Cambridge Ideas: 181-year-old rowing match and high performance business teams

22 March 2010 by Anna Mieczakowski  
Filed under News and views

As the Oxford and Cambridge rowing squads are now in training for the Boat Race in London on the 3rd of April 2010 and the Cambridge Science Festival is drawing to a close, University of Cambridge has released a video in which Mark de Rond, a reader in strategy and organisation at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and a consultant to a number of large global organisations, talks about his two years long organisational ethnographic research with the Cambridge University Boat Club and what lessons business teams can learn from a 181-year-old rowing match between two of the world’s oldest universities in order to achieve high-performance.

The findings of de Rond’s study, which have been published in Harvard Business Review in 2008 (Volume 86, Issue 9, p. 28), indicate that it is not always the strongest rowers that make the fastest boat, but more importantly it is social intelligence and talent for coordinating with other team members that is crucial to winning. My personal experience of rowing for the University of Cambridge’s Darwin College confirms de Rond’s claims. I have sat in many different boats and competed in many races with crew members of both genders and with mixed skills and aspirations and I found that the teams that are true winners are the ones whose oarsmen and oarswomen know one another’s strengths and weaknesses and compete as a whole rather than a sum of individual parts.

One of the techniques that the Cambridge Boat Club uses to select the the strongest and the most cooperative oarsmen for its first boat is seat racing. In first round of seat racing two four-man teams of similar boat-moving abilities race each other over a 1,500 meter long straight, then each team swaps one rower and competes again over the same distance, the seat racing continues with two different rowers swapping places until all combinations of rowers have been tested. The whole point of this excercise is to test each rower’s ability to cooperate with someone who is first a friend and then a competitor.

de Rond believes that the principles of competition and cooperation from rowing apply in the business world and advises organisations to test the level of performance of their business teams by dividing each team into two groups and setting them some problem-solving excercises and then swapping members between both teams to identify the winning combination of people. Although running this excercise requires some time and effort initially, companies will be in a good position to identify their strongest and most cooperative team and this in turn may lead to exhibiting higher growth and more satisfied customers.