Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How close to the wind are your ideas?

I learnt how to sail with a wonderful instructor named Bert van Elderen. Over the years since then, I have realized that one of the things he taught me has relevance beyond sailing. Let me explain why.

As you probably know it is not possible to sail directly into the wind. You can however sail at an angle to the wind that allows you to make ground upwind. This is why yachts often sail in a zig-zag pattern. To make the most ground upwind you need to sail at the smallest angle possible to the direction the wind is coming from. This is called sailing close to the wind or close-hauled. You have to be careful not to sail too close to the wind, otherwise the sails start flapping and you lose speed. The trick is to learn how to sail as close to the wind as possible.

One day I was with Bert in a dinghy learning just that. Every few minutes he would ask me if I could "luff up", in other words sail closer to the wind. Sometimes I discovered that I could and sometimes I discovered that I was already sailing as close to the wind as possible. After a while I was pretty confident that I knew what I was doing, and yet Bert continued to ask the same question, again and again.

Finally, slightly annoyed, I asked him "why do you keep on asking that?, am I not doing it right?"

"Simple", he said, "It is a question with no wrong answer! If you are sailing as close to the wind as possible then the answer is no and you keep to your course; if the answer is yes, then you have fallen off the wind and you need to luff up a bit". What he was of course teaching me is that the conditions change all the time and that I should ask this question of myself all the time to make sure that I am sailing as close to the wind as possible.

I think this simple question applies to many things in life. For instance, it is the basis for retrospective reviews. "Could I have done that better?" is a question with no wrong answer. Either the answer is no, you did the best you possibly could, or the answer is yes, here's what I can do better next time. Either way you learn something. It is the key question to ask if you are interested in systemic change.

Jeff Honious reminded me last week that it applies to innovation as well. You should always be asking yourself the question "is this idea remarkable enough" or "can I improve on this idea?". These again are questions with no wrong answers. If the answer is "yes" then great we continue with the idea as planned. If the answer is "no" or "maybe not", then we need to do some work on the idea to make it better. Just like the wind, conditions around the idea change all the time. Asking these questions every day will help keep your ideas close to the wind.

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