A Team in Flow

By Paul Spencer

Working toward a goal with a team of people can be one of the most enjoyable experiences of life. A rowing team provides a great example of a team working well together. Rowing teams rely on good leadership, strong communication, and winning.

Click-boom-sssshhh. Click-boom-sssshhh. These are the sounds of a rowing team in 'the zone'. Click--eight oars drop into the water. Boom--eight oarlocks snap after eight solid leg drives. Sssshhh--the shell hums across the water as eight rowers move up their slides to prepare for the next stroke. When the crew has reached a state of flow as a team, the individual is lost and a driving machine more powerful than the sum of its parts emerges.

Social science surveys have concluded that people claim to be happiest when they are with other people. Paradoxically, we have all heard the saying, "Hell is other people." Unfair bosses, rude customers, and ungrateful family members are sources of stress and anguish.

Working toward a goal with a team of people can be one of the most enjoyable experiences of life. Just as a rowing team must work as a unit, an effective team will attain a level of flow in which each person is in tune with the rest of the team. There are a few characteristics that enable some teams to 'click' more easily than others. Good leadership, communication and winning.

Good Leadership

The coxswain is one of the most mentally taxing positions on a rowing team. This person does not row, but is responsible for steering a straight course, motivating the crew, and overall race strategy. Similarly, the team lead for a project plays an important role by ensuring the team does what it is supposed to do, while meeting quality standards. The team lead must have a solid plan for accomplishing the goals of the project, and must be enthusiastic about the process he or she is encouraging the team to follow. A good leader also takes time for each person on the team to understand the benefits of the set direction and to encourage them along the way.


Communication is key in building a team. I once worked on a team where everyone sat around a large conference table. Communication was immediate and high-bandwidth (talking). At one point we needed to be at another location for a couple weeks to prepare for a big release, and sat in cubicles. The communication level dropped because people simply didn’t want to stand up. Instant Messaging and email replaced what had been verbal communication. An effective team will try to eliminate as many barriers to communication as possible.

On the most effective teams, the team ego is elevated over personal egos. Each member is committed to the team with a mutual respect for each team member. This respect enables technical discussions to be intense yet constructive.

The earlier a team accomplishes something together, the more unified the team is likely to become.


The earlier a team accomplishes something together, the more unified the team is likely to become. Gerry Weinberg, in his book Becoming a Technical Leader, related a story in which he implemented this principle in a unique way. His team had just been formed, and the weekend before they were supposed to start working together, Gerry invited the team members to his home for dinner. When everyone arrived Gerry announced that he had been very busy that day and had not had time to prepare anything for them to eat. So, he wanted everyone to go to the grocery store together and he would buy the groceries needed to make their meal.

Once they were at the store different people started saying things like "Oh, I could make my raspberry salad" and "I've got a great peanut butter pie that I like to make". Each person figured out what their contribution to the meal would be, they bought the groceries and went back to the house and made a meal together. This story illustrates three good principles of winning together.

  1. Accomplish something measurable (i.e. make a meal)
  2. Celebrate the accomplishment (i.e. eat the meal)
  3. Enable each person to shine in his or her own way (i.e. unique dishes for the meal)

When a team maintains a common purpose, facilitates open communication, and knows how to win, working together becomes an enjoyable experience. The team members will spontaneously forsake their own divergent goals, and focus their attention on the group's goals. Click-boom-sssshhh. Click-boom-sssshhh.

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