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The 'Swim Lanes' Story

I like this analogy, because when I was much younger, I swam rather a lot. I would go up and down my swim lane, time and time again, and when swimming in competition, my focus was purely on my own result.

This Storey applies the swim lane analogy to teamwork, which may seem a little strange, so let me explain.  Imagine we start the year with very clear goals and objectives. In many businesses we are set our KPIs for the year ahead, which are intrinsically linked to our year end ratings, and financial rewards.



In teams, we often line up together at the start of the year, as if we were lined up on the starting blocks at one end of the pool.  On the 1st of January, the starting gun goes off, and the race begins.  We may each run different functions within a business, or perhaps teams within a department. We may be individual salespeople, within a sales team.  Still, the gun goes off, and we dive in the pool, and swim to fulfil our own objectives.


Imagine the year unfolding, as if it were a race, and we see that one person has stormed ahead, and conquered their objective. They have finished their race far ahead of the others in the pool, (or team).  They have jumped out of the pool; given themselves a pat on the back and a high five; and before you know it, they are in the changing room, and will soon be heading home.  What they have not noticed, is that a teammate slipped at the start, and is currently being rescued from the water. Two of the other teammates seemed to get confused halfway down the pool and have been treading water, trying to resolve their differences.  Other teammates are managing to get along with things, despite the waves created by those who charged ahead, and they are sure that they will get there just in time.


Now imagine watching this race unfold as if you were in the stand. What formation are you seeing in this team? How do you feel that the team is interacting as the race unfolds?


Imagine now a slightly different race, where the team stays connected, perhaps in an arrowhead formation. We notice that heads keep turning, and occasionally the swimmers will slow down, look around, and just check that everything is going okay. We even notice the use of signals across the pool, which seem to just confirm that everything is alright. Perhaps more impressively we watch as the race comes to a close, and the team members are there for each other celebrating their success together.



The questions that sit alongside this simple analogy are:

  • What can we only achieve by working together, that we cannot achieve by working in parallel?

  • What do the people watching expect from us?  (or what are our stakeholders expecting us to do for them?)

  • How do we work together?

  • How do we communicate?

  • When do we support each other?

  • How do we respect each other’s responsibilities?

  • How do we keep our stakeholders engaged, as we go on our journey?

  • What can we learn from each other and together as we work to our goal?



The concepts discussed here at a high level connect to the core topics of ‘Systems Thinking’ and developing teams for high performance.  This content supports initial discussions that can be further developed by using the 5 disciplines of successful team practice, originally created by Professor Hawkins.  This presentation is influenced by the work of Professor Peter Hawkins.  This paper is the intellectual property of Co-Lab People, a trading name of The Retirement Practice ltd, and has been provided for client use only.

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