Watching the clouds

Lately, I have been thinking about measurement in organisations. A memory from over 40 years ago has been nudging me. In the summers of 73 and 74 I learnt to sail on cruising boats with the Ocean Youth Club. I remember my first time at the helm. Somewhere in the Channel. Sea - rough. The skipper said, “Your turn Mark. Hold her on 175.”

I took over, glued my eyes to the compass and did my damnedest to keep the needle on 175. This was hard. The boat was being pushed around by the waves and I was continually over- or under-correcting. It was stressful: I was wanting to impress.

The skipper let me struggle for a while. The boat was obviously all over the shop. Eventually he said, “Don’t watch the compass! Look where you want to go: watch the clouds - feel the boat. She’ll stay on course.”

Ridiculous, how was that possible? But, after wrestling for a while longer, I gave it a go. I got the boat roughly on course and watched the clouds just above the bow. Amazingly the whole thing got a lot easier. When the boat was starting to deviate, it was obvious straightaway - a touch on the tiller would sort it out. I got into a routine of mainly watching the clouds and only checking the compass occasionally. Much easier.

And I wonder, in increasingly complex organisational seas, how much over-watching of the compass and ignoring of the clouds goes on.