How Rowing Made Me a Better Delivery Lead

At the start of the year, I joined a rowing team during indoor winter training. I was excited to be part of a team sport! With some experience (I have kayaked before), I strapped into a Concept 2 and learned how to row. I quickly realized that rowing is nothing like kayaking.

Just a few weeks later, I joined Atomic Object as a Delivery Lead on an in-progress project. I was excited to be part of a team sport! With some experience (I have worked as a software implementation project manager before), I jumped into Jira and learned how to lead an agile software development team. I quickly realized that agile is nothing like traditional project management.

Here is how learning to row has made me a better Delivery Lead. Disclaimer: I am not an expert in either domain. Yet.


Rowing and agile have many similarities. For starters, both teams sit backward. Let me explain. On a rowboat, the team literally faces the direction opposite which they are moving. That is purely because the muscles on the backside of our bodies are more powerful, and this makes pulling easier than pushing. Unfortunately, when you can only see where you’ve been, it makes it hard to know where you’re going. That’s how I initially felt when joining an agile team. But that’s what a Delivery Lead is for: to help map the course and steer the team.

Rowing and agile both have productivity metrics. A rowing machine displays strokes per minute and shows a force curve that provides immediate feedback on the power and drive of each stroke. With this data, I can make adjustments to my form and transfer power from my arms to my legs to improve my drive. Similarly, agile estimation is a tool to quantify effort (points) and provides a way to measure team effort across sprints (velocity). Both rowing and agile place a major emphasis on form and moving at a sustainable pace in unison. One person cannot pull for the whole team.

Lastly, each also has its own language (starboard, sprints) and gear (I’ve never met so many people with such exacting standards for keyboards).

Focusing on What You Can Control

I have been a newbie at many things: teaching, baking, every new job, becoming a mother, learning to swim at 30 years old. I welcome new opportunities with arms wide open. Usually, my only goal is to have a good time and maybe get better, or at the very least not hate it and give up. What has helped me in all new endeavors is focusing on what is in my control.

I used to complain, “Why can’t they?” Now instead, I regularly ask myself, “How can I?” In rowing and agile, there are countless things outside of my control. But I can control my form, my timing, keeping things steady, and accepting the feedback of my team.

I also often relate my role on the project team to the positions on a boat. There are only two people on the boat who can see everyone else in the boat: the coxswain and the bow. The coxswain is the eyes of the team. They are the only person on the boat who can see the course and they are giving direction the entire time. The bow sits at the opposite end of the coxswain. The bow is responsible for setting the boat (stabilizing), and often helps to course correct. When I’m working through an issue on the project and I’m too close to the problem, it’s helpful for me to stop and ask “Where am I on the boat right now? Where do I need to be?”.

I enjoy reframing and changing perspective, especially when it helps move me into my locus of control.

Catching a Crab

“Catching a crab” is a rowing expression for when a rower loses control of their oar, usually resulting in the blade getting stuck in the water. All levels of rowers can catch a crab, from novice to Olympic athlete. There are three things that can happen when you catch a crab: a rower could get temporarily pinned under the oar, could be hit in the face with the oar, or could be fully ejected from the boat due to the momentum of the team.

Catching a crab is immediate feedback to the rower that something didn’t go right. There are times in a project when I feel completely bowled over by feedback or outcomes. It helps me feel better to think “Dang, I caught a crab,” instead of, “I’m a really lousy Delivery Lead.” Catching a crab is a reminder to get back to the basics.

Crabs happen, even to the best of us. In fact, my rowing team gives an award to the first person to catch a crab at the opening of the season. I won!


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