Will it make the boat go faster?

I recently read an insightful article about the British rowing team training for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They developed a very simple approach. Before they did anything, they asked one question: “Will it make the boat go faster?” If yes, do it. No, don’t. They won the gold medal.

This may seem like a maniacal approach, but the concept is powerful. It is pertinent to our personal as well as professional lives. It is applicable to virtually every decision we make.

It is the very essence of strategy-allocating limited resources to accomplish prioritized objectives.

But (and this is a very big “but”), there is the inherent problem: “prioritization” – to designate something as more important that other things. The process is complicated because our goals are many-fold. What happens when everything seems important? We are loath to knock something down a notch.

This is a difficult task for a number of reasons.

First, it requires that we actually understand what we want to do. We often get bollixed up. What is the real mission? Activity ought to have a focus, in their case gaining speed. Of course, we are not all rowing a boat. Regardless of the task, there ought to be a reason for everything we do, a concrete objective that we can articulate. If you can say it, you make it real.

Only then can we determine the key components that need to be accomplished to bring our objective to fruition. This imposes logic on what is often a chaotic environment and allows us to order the tasks according to their relative importance. What must be done and how is the process linked?

In a military operation, we had to define “mission essential tasks,” those things which if left unfulfilled would cause the mission to fail. In addition, there were implicit tasks (You couldn’t attack if you didn’t refuel the vehicles first). This analysis was the first step in formulating an operational plan.

Frequently, we distribute our effort and resources to keep all the balls aloft. To do otherwise would entail some of the balls we juggle to come crashing to the ground. Maybe the problem is not our effort, rather it is that we are trying to do too much. We have multiple objectives and no sense of what is really important. Ultimately, we must accept that in life some of the balls really will have to break. (maybe that wasn’t a worthwhile ball in the first place.)

This is difficult for me. My life is not black and white, it is a mosaic of grays (I wanted to say “shades of grey” but that has an entirely different connotation). My answers are seldom short; there is always “on the other hand” to deal with.

This can lead to indecision. The more complex the problem seems, the harder (and longer) my search for direction. I am continually seeking that one little bit of information that will illuminate “the answer.” This sends me into an infinite loop; as the data set gets larger, more questions emerge which sets me off looking for yet more information.

Perhaps we just make life too complicated.

There is an art to being able to distill complex issues to their essence, down to a point where you can ask an unambiguous question, one that has a direct answer. The intent is not to solve everything at once, it is to take the next step. Often a simple motion will then illuminate the way forward.

Clarity. How simple. “Will it make the boat go faster?” Well…will it?