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Shift the Jib!

Agility Consulting |

By Tom O’Shea, Organizational Agility Practice Leader

Prepare to Come About … Helms Alee … Now, Shift the Jib!

I heard those words so many times while sailing with my father and brothers on the Chesapeake Bay during my high school years living on the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Lexington Park, Maryland.  We got there in 1967 after moving every few years between Georgia, Texas (2), Japan (2) and Hawaii (where I was born).  My dad, Navy Commander John Augustus “Jack” O’Shea, was the Air Operations Officer responsible for all air traffic controllers at this unique weapons systems test center that sits at the mouth of the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers before merging into a wide open sailing paradise.  He retired in 1974 and went on to another career involving George Washington University and finally George Mason University.

dadAs you might tell from this photo, he was also an avid sailor and Commodore of the Sail Club for many years at Pax River – which is where and why I got my passion for sailing and learned the rules of the waterways.  He made his “final” sail twenty-five years ago in October.

I often use strong sailing imagery like this picture of a high performance race team in my workshops to illustrate some of the essential elements in creating success through agility in our very turbulent VUCA world.  This team is clearly facing some potential danger and heavy chop in the waters that lie ahead.  How well they sense and respond as a team will determine success or failure and sometimes even safety or disaster.

sailboat3One of the factors that enables this team (and others) to be successful is great clarity of roles and responsibilities for each of the mission critical jobs to be performed with synchronicity and precision.  Each of the roles here requires its own expertise, training and functional excellence just as in our businesses.  Here there is great unity in the sense of purpose with clear understanding of team goals and consequences.  These teams also have a heightened awareness and expectation for constant change – they are prepared for being adaptive in every respect.

All team members know, without doubt, that every journey involves CHANGE and there will be multiple tacking (changing wind direction to maximize progress toward destination). They have shared mindset and ready to adapt as needed.   They also recognize that their ability to CHANGE BETTER AND FASTER than their competition often is the difference in winning or losing a race.

When its time to change direction, the Captain calls out “PREPARE TO COME ABOUT” which is a signal to all crew members that we are about to change direction.  On a sailing vessel, you will immediately see crew members move into position very quickly whenever the Captain beckons this call. Often you will hear a reply from crew members saying “READY ABOUT” to confirm they are aware and in position.  Next comes,  “HELMS ALEE” … the Captain declaring to all the crew members that the SHIFT is underway as he/she swings the bow across the wind.   It also means “watch your head” because the boom under the main sail will be swinging to the other side of the boat and if you head is too high – it will hurt very soon.  The Captain watches as the wind backfills the sail and at just the right moment shouts loudly “SHIFT THE JIB” – which triggers a flurry of activity with crew releasing lines on one side and crew sheeting in lines on the other side of the boat … all very rapid and synchronized.  Soon, the boat is on a new track with sails crackling as lines tighten with the new point of sail.

So, how is your team doing on your journey?  Do you have a clear heading (vision) and a crew capable for the journey?  Are your team operating principles and core processes finely tuned to enable the high performance agility that your customers require at the high speed of every day business?  Are you and your leaders providing the kind of active team communications needed to signal the direction and energize the transformation needed for your journey?  Are your messages crisp, clear and timely?   How about the response from your team when you signal your SHIFT THE JIB – do you get the kind of coordinated and urgent response that is needed?  Those are some of the key questions to explore as you begin thinking about your journey for success in 2017.  These are some of the questions that me and my partners help our clients explore, navigate and learn to pivot towards agility.

Love to hear your sailing stories and feedback on your journey.

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