Reading the Wind

While vacationing this year, I took my ten-year-old daughter Julia sailing on SERENITY, our Catalina 14.2.

It was a relatively light wind that day; decent for teaching, with a few gusts to make things occassionally exciting. Normally when I take people out on the boat, I handle the main and the tiller myself, talking them through operation of the genoa if they’re up to it, or just running on the mainsail, letting them enjoy the ride if they’re not. The wind was light enough that sailing without the jenny wasn’t going to be much fun, so I handed the tiller over to Julia, and situated myself forward in the ‘crew’ position, manning both the mainsail and the genoa.
Explaining how to steer is different than explaining how to trim a sail. The stakes are a little higher at the helm station. SERENITY is extremely responsive with only a small shift in rudder needed to redirect her onto a new point of sail. Consequently, there are two ways to steer her. The first is to set the sails, and keep adjusting course to keep the sails full of wind. The other way to steer is to choose a fixed point on land (usually one of the cabins across the lake), keep the bow pointed toward it, and adjust the trim on the sails as necessary to keep the sails full and driving forward. We were using the second option, with Julia picking a landmark and doing her best to keep the target in sight while I adjusted the sails.
Being put in the driver’s seat wasn’t as much fun for Julia as she had originally hoped. Unlike the motorboat, where she could zig and zag to her heart’s content, the sailboat wanted a steadier hand. Julia would point the boat at a cabin, and I would work the sails. Occasionally, a puff of wind would wash over the boat, the sails would pop full, the rigging would strain a little more, the boat would leap forward, and we’d promptly veer off course. Whether it was a reaction to the sounds, or a change in the pressure on the rudder, Julia was struggling to hold the boat on the same heading whenever the puff would hit.
I went into teaching mode again, and asked Julia to describe what was happening when we’d change course. She was already getting frustrated and snapped back, “I don’t know! The boat just turns!”
I tried again. I asked her to hold the boat on course and then watched as a gust approached. I said, “Get ready, the wind is going to hit us again in three – two – one – now!” Julia tensed up and this time the boat didn’t veer as far. I nodded sagely. “I see now. You need to learn to read the wind.”
Her response was instantaneous, “But I can’t see the wind!”
“Ah, but you can see and feel its effects,” I replied.
“Look out there,” I said, pointing toward the north end of the lake, “Do you see how the tops of those waves are darkening and covered with little ripples?”
“Do you see how they’re coming closer to us, until…”, the puff washed over the boat again, “…the wind gets here?”
She shrugged.
“Look up at the wind-vanes on the shroud. See how the green arrow is turning toward the south? Look up at the sail and look at the tiny strips of ribbon streaming off the leech. Do you see how the green one is now flying higher than the red? Can you see the flag flying over Grandma’s deck way over there? See how it’s pointing back toward the house? The wind is all around us, and you’re right. You can’t see it. But you can see its effects. You can look for clues to see when the wind will reach you, so you know to hold tighter. When the wind is steady, you can use those ribbons on the sail to tell you if the sail needs to be adjusted, or even more important, if things need to stay just as they are.”
I felt very zen at that moment. It’s what I love about sailing – that feeling of being connected to your environment. Of knowing how to tell when the boat and the environment are in harmony, or of being aware of imminent changes bearing down on you. Then there are the unexpected surprises. No matter how much you plan, sometimes a downdraft just pops out of nowhere, or the wind comes across in a little spinning dervish. That’s when skill and experience of the crew come into play.

Now, back to work…

A little over a week ago, we were planning a sprint. I, as product owner was presenting the first story to the team. The new Scrummaster (who I am coaching) was playing the role of traffic cop, and encouraging the team to ask questions and then to begin tasking the story. As usual, the group divided up by discipline, with the developers huddling at one end of the table to discuss implementation, while the testers huddled at the other end to talk about how they would verify the functionality. The tech writer had volunteered to scribe for the team, and was waiting to capture key questions and answers as they arrived. I turned to the Scrummaster and said, “They always start by going into their discipline silos. The trick is to not let them stay there so long that they forget to collaborate.” The Scrummaster nodded, and then something unprecedented happened.
The developers stopped talking to each other, and announced to the testers that they’d like to explain their plan for the feature. The testers were so engrossed in their conversation, they almost missed it, but slowly turned to look at the other half of the team. The Tech writer raised her fingers to the keyboard – waiting.
The developers began describing their implementation. The tech writer recorded a few key points. The testers suddenly looked surprised, and two began scribbling new task stickies while the other said, “Oh, we hadn’t thought of that. We thought we’d test it like this…” Now it was the developer’s turn to be shocked. They began writing new tasks as well. They asked clarifying questions. They crossed out, then re-wrote some of the tags. I was instantly proud, and amazed. They were doing it. Finally, after all the years of sprint planning. After all the discussions about how they needed to collaborate more in the sprint planning sessions… they were finally doing exactly what they were supposed to do.
In that moment, I was caught up in the flow of information, feeling the ebb and flow, watching the ripples of information wash over the table. Every so often I’d nudge the tech writer. “Record that one. It was important”, or the Design Lead would offer a clarifying tidbit of info on the technology. The conversation continued into estimating the tasks, and they were all sharing the experience.

It was like being out on the boat again. I was reveling in the moment.

Then the Project Leader, who had been quietly reading email spoke up. “We have an email we need to respond to.” For the moment she was only looking at me.
“Can it wait until they finish?” The team was still surging forward, I didn’t want to break the spell.
“No, we need to respond right now.”
She showed me the email. I told her I’d handle it. I quietly motioned to the Design Lead to take over interpreting for the scribe, and hunkered down to respond to the email. Ironically, it was a question from one of the stakeholders about the very story the team was now debating. He had a suggestion for a possible solution. I crafted a quick response, thanking them for their help, but the team had already explored that possibility, and had moved on to another line of investigation. The team was still in the zone. I popped the email up on the screen, and got the PL’s attention. “There’s our response.”
She read it, “Is that accurate?”
“Are you sure.”
“Maybe you should double-check with the team.”
Once again, I looked around the table. Still on course.
“We shouldn’t interrupt them.”
She insisted.
We got one of the team member’s attention and asked him to verify the information on the screen. He confirmed the accuracy and jumped back into the flow. Disaster averted, I hit send.
A moment later she flagged me down again. “I just read further into that email chain. There are unanswered questions.”
I scrolled down deeper in the chain and looked at the questions. “Those aren’t meant for us. Those are for marketing to work out.”
She persisted. “Yeah, but there are four courses of action outlined there.”
I looked again. “Yes. And none of them change what the team is doing. The team is proving that a technical solution exists. Marketing needs to know we can fix it before they decide on how it may impact licensing. We’re fine.”
The PL looked uncertain. “I just don’t want the team wasting their time.”

And the wind stopped.

The table went silent, all eyes turned to the PL. I jumped in, now addressing everyone at the table, “Nobody is wasting their time. This is a critical investigation. Everything they have talked about stands. Let them continue.”

That’s when it hit me. She didn’t know how to read the wind. She didn’t understand that the wind was blowing strong and steady, the sails were trimmed just right, and the boat was humming along exactly as it needed to be. She didn’t realize that there was nothing to do but enjoy the ride.

We talked later, and I told her there was a skill I needed to help her learn. I told her about Julia and the boat. I asked her if she realized the significance of what the team had been doing at the time she stepped in. I suggested that we would need to work out some sort of signal. Until she learns to read the signs, she is going to have to rely on someone else pointing it out to her. I’d give her a visual indication that if she wanted to talk, we needed to move it into the hall.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to help her become a better sailor, but I’m confident she’ll pick up enough to help support the crew – to keep the boat trimmed and sailing fast and level.  I’m not certain how I know that.  It just feels right.

Call it something in the wind.

Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO, SA4 Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago ( Manager, Management Consulting / Chicago Agile Practice Lead / Agile Coach & Trainer @ Strive Consulting (