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Why Agile Marketers Need to Learn How to Sail

Next week the America’s Cup qualifications come to San Francisco. There’s a slow murmur building in the city as we move closer to next summer’s main event. Being a sailor and living in San Francisco, I’ve found this to be a particularly exciting time. For those unfamiliar with the America’s Cup, think of it as the “World Cup of Sailing”. Even though next weekend isn’t the “official” competition, I actually find it  more exciting because this is where they widdle down all the respective “challengers” before taking on the previous America’s Cup winner. In gearing up for this over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that competitive sailing and agile marketing have a lot in common.

Let me begin by saying that sailing is a lot like horse racing. It’s one of the few sporting events where you can lose the race before it’s begun. Even if your team executes everything perfectly, overcoming a poor start is extremely difficult. How do teams avoid this? Simple, team members have to practice together to become a unit, understand their roles, collaborate frequently, and be ready to change on a moment’s notice. Competitive sailing is all about being agile. Teams have to be ready to alter their game plan if they want to succeed. No one knows if the wind will hold, or the effect of a tidal change on the course ahead of time. Teams that are ready to take advantage of these sudden changes are those that succeed.

I know what you are thinking “this is all great, but how does it apply to the workplace?” Well, let’s look at the primary goal of agile marketing. Agile marketing is all about being able to adapt to unforeseen changes. This is accomplished by developing a team’s skill set so that they are able to see the changes happening and are better poised to take advantage of them. Like sailing, agile marketing stresses the ability to change tactics depending on the situation. This is why agile marketing stresses short execution cycles. If you lock yourself into a six month marketing calendar, your team will not be able to adapt to the unknown and we’re all familiar with Murphy’s Lawso essentially you’re setting your team up for failure.

For a sailing team to be successful, team members must not only understand their respective roles, but also must have fluent communication between them so everyone knows when to execute. This is no more apparent than when a racing boat has to change tack. Teams switch sail position at lighting fast speeds with pinpoint accuracy. This is done by having open, frequent communication. Agile marketing also stresses openness. The team’s skipper alerts the crew of an impending course change, giving team members ample time to get set. This way when it’s time to execute, everyone understands their role and is ready to carry it out. By increasing team transparency, teammates have a better understanding of how their tasks fit into the broader picture. Also by stressing a high level of openness and communication, everyone is made aware of possible impending challenges. For example by having daily status meetings, team members are made aware of unexpected challenges and can all help to overcome these obstacles.  As you can see, sailing and agile marketing have a lot more in common than you might think.

So managers if you are near a body of water, you may want to give sailing a try and if you’re in San Francisco next week – I’ll see you at the races!

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