I was 16 when I had my first taste of the power of collaboration, and to this day I wonder if that experience set me on my career path and even in part defined who I’ve become.
I was fortunate enough as a kid to go to a school that had a rowing program, and in hindsight it was probably the only sport available that had the ability to physically tire out teenage boys. Every year we’d go on a summer rowing camp in preparation for the start of the season.
In 1996 we held the camp on the River Murray on one of the lazy sections running through rural South Australia. We started our days early, and on this particular day we were presented with the perfect conditions – no wind, flat water, cool air. The sun just edging over the horizon and setting the sandstone cliffs on fire. The cockatoos perched in the trees but for a rare moment – quiet.
Our coach accompanied us in a small ‘tinny’ with an outboard motor, and our coxswain (yeah, he’s the little guy) sat astern and kept watch over us. The boat was a racing shell, very narrow and tippy, hard to balance. We were a crew of four, all mates but not best mates, and we’d been rowing for about an hour when we hit that Zen moment.
We were rowing about half strength, ‘long and strong’ (to this day I’ve translated even that mantra into ‘make every movement count, or don’t move’), and we got the command ‘eyes closed’. Nothing unusual – did it all the time, it’s a good way to focus us in on our timing. Eyes closed. Hearing becomes the dominant sense. We can hear the tinny’s motor, the occasional word from our coach or the cox, the noises of our boat.
The cox stops his count. Silent.
Keep going. Timing well, oar blades all in and all out together.
The coach turns off his motor. Silent.
Then, it was just us, rowing in perfect unison, perfect timing. Eyes closed. I could no longer hear 4 blades dipping into the water, I could hear only one. Ours. Up the slide, catch the water, pull, the boat urges forward. Swish. Swish. Not even a wobble, not even a splash. It was difficult enough to stay dead level and in perfect unison with our eyes open, and this was something special.
It’s a rare moment in life when the world disappears around you and all your senses lock in on the moment, but this felt like such a moment. I can feel the tingles just writing about it. It’s almost like I could still see the sandstone cliffs all afire through my eyelids, like I was connected with everything all at once, yet I was totally immersed in our common purpose.
I now have the benefit of another nearly-three decades to be able to see the value in that very moment. It was the perfect example of how powerful collaboration can be;
- Purpose: with a shared goal we could put all of our energy into moving forward. No distractions;
- Coordination: without the perfect timing the Zen moment would never have happened, our team would never have excelled;
- Trust: we had to rely on and trust each other, and when we did, we were 100% efficient;
- Awareness: only through using all of our senses and people-craft can we effectively collaborate. We need to listen to each other using all our senses.
In that moment we could have beaten anyone.
I’ve since had the benefit of having similar experiences on green development projects. Maybe not quite a ‘Zen moment’ but something akin to everyone being in tune, in unison, with common purpose.
If we can all just pull in the same direction we can overcome anything.