Sailing without a rudder

When I was in 8th grade we lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. At the time, there was outfit called Community Boating that held classes for kids and taught them to be sailors on their summer vacation. Kids would show up in the morning and sign up for a class and after some lessons and a test they would reach various levels of certification. My brother and I went every day, of course.

A sailboat on the beach in Tel Aviv in 2007. We got bumped from our flight and got a day at the beach courtesy of the airline!

Within a few weeks I was able to take out a Cape Cod Mercury  (seats 4 or 5?) on a green flag day, but not on a red flag (windier) day. Over the summer we did additional classes and learned to sail larger keel boats and smaller lasers. We learned how to work the jib – the smaller sail that sits over the bow of the boat – and the more serious students (not me or my brother) learned to work a spinnaker –   the bigger billows sail that also sites at the front of the boat.

The most interesting training I did was something called ‘sailing without a rudder’ – the equivalent of driving your car without a steering wheel. If you really want to be good sailor you need to understand how everything works so well that  you can manage when you are limited, you don’t have all of your tools, or something goes wrong.

It turns out that by re-positioning the weight in the boat (for example by moving your passengers to the back right corner) and by working the sail and the jib (say, by pulling them very tight), you can cause the boat to change direction, without using the rudder.

In my business I have often found myself challenged in similar ways. Helping shape online reputation may involve projecting your brand’s voice, creating and curating content, interacting with the media, etc. But many of our clients are banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies – highly regulated businesses that may not be allowed to deploy content because of legal and compliance issues.

Rather that concluding that we cant work without our tools, we are constantly forced to develop new tools and methods – making us smarter and more capable than if we had not been challenged. We are so used to being thrown curve balls that we try to anticipate them from the start.

And we keep sailing, with or without a rudder!