How a yacht race turned me into a Scrum Master

Continuous Improvement, Autonomy, Validation - these terms are becoming so worn that they feel like business jargon. But if you have experienced the pain that Stagnation, Command & Control and Big Bang Deployment brings, you have ample reason not to look back.  The mild embarrassment that comes with joining the 'Agile cult' is greatly outweighed by the soul-numbing awfulness that is the alternative.

Although the above is my experience too, this is not that story.  I have also had experiences with Chaos - the inferno that regularly erupts in Startupland and in many Open Source projects.  It, not Agile, is the real antithesis to the frozen hell that is Waterfall/Taylorism/TheoryX.  This is not that story either.  I actually started appreciating what I now call the Agile mindset, on a sailing boat. 

As an adolescent I was pretty interested in 'Team Building' and while training as an outdoor sports instructor, we learned about Tuckman's Forming/Norming/Storming/Performing.  I had noticed that cohesive teams had better morale and more fun but that they also sometimes missed creative solutions to problems that messier, argumentative teams seemed to come up with.  This even led me to study social psychology, although that field had disappointingly few insights on offer.  And really, I didn't want to just understand teams, I wanted to be a part of one.

As a student and later as a Yacht Master I did a lot of yacht racing.  Now in the nineties, mirroring the software development world, yachts were starting to organise themselves differently.  Being a relative pauper but a skilled sailor, I was used to being ordered around the boat by the owner, who would also steer the boat. If you wanted to win races, you had to find that rare combination of the rich and skilled sailor.

Imagine my surprise when one day I stepped aboard a boat, shook the hand of the young man at the helm and he diverted me to the owner!  Here was a man who had given up the driver position to some pipsqueak, fresh out of a dinghy!  I recounted the experience to my skipper later that evening and we laughed about this.  What chaos it must be on board!  They'll never win a thing.

That year the boat, Yellow Rose, won every series it entered.  The next season it won all the major series in the Netherlands and thereby the national title.  The season after that, it won the national title and its own class - X-332 - internationally, as well as Cork week - one of the biggest fleet races in the world.  I had gotten to know them well by then, I knew that they were a relatively young crew and that they hardly ever changed members.  I was allowed to join them for a race, the nationals in Hamble, UK. 

I had never seen anything like this.  The owner took the position of tactician, but not the helmsman 'driver' position.  He completely trusted the crew with his boat, concentrating instead on the wind, tide and competition.  There was almost no shouting on board and if emotions flared up because of an inevitable mistake, these were evaluated after each race.  But the evaluation was of what went wrong in the situation, no blame was assigned.

Even more astonishing was that: no one person gave a call when a manoeuvre was initiated - each time it was initiated by a different person.  The helmsman initiated a tack, the mainsail trimmer initiated a gybe, the bowman initiated a kite hoist.  I saw manoeuvres called and then initiated seconds later that would have taken minutes of complicated instruction by the tactician on my previous team. And they improved all the time, every race was meticulously discussed and adapted to. 

I was addicted - I sailed with Yellow Rose as much as I could.  I progressed to training other sailing teams too and started to spread the goodness there.  I wanted to spread this goodness to my work in software development too, but it took me another five years of searching before I found a team where I was allowed to apply what I had learned on a boat.


I am not going back.


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