How to Increase Team Productivity with “Swing”

I wasn’t looking for anything special when I first picked up a copy of The Boys in the Boat. I was in an airport, probably more concerned about finding a decent cup of coffee than a life-changing read. But what started as a random grab for entertainment turned into a transformative experience that solidified my approach to managing teams.

Daniel James Brown’s epic telling of the 1936 U.S. eight-man Olympic rowing team has a lot to offer. The book paints vivid pictures of Seattle—my current hometown—and the Hudson Valley in New York, where I spent my childhood. It’s an underdog story that rivals my favorite movie, Rocky. But what truly resonated with me was the introduction to the concept of “swing.”

What Is “Swing”?

While I could describe “swing” in my own words, it’s best to hear it from the source:

“There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define… It’s called ‘swing.’ It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of sync with those of all the others… Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists—must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is a part of each of them, moving as if on its own… Rowing then becomes a kind of perfect language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like.” [source]

Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat

What struck me most about this description of “swing” was how much it mirrored experiences I’ve had—not in a rowboat, mind you (I can barely row an inflatable raft across a pool)—but as a musician playing in bands and as a leader of product and engineering teams.

Swing on Product and Engineering Teams

Just like in a racing shell, “swing” on a product and engineering team occurs when everyone operates in complete synchronicity. Instead of propelling a boat forward, you are propelling a product forward at warp speed. When you find it, you’ll know because you’ll be delivering high-value, high-quality software at an astonishing pace, and it will feel like no cycle of engineering time is wasted. It’s a euphoric experience, and once you’ve tasted it, you’ll forever be chasing that high.

How to Get Your Team to Swing

If you’re thinking, “swing” sounds as elusive as finding a unicorn in your backyard, fear not. Here’s your cheat sheet for achieving “swing” with your team:

  • Hire for Skill AND Team Fit
  • Build Trust
  • Align on a Common Vision
  • Shuffle the Pieces
  • Change the Team

Hire for Skill AND Team Fit

Building a product, like rowing, is a team sport. While skills are essential, team fit is equally crucial. In my career, I’ve seen many interviews that barely touch on team fit. Ensure you evaluate candidates not just for their technical skills but also for how well they align with your team’s working style. Conduct team interviews, perhaps over lunch, to observe larger team dynamics.

Build Trust

To achieve “swing,” everyone must do their job without stepping on each other’s toes. This requires near-blind trust among team members. Building trust isn’t easy, but providing opportunities for the team to socialize and avoiding favoritism can help. Deliver praise and feedback equally to maintain trust over time.

Align on a Common Vision

On a crew team, the coxswain sets the pace and strategy. On a product and engineering team, that’s your role. Ensure your team aligns on a common vision. Clearly articulate the vision and roadmap, frequently reiterate it until it becomes their mantra. If they start veering off track, use it as a compass to steer them back.

Shuffle the Pieces

Just as rowers might need to switch positions to find the optimal configuration, you may need to reassign roles within your team. Align tasks with each member’s strengths, whether it’s frontend, backend, DevOps, or project management, to maximize efficiency.

Change the Team

If the team can’t achieve “swing,” some members might not be a fit. Don’t be afraid to make changes, even if it means letting someone go or moving them to another team. These tough conversations are crucial for achieving “swing.”

Go for Gold

Getting a product and engineering team to “swing” is an incredible feeling. If you’ve never experienced it, you’ll know when you find it. Follow the guidance in this post, and experience your team delivering software at a pace that would make even Usain Bolt jealous. And when that happens, don’t be surprised when company executives, other teams, and customers line up to hand you your Olympic gold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *