How Does That Feel?


“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.”
-Bertha Calloway

I was out racing for the first time in a long time this weekend. I was rusty and sailing on a boat that I was unfamiliar with. Furthermore, I didn’t know anyone on the crew. So I started doing what I like to see others do when racing: I just started talking about what I was seeing happening around me.

“Do you see that boat over there?”

“Hey, look, there’s a puff of wind over there.”

“It looks like the breeze might be filling in from over there.”

I kept that little monologue up, not constantly, but on a fairly regular basis. Just letting others know what I think I’m seeing. At some point during the race, one of the guys looks at me and says, “Tom, I hear you talking about pressure over here, and puffs over there, and I’m not really sure what you are talking about. How do you know there’s really wind over there?”

That’s a great question. And there are a couple of answers. The first answer is that I simply don’t know. I’m really just guessing. It’s the wind that we are talking about after all, and I have no more special insight than the next guy when it comes to divining the nature of the winds. However, I do have a few years of experience, and it turns out that more often than not I tend to get it right. That’s because I’m looking for certain signs on the water that indicate what might be the presence of wind. Something like a telltale pattern of ripples on the surface can indicate a small downdraft…or it could indicate a small school of fish ruffling the water. Now I usually know the difference, but I could be wrong. Trust me, it happens all the time. But I don’t worry about that when I’m racing. I think there is value in sharing all observations about the race course that help to give my team a tactical advantage.

People tend to assume that the person driving the boat, usually a very experienced and capable individual, knows what is best and has a good grip on the situation on the water. Nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that when you are the skipper, you often have your head stuck in the boat. It’s not the skipper’s fault – it comes with the job. You are trying to steer to the telltales on the sails. You are reacting to pressure on the tiller. You are worried about the next mark rounding. But you can’t look at everything at once. That’s where a crew that can be feeding you that information is very valuable. It also helps if they can be sharing the information with each other. After all, they are no more likely to get it right than anyone else. That’s OK if there are more than one set of eyes looking at the issue. So if I think I see a puff and I call it out, another team member may disagree and point out the school of fish just beneath the surface of the water that I missed. The dialog is self correcting. It’s a constant patter of conversation where we share our impressions, some false, some true, that help us to confirm or deny our race strategy.

The other thing that I frequently do is ask questions like, “how does that feel?” Again, I have lots of experience sailing, but I’ve never sailed on this boat before. So I make changes to the sail trim and then I ask, “Did that help?” Maybe it does, or maybe not.

So not only am I talking about the physical nature of the race course, but I’m also checking in with my crew mates. Now I don’t do this out of any overabundance of concern about their well being. It’s much more practical than that. My actions are impacting their performance. Now maybe they will tell me how they are impacted or maybe they won’t. In fact, it’s often the case that people won’t tell you unless you ask. So I ask a lot. I change the sail trim and I check back with the skipper, “How’s does that feel now? Better? Worse?” I check with the guy trimming the main, “How about you?” Sometimes the answer is just a shrug. That’s fine, that’s good feedback too.

I’ve noticed a curious thing that seems to happen. As you model this behavior, others start to pick it up and do it too. At the start of the race, maybe I’m the only guy who’s talking. Two hours later as we cross the finish line, people are calling out puffs and asking for feedback from each other. People seem to pick up on it pretty quick if it’s useful. And if not, well, then maybe you don’t get invited back. Like I said, I don’t always get it right.

I wonder if the same sort of communication is useful for our development teams? What sort of things should we be talking about? What kind of observations are useful? Where are the ripples on the water for a software development team? I know they are racing – that much is for sure. Is the boss’s door closed? Is Joe late getting into the office? Does that meeting have an agenda? I don’t know, I’m guessing that some of that is water cooler conversation that probably isn’t worth a whole lot. On the other hand, what if I come into the office and mention that one of our biggest competitors just made a key acquisition. That’s going to send a few ripples through the water. What if there is an issue in production? More ripples. Maybe even some waves.

So there may indeed be some utility in sharing your observations about the business, the technology, the current state of the production system. It’s all wind on the water. It’s tactical information that may or may not be useful. But you are definitely better off talking about it.

So What about asking questions? You know like, “How does that feel?” Boy, there’s a question that software guys just absolutely love to get asked. How often are we checking in to get feedback on how our actions have affected those around us. Once a sprint? Of course I can’t wait that long in sailing, because the race is long over by then. The feedback would hardly even be relevant if I waited that long. In order for us to fine tune our performance and work together as a team, we need to be constantly engaging in a dialog that tests our assumptions about the value of the changes we are making. Did that help? How does that feel? It’s a fuzzy sort of qualitative conversation that I’m sure makes some folks uncomfortable. But maybe that’s because we’re using it wrong.

You see, when I ask the helmsman how a change feels, he knows what I’m asking about. He knows I don’t give a damn about his emotional state. I want to know if the boat just got easier to steer. Did the boat speed up? Did it slow down? Perhaps the same should apply to software teams. We need to make sure that we understand how the conversation is intended. When I ask how things feel, it’s not necessarily the touchy feely question you might think. Rather, I might really be interested in how fast you think you are going.

So, how does that feel?

One Response to How Does That Feel?

  1. It feels great! Thanks for asking about my feelings and my emotional state! 😉

    One of the best lessons on teamwork I ever had was during the start of a sailing race. I was on foredeck, and one of my responsibilites was to call out other boat traffic. In case you’ve never seen the start of a sailing race, it’s a cluster fuck. (Sorry, but no other term comes close). Basically, every boat knows when the starting gun will go off because they’ve been given a 10- and 5-minute warning gun, so every boat is trying to be at the same place at the same time. Add to the confusion that sailboats cannot sail directly upwind, and that every sail is, in effect, a blinder to what other boats are doing, and you’ve got (somewhat controlled) chaos.

    So.. back to me on foredeck. I saw another boat coming directly toward us and yelled back to the helmsman “There’s a boat on a collision course. Turn to port (i.e. left or downwind).” The captain and tactician did not alter course, so I said it again. By that time, the other boat had altered course and the collision was averted. We both got to the starting line within a few seconds of each other, but because of how the winds were blowing, our boat was in a more fa
    ored position. Lucky? No, that’s one of the skills of a good sailing team.

    When things settled down, the captain (and tactician and helmsman) told “You can tell me where another boat is, but you can NOT tell me what to do — that’s my decision”. In short, everyone on the boat was responsible for calling out the information they had (in my case, another boat that was hidden behind another boat’s sails; in Tom’s case (above), what he sees on the water or is doing to adjust the sails). It’s someone else’s job to integrate all this information, prioritize it, and make short term course changes (i.e. helmsman) or long term routing (i.e. tactician). It turned out that the right of way rules were very clear — We were on starboard tack (wind coming over our right side) and the other boat was on port tack, and in this case we had the right of way. Both our captain and the captain on the other boat knew this. The rules of the road obligated us to hold our course, and the other boat to give way. So, my OBSERVATION about an approaching boat was welcome, but my suggested ACTION was not because making that call was not my job.

    One of the reasons we became a winning crew is that we learned to continually chatter about what we saw and what we were doing. The captain was responsible for prioritizing (or ignoring) the information and calling out what actions the boat should perform, at which time some of the crew would work together to make that happen while some of the crew ignored the call.

    So, yes, Tom, (as we’ve also discussed in person), I think this kind of “continual chatter” is important for a sailing team, and also for software teams. It’s a kind of distributed control mechanism. Every team member shares what they know, even if they aren’t sure who may need it, and when you hear some information that’s important to your role, you simply act on it. Of course, that action also is information that you are responsible for sharing.

    Here’s what it may sound like on the boat:

    Random Observer – There’s a puff of wind at 11:00 position. It’ll be here in 10 seconds.
    Sail trimmer – Trimming jib
    Helm – Heading up
    Tactician – We just got 0.1 knot increase
    Sail trimmer – Easing jib now that puff is gone
    Helm – Heading down
    Tactician – No. Hold your heading. There’s a current that’s more important than the wind.
    Snacktician – Anyone need water or a sandwich?

    Sailing has been great training for my communication skills on a team!

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