What Rowing Taught Me About Leading a Product-Led Team
Lessons in product-led engineering from a high school rowing team.
When I was a little boy growing up in New England, I would ride my bike to the old Drake Hill Bridge to watch the local rowing team practice. I sat in silent wonderment watching the groups of eight rowers pull their boats up the river in their focused rhythmic cadence.
From that early age, I always dreamed of one day becoming a rower. A few years later, I stood with apprehension, a skinny 14-year-old from a musicians’ family, in a row of ninth-grade boys – most twice my size – at the rowing team try-outs. I was all the more surprised and delighted at the end of try-outs, therefore, when the coach told me, “You’re not the strongest or the fastest, but you have good rhythm. You’re on the team.”
You see, in an eight-person boat, each rower brings a different set of skills and strengths to the team. The two rowers in the bow are very technical rowers whose job it is to steady and steer the boat. The middle four rowers, or ‘engine room’ are the muscle that power the boat forward. The stroke, a pinnacle of focus and discipline, sits at the head of the boat and sets the pace. And my job was to use my sense of rhythm to read the stroke’s cadence and transmit it to the rest of the boat.
Eight very different rowers, all bound by one common goal: to make the boat go faster.
Fast forward about 30 years to today and I find myself with the honor of leading engineering for Digital and Sales Technologies at adidas. We follow a ‘product-led’ engineering approach with a team of world-class product owners, user experience experts, technologists, data scientists and agile masters all working side-by-side in multi-disciplinary product teams to create engaging and valuable digital experiences for adidas’ consumers and wholesale customers.
Little did I know then that the three key principles I learned in my high school rowing team – Boat, Set and Swing – would also be central to my career in product-led engineering.
Ask an old rower what their secret to success was and you’ll likely hear, “we had a great boat.” But the ‘boat’ in this sense is a team of eight rowers forged into a singular unit through common purpose, indelible trust and shared achievement.
Likewise, great products are made by great product teams.
But it is the mutual trust, respect and personal connections that are developed while toiling together towards a common goal that make a product team truly great.
“Finding balance is not a destination, but a journey of continuous consideration, conversation and course correction.”
An eight-person rowing shell is an inherently instable boat. If one side’s oars are raised slightly higher than the other, the boat tips. If one side pulls harder than the other, the boat turns and tips. In rowing terms, a boat’s ‘set’ is the balance maintained through the telepathic dialogue and synchronized fine-tuning of eight rowers in concert.
A successful product team also needs to find its balance across the often-times conflicting dimensions, such as: ‘consumer-focus vs. revenue generation’, ‘features vs. foundation’ or ‘speed vs. stability.’ Finding balance is not a destination, but a journey of continuous consideration, conversation and course correction.
There is an almost indescribable feeling that rowers call ‘swing’, when everything comes together in near-perfect synchronization. When eight rowers and a boat become one fluid motion and you seemingly fly through the water with limitless speed and performance.
In product-led engineering, there is a similar phenomenon called ‘flow’.
They have established mutual trust, found a healthy cadence and maintain a well-balanced product backlog.
Teams who have found their flow watch their customer satisfaction scores improve, their business results grow, their velocity accelerate, their quality improve and their team happiness increase.
Today, when I walk around the office on big launch days and see the teams working together – the sense of focus, the comradery, the pride in achievement – I feel the same feeling of awe and respect as that little boy on a New England bridge long ago, watching the power, precision and poise of rowing eights gliding by.