Row Row Your Boat… With A Little Management Theory


Can management theory help win a boat race? At Cambridge University, one coach thinks it can.

As in any company, the members of the boat club are torn between competition and co-operation. Colleagues vie with each other for preferment, yet must collaborate closely to fend off competition from without. To win a seat in the blue boat a rower must outshine his clubmates; but to go fast, rowers must synchronise their efforts with the same people they are trying to outdo.

The article doesn't say if any particular management theory is applied, so I'll take a stab at the outcome for different management styles.

One Minute Manager – It better be a short race if they are going to win.

Management by Walking Around – Only Jesus can do this for a rowing team.

Balanced Scorecard Management – Crossing the finish line is only one component of winning.

Theory of Constraints – Throw the weakest rower overboard.

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Total Quality Management – Each rower gets feedback on each stroke as the race goes forward.

Two Factor Theory – The rowers need a clean boat and a big trophy.

7-S Management Theory – The boat doesn't ever get anywhere, but it sure is organized nicely.

Blue Ocean Management – Row towards your own finish line and ignore those other teams.

Web 2.0 Management – Build the boat, let the crowd row for you. Even if you lose, maybe Google will like your boat and buy it from you.

Businesspundit Management – Your team doesn't make it to the boat because they are distracted by a stack of business periodicals someone laid on the dock.

UPDATE: So now we add Web 1.0 Management in the comments. Nice. Those of you so inclined, please leave any additions to this list in the comments section.

  • I’m sorry, Rob. TOC would have the weakest rower set the pace. Or take over as coxswain.

    Otherwise, this is a BusinessPundit classic!

  • A Japanese company and a California company decided to have a canoe race. Both teams practiced hard and long to reach their peak performance before the race. On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile. Afterwards, the California team became very discouraged and depressed. The management of the California company decided that the reason for the crushing defeat had to be found. A “Measurement Team,” made up of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action. Their conclusion was that the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the Californians had 1 person rowing and 8 people steering. So the management of the California company hired a consulting company and paid them incredible amounts of money. They advised that too many people were steering the boat and not enough people were rowing. To prevent losing to the Japanese again next year, the rowing team’s management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering executives, 3 steering directors and 1 VP of steering. They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 1 person rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the “Rowing Team Quality First Programme,” with meetings, dinners and free pens for the rower. “We must give the rower empowerment and enrichment through this quality program,” the VP of steering was quoted as saying. The next year the Japanese won by 2 miles. Humiliated, the management of California company laid off the rower for poor performance, halted development of a new canoe, sold the paddles and cancelled all capital investments for new equipment. Then they used the money saved by giving a High Performance Award to the steering management team and distributed the rest of the money as bonuses to the senior executives.

  • Rob

    Good point. Maybe I should have said that, when forced to row at the pace of the weakest rower, the team throws their manager overboard.

  • bdthomas

    Web 1.0 (dot-com) Management, write a 100 page rowing-plan, make a 100 slide powerpoint of why you’re going to win, try to convince the judges that you’re the winner before the race even begins. Loose interest, take up hockey.

  • Point conceded!

  • Paul

    Management By Objectives: Hold meeting to ensure both coxswain and rowers understand and agree that the objective of the race is to win. Develop key indicator (probably time) to measure success toward objective. Meet again to discuss plans to win race in proper time period. Meet one more time to verify and ensure that winning is in fact the proper objective and time is the best key performance indicator. Begin race. Meet individually with rowers and coxswains halfway through race to ensure they remember the objective is to win and the key performance indicator is time. Provide coaching to rowers who lag in key performance indicator. Continue race. Finish race. Realize that crew lost race but somehow managed to report a time (the key performance indicator) faster than any other team. Meet to discuss ethical principles of rowing team. Scrap MBO. Hire Jesus for MBWA.