individually.

The learning experience can provoke vulnerability, which is considered essential for learning and team development. Brené Brown suggests that there can be no courage without vulnerability. We don’t learn effectively from within our comfort zones. It is the stretch out of our comfort zone that encourages us to learn and develop. Learning within a team develops our courage to be vulnerable, which in turn leads to greater trust within the team.  Patrick Lencioni writes about the five potential dysfunctions of a team and highlights that the first dysfunction is the absence of trust. This dysfunction occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another. This lack of trust leads to the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. In a work setting, team members are less likely to openly share their experiences to avoid any conflict. This fear of conflict can result in inferior decision making. By inviting the team to experience a novel context, you are encouraging them to build trust through learning together. A team approach to learning fosters openness and courage within the team and also supports the development of new insights and habits within the team. This enables the team to engage in exploring potential areas of conflict within the team, by using the rowing as a lens for sense-making. By focusing attention on the rowing experience, the fear of conflict is reduced as this context is different to the work environment and does not have the same level of risk associated with conflict.

The third dysfunction is a lack of commitment that can arise when the team are unable to deal with conflict in a positive way. This makes it difficult for the team to commit to decisions, resulting in an environment where ambiguity undermines team confidence. Lack of direction and commitment can lead to frustration in the team, which undermines well-being and performance. The rowing experience highlights the necessity for team commitment, as it is not possible to row the boat without all the team members committing to the task. The rowing illustrates that a team is dependent on every member. This can be an eye opener for the CEO, who may try and row the boat alone. Team performance is a function of team commitment and alignment.

The fourth dysfunction is the avoidance of accountability, where the team are reluctant to call each other out on actions that undermine the team. The rowing encourages the team to explore ways that they can develop together and it becomes evident that the team need to hold each other accountable, if they would like to perform well. The fifth and  final dysfunction is an inattention to results, where individuals often put their own needs ahead of the collective team goals. If the team has lost sight of the need for achievement, both the team performance and the well-being of the team will be affected. Rowing allows the team to explore each of these areas of dysfunction and also reminds the team of the joy of performing well in the race at the end of the day. The team camaraderie that is shared within the team is a not so subtle reminder that performance and well-being are flip sides of the same coin. .

3. The power of coaching in supporting team development

As learning can be experienced as overwhelming, it is essential that the coach has a phased approach to developing the team. The coach also needs to encourage the team to have a growth mindset and engage in the learning process. Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor of Psychology, introduced the concept of a growth mindset  and identified this approach as the key differentiator for success. She distinguishes the growth mindset from the fixed mindset, which relates to the belief that our abilities and talents are fixed and cannot be developed with practice.  In the fixed mindset, mistakes are seen as evidence that we do not have the ability or talent to complete the task. People with fixed mindsets are uncomfortable about challenging themselves in case they make a mistake. They see mistakes as evidence of not being talented. They would rather not try, than make a mistake and show that they are not talented. The coach needs to encourage the team to step out of a fixed mindset, which can undermine our learning and shift towards a growth mindset, where we are more comfortable with making mistakes so that we can learn from the experience. The coach also plays an essential role in identifying which basic skills to focus on. The coach addresses the question: “What are the essential movements that will make the biggest difference to making the boat move faster and the team work better together?” As team rowing is complex, the coach needs to focus on the essential skills. The coach can use the Eisenhower Principle (80:20) as a guide: it’s the 20% of your activities that have a huge (80%) impact on the team working together. In his book, “The Power of habit”, Charles Duhigg calls these habits the keystone habits or “small wins” that make a big difference. Experienced coaches encourage a growth mindset and understand that you cannot focus on everything at once; it’s about choosing what to focus on and then committing to improving these world class basics as you work together.

4. Exploring team habits

The rowing experience allows teams to explore their established, unconscious ways of working together. By getting out of our comfort zones, we develop an awareness of our unconscious work habits and how these can undermine team performance. A member of a global logistics team shared that the rowing experience enabled her to understand that “we all speak English, but we don’t always have a common understanding of the language”.  This insight is unlikely to emerge in our everyday work where we operate on auto pilot. By changing our context and using rowing as a lens to explore our habits, we allow team insights to emerge that enable the team to grow together. The social learning supports the development of the whole team and creates a powerful learning space for teams to develop the courage to try new ways of working together.

5. The power of deliberate practice

Effective habits require deliberate practice before they become automatic. Rowing is a powerful reminder of how much practice is needed before our learning becomes an effective habit. Elite athletes like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are renowned for their attention to improving the basics and this puts them into a different league in their sport. Rowing raises our awareness of the importance of the world class basics for performance and then creating the discipline of deliberate practice to develop our expertise. In “Peak: Secrets from the new science of Expertise”, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool share over 30 years of research into exploring expertise. These researchers offer evidence that elite performers are not blessed with some magical natural talent. Their expertise is a direct result of deliberate practice with a coach. They highlight both the value of coaching and the discipline of conscious, deliberate practice to achieve peak performance. Rowing offers teams the opportunity to experience deliberate practice and how this contributes to team performance.  Teams also develop an appreciation for coaching as a guide for deliberate practice. The focus on deliberate practice of the world class basics offers the opportunity for the team to explore how they engage in deliberate practice at work to improve teamwork.

6. Developing team perspective

Rowing is made more complex by the fact that each crew member only has a partial view of what’s going on in the boat. The cox is the only one who is facing in the same direction that the boat is moving. The stroke faces the cox and has to guess what’s going on behind them in the team. Rowers further back are unsure who to follow. They are also distracted by the performance of those around them. Each rower can only see part of the action in the boat, which can lead to confusion and a distorted view of what’s affecting performance. This partial view can be compared to work teams, where we each have our own perspective of reality, informed by our past experience and functional capability. The team discussion after the rowing highlighted the multiple perspectives that existed in the team. The robust discussion after a physically tiring session highlighted the value of rowing as a lens to explore team dynamics and stimulate new sense-making from a learning experience, which is both individual and social. The different positions in the boat offered each team member unique perspectives on how the team are working together. By sharing our different perspectives, we can develop a team perspective on complexity which enables the team to be more agile.

Insights gained from the rowing experience

The team reflected on their experience and shared the insights that they gained from the experience. Some team members focused on the need for clear communication of shared commands. These team members preferred the learning to be structured into “building blocks” so that they could build their understanding as they went. Other team members preferred to either observe others and reflect or experiment and draw on their past experience. These learning preferences reflect the experiential learning processes identified by Kolb, which include reflective observation, active experimentation, abstract conceptualisation and using concrete experience as a sense making process. Rowing allowed the team the opportunity to explore their learning preferences and highlighted that learning is individual. By sharing our learning, we can enhance our collective intelligence as we develop a more cohesive perspective on teamwork.

Understanding the basics and doing them really well together was a useful take out for teams that need to have the capability to form flexible project teams. The expectation for self-organising teams is that they have the agility to jump into boats together and learn as they perform. It is becoming an essential skill for leaders and leadership teams to be able to form dynamic teams and agree the world class basics quickly. With more pressure on organisations, it’s also becoming essential that everyone on the team is committed to working together. Rowing highlights that a lack of engagement by some team members has a significant impact on team performance and adds even more stress to the team members that are pulling together. The insights that were shared go beyond what’s mentioned here, which highlights the potential of rowing as a sporting lens to understand how to support well-performing teams; where each team member has a sense of belonging and is committed to seeing the team do well. Sport also offers a powerful lens to understand the value of doing the basics really well.

At the end of the day, learning to row as a team is a classic “disorientating dilemma” that offers powerful team learning insights that go beyond the “what do we want to get out of this session”? By experiencing learning in this immersive, embodied way, you can access the power of emotional and cognitive learning that can stimulate growth in a way that cannot be achieved in the office, where the established patterns of behaviour are so entrenched, it’s difficult to make any shifts.


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