Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?: an Agile journey

    Ben: “Will it make the boat faster? Then do it!”
    p.295, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

    Roughly once a year, our executive team suggest a summertime read for the company. Last year it was Team of Teams, a book which dealt with US military co-ordination and communication changes in response to the challenges they faced fighting a new type of war in Iraq. This year, hot on the heels of a guest speaker appearance from Ben Hunt-Davis at our annual company day, we were encouraged to read Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?

    Will It make The Boat Go Faster is a book that tells of the journey that the Great Britain Men’s 8+ rowing team went on in pursuit of winning gold at the Olympics in 2000. Each chapter has a themed section from Ben and a sub-section from the co-author which delves deeper and links the journey back to tools and techniques which  you can apply to your working or personal life.


    Having read the first few chapters, I observed that it had a lot of overlap with Agile and having mentioned that to some colleagues, an idea was born. Use Will It Make the Boat Go Faster to illustrate some Agile thinking or vice versa.

    As a Scrum Master and aspiring Agile Coach at Eagle Eye, we are always looking at ways we can help our Engineering teams and increasingly the wider organisation to better understand Agile. Bringing some of the Agile guidelines and principles to life through examples or analogies from the book seems like a good way of doing the same, so I was on board (pardon the pun).

    What I hope people get from this blog is that it provokes some thought, better still a conversation and maybe asks a few questions. If I manage to teach people more about Agile or convince people of the benefits of Agile, then that is a bonus.

    So, at this point a recap on Agile probably helps. It is three paragraphs, stay with me!

    Born out of the frustrations from traditional ways of working with software, Agile thinking emerged which said it was wasted effort to define everything up front as plans often change. What really mattered was making a start and delivering something of value through short, regular cycles (iterations or sprints) of work. This meant frequent and earlier feedback opportunities with the customer. And by so doing, we also learn something and could check whether we were moving in the right direction.

    Scrum is an Agile way of working, the most used ‘flavour’ of Agile and the one we use most at Eagle Eye. The basics of Scrum are a list of requirements (a backlog of user stories), a board and a team. Events (meetings) give structure and means that the Scrum team plan and deliver work concurrently… they plan for the next sprint(s) while working on the active sprint. This establishes a certain rhythm to the way that the team works. The team should have all that they need to get work done. The team should work at a sustainable pace so that they do not get burnt out or leave.

    We are not strictly Agile purists at Eagle Eye. We have teams doing Scrum, teams doing Kanban, some teams doing something in between. Like most companies and in keeping with the Agile mindset of inspect and adapt we have altered the framework to suit our own need and will happily do so. We are, like the Olympic Rowing Men’s 8+, on a journey. Except our Agile journey or indeed any Agile journey does not end. What is important is that we keep learning and improving as individuals, as teams, and as an organisation.

    There are two sections which I thought I would concentrate on: tools for success and the characteristics of high-performance teams. Both are strong themes in the book and in Agile.

    Tools for success

    It was clear when reading the book that the Men’s 8+ did everything they could to maximise their chances of winning gold at the Olympics in 2000. Here are a few of the tools they used along the way.

    1. Goal setting: have a clear purpose

    It was apparent that the Men’s 8+ had a clear goal and purpose: to make the boat go faster so that they could win Olympic Gold. They referred to the goal daily and used it as a framing question to make better, more informed decisions as a team. They had layered goals: a crazy goal (winning gold), a concrete goal (making the boat go faster), a control (what can I influence or change) and everyday layer goal.

    In the book they refer to the layered goals as a Russian doll of goals, one nested within the other and I think that is a brilliant way to think of goals. We need to see how we fit into the goal(s) as individuals, as teams and as an organisation. We need to be drawn back to the goal(s) regularly, otherwise it just becomes a distant or forgotten memory.

    I went to an Agile meetup a while ago, Building Teams That Rock from speaker Stephen Morris and some of the key points he made were that everyone needs to understand the destination that the company is looking to get to and they need to feel connected and invested in the company’s purpose. This is important as it binds people in an organisation closer together.

    We have a business goal tied to financials, which effectively maps our performance to a bronze, silver or gold medal. I could not recall the numbers so I had to check. The criteria that make up the numbers is a big fuzzy to me, however I think it was something like the profit we want to make this year as a business and the cash we want to have in our bank account. Regardless, the book cautions against setting financial goals as they may not be the most motivational.

    It is hard as someone who works with the Engineering and Product teams mostly to see how our goal directly affect my day to day working life, however this is probably where better nesting or layering comes into play. My concrete goal is probably serving the Engineering and Product teams to perform as well as they can. Maybe it's for ourselves to figure out where we fit in the goals matrix, or maybe work it out with our teams. Maybe a bit of both. 

    A clear and understood goal is a powerful tool to have as you embark on any journey. It is not an easy thing to do, in fact it's very difficult and is often a time consuming and costly endeavour to do right, however, to borrow from Will It Make The Boat Go Faster is it a risk we can afford not to take?

    Agile likes goals too, what the goal of the sprint or quarter is for instance as it can focus effort on the goal and can be used to check progress towards the goal, or re-align around the goal as needed. Agile probably prefers short term over long term goals as we cannot accurately predict the future. And it probably prefers concrete goals over crazy goals as it wants teams to be successful and grow.

    2. Culture

    “The crew spent so much time talking that eyebrows were raised in a sporting culture where ‘doing time’ (the physical training) was valued most highly.”” p.369, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

    The Men’s 8+ developed a strong culture. The team created a safe environment to speak openly and listen and be listened too. In the early days they spent a lot of time concentrating on how they communicated effectively with one another.

    They learned to be resourceful, for example when their boat broke they held a fundraiser to buy a new one. They learned to be resilient, for example when a member of the crew had to leave just before a race because of injury. They had the courage and strength to make hard and difficult decisions. They followed their own path, were happy to experiment and make mistakes and learn from them. They embraced change so long as it made the boat go faster. To facilitate a strong culture, they learned to be bloody / single / strong minded and adopted a growth mentality.

    Scrum culture is built around empiricism. Empiricism and growth mentality are very similar. Empiricism is made up of transparency of the way in which we work, inspection of how we are doing and adaption so we make changes to the way that we work, experiment with it and see whether it works (keep it) or not (ditch it). The Men’s 8+ were empirical in their approach to winning gold: their obsession with performance, data, evidence, learning and growth as  individuals and as a team supports the same.

    Agile Principle: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.

    3. Values and behaviour

    The Men’s 8+ developed a set of values, not dissimilar to the Scrum values. Because we probably do not spend enough time talking about the Scrum Values and because I think they are important, here they are: Respect, Openness, Courage, Focus, Commitment. A good set of values for any team to have, I think you will agree. There is a quote I bring out from time to time from The Scrum Guide. I like it as says it all to me around the behaviours we should expect of and in our Scrum teams.

    “Successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living these five values. People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Team members have courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems. Everyone focuses on the work of the Sprint and the goals of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Team and its stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work. Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people.”

    To add a layer on top, we at Eagle Eye have a set of business values: luckily, it is quite easy to map these to the scrum values. Our business values are excellence, integrity, fun, innovation, teamwork, and passion. We do a great job of celebrating these values often as a business.

    It was clear that many of the Scrum values the Men’s 8+ also had in abundance. They worked hard at raising their concerns and being open and honest with one another. They were uber-focused on their goal and committed to one another and the team and their goal. They may not have all liked one another, but they did respect one another. They had the courage to do something different and take risks. As an example, they went to a longer day so that they factored in training, diet, and rest during the day. Work, family, educational sacrifices were made so that the boat could go faster.

    Agile manifesto: (We value) responding to change over following a plan

    4. Feedback: Make feedback your friend

    “It hadn’t always been that simple! But two years of practice, two years of honest, difficult feedback conversation had paid off. All of the practice had made it easier to be open, easier to be honest and easier to converse in a way to make the boat go faster.” p.175, Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?

    Feedback was important to them. Feedback from the team, feedback from their performance, feedback from their sessions, experiments and races. The team applied retrospective styled questions to every session they had, and it became a habit for them to do that so that they could continuously improve. The benefits of regular feedback tied back to the goal was profound.

    “It brought a razor-sharp clarity to the crew’s discussions”
    p. 273, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

    In case people aren’t familiar with a retrospective, it’s a formal inspect and adapt moment (there are many in Scrum) for the team to reflect back on the last sprint and consider what they can do to improve in the upcoming sprint. The general format is start / stop / continue or variants thereof: what went well / what went badly / what should we start doing or glad / sad / mad for example. Or in the Men’s 8+ case this: “Where did we perform well?, Where could we have performed better?, What will we do (differently) next time?” p.218, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

    The characteristics of high-performance teams

    So, what are the characteristics of high performing teams and what can we learn from the Men’s 8+ rowing team and apply to our (working) lives. What even is performance when you take it back as far as you can.


    “Focus on performance and success will take care of itself.”
    p.222, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?

    Performance has a wide range of meaning, however pertinent to the points I want to make I think these two are best:

    • the execution or accomplishment of work, acts, feats, etc.
    • the manner in which or the efficiency with which something reacts or fulfils its intended purpose.

    Performance for the Men’s 8+ was lake speed or rowing speed. They worked on their rowing technique to increase their boat speed. Sometimes they would see a big shift in their performance, however more often it was the small changes (the one or two percenters) that made a difference. Diet, rest, training routines, mood all had a bearing on their performance.

    Remember that performance was their concrete layer within their crazy goal of winning gold, it was something they could control and work on and improve. The team learnt and were coached on performance. They learnt about the sweet spot between pressure and performance (the ‘goldilocks zone’) where you perform at your best. In the end they learnt how to measure their own performance: they would have to, nobody was going to measure it for them during the Olympic final. They also learnt about experiments. Edison conducted over 3,000 experiments, and on each failed experiment he celebrated as he had learned or proven something which took him nearer to his goal.

    With Agile, you can measure your performance through velocity (how many story points the team completed) or how you are doing against your goal, or even more nuanced criteria such as the happiness or mood or growth of the team.

    The Men’s 8+ established a strong team culture, expected behaviours and a goal that bound them together. But they also exhibited a lot of behaviours that fit into being a high performing or self-organising (the Agile term) team.

    High performance conversations

    You have better conversations by having a common language. As teams that spend a lot of time together it is important to establish a common language. A common language is a pre-cursor to effective communication. Being aware that the conversation should serve you personally, the other individuals in the conversation and the wider context (the business for example) is valuable. In the book they mention the three-legged milking stool as an analogy of effective conversations serving the needs of the people in the room and the wider context; without all three the conversation is not as powerful or productive as it could be. For every conversation and session they had a clear purpose and reviewed how it had gone, whether it had fulfilled the purpose.

    Team rules and guides

    One sign that the Men’s 8+ were a high-performance team was that they created their own rules. On a scale of Shu-Ha-Ri (Shu; follow the rules, Ha; experiment with the rules, Ri; be the rule) they were in the Ri category, which is the high-performance category. Tune in your bulls**t filters, don’t talk s**t to Basil were some of their rules. When they went to the Olympics, they created a code of conduct to help them when they got there. They had created a wall of evidence that proved they could win gold. Their performance data suggested they were capable of winning gold.

    Agile has its guidelines and principles. Here are just a few of them relevant to high performance teams:

    Agile Manifesto: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    Agile Principles: We follow these principles:
    The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
    Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
    The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organising teams.
    At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

    Now tell me the Men’s 8+ were not an Agile team.

    Scrum has a set of rules as defined in The Scrum Guide. It is more prescriptive that the other flavours, which is why it is often used when teams are starting out with Agile.


    So, ignoring the obvious and most powerful question in the book (Rice-Krispies or Shreddies?) what can we learn from the book and apply to our working lives?

    I hope that this blog causes us to think more about our goals going forward. Use goals to ground us and focus our attention on what really matters and refer back to them frequently. Have a clear purpose and consider goal mentality beyond the goals themselves, for example extending clarity and purpose to our meetings and drawing meetings back to their purpose.

    We should have the courage to question why more frequently. To be more inquisitive. To take risks. To put ourselves out there, to venture beyond our comfort zone. “Question everything!” is a term I often hear at Eagle Eye.

    Maybe we should establish better support bridges or relationships at work. Consider that momentum swings more favourably when you take people with you. As well as the result, maybe we should focus on how we got there more frequently and how we behaved getting there. Keep things in the moment and celebrate in the moment. Use feedback to continually improve and move forward. And build the language and relationships to have open, clear and constructive conversations.

    The Men’s 8+ may not have known it, however when they set out to win gold at the Olympics in 2000, they went on an Agile journey. We are on an Agile journey at Eagle Eye. We recently went through the 100-sprint mark and this past year Agile has had a much stronger presence in our company: retrospectives and stand ups are prevalent across the business now for example. 

    Our momentum for Agile is gathering pace. Are you on board?


    Resources / Further reading

    Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? By Ben Hunt-Davies and Harriet Beveridge

    Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? https://willitmaketheboatgofaster.com/ 

    The race, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EF-I71pyMJI

    Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? The story so far,

    The Agile Manifesto, https://agilemanifesto.org

    The Scrum Guide, https://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html

    Shu-Ha-Ri (condensed), https://martinfowler.com/bliki/ShuHaRi.html

    Performance, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/performance

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