When I’m not working, one of the things I do is row.  Rowers are dedicated individuals.  We all love the sport.  You have to really in order to enjoy doing it at 7.30am on a Saturday or Sunday.

So with that in mind, I had a very instructive experience last week.  I rowed as part of an eight where the cox didn’t have a functioning “cox box” – an electronic aid to being heard.  Bad enough in itself.  But the cox was also a lady with a very soft voice.  So she really couldn’t be heard, at least beyond the first four or so oarsmen.  So those of us in the bows had very little idea of what was going on or when.

I should make it clear at this point that there were eight experienced oarsmen in the boat.  So you might have expected them to be able to row together to a reasonable standard, even without the help of an audible cox.  But the rowing was atrocious.  In fact, after the outing, I commented that I thought we had rowed at about 20% of our potential.

How could eight experienced oarsman do so badly?  The answer is a complete lack of communication.

There was no-one telling us what we were planning to do throughout the outing.  There was no clear instruction when we all had to act together.  There was no-one telling us when we got it right.  There was no indication of what was going wrong.

The emotional results were interesting.  I began by being as motivated as ever.  Very quickly, I became frustrated.  Then I became resentful that there was a small group who clearly could hear but didn’t much care about those who couldn’t.  Then I decided to do my own thing – not the best thing to do in an eight.  Then I simply became demotivated, so that I lost interest and started looking at the scenery.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, because, as all this was unfolding, I began to think about the parallels with communication (or often lack of it)inside organisations.  I’ve always known that internal communication and engagement is important.  But this experience taught me just how critically important it is and also just how much communication is needed, at the beginning of and throughout any initiative.  No matter how much experience there is in the team, you need someone telling people what’s going to happen and why, what’s happening now, what’s expected of each of them and how well or otherwise they are doing.

There is a happy ending.  The following week, I experienced the reverse.  Cox box in place, clear instructions, constant communication throughout, positive feedback on our performance.  And I estimate that we rowed at 80-90% of our potential.  QED.