Sailboat: what’s holding your organisation back?

You may have heard of, or even played the speedboat innovation game to help identify what customers don’t like about your product or service. I’ve used a slightly tweaked version of this game a number of times with different organisations when looking at how they innovate. It helps to very quickly get to a positive and shared understanding of where they feel the problem areas are. People really open up and talk, in a positive way, about the bigger picture.

The game typically goes like this: Draw a boat on a large sheet of paper. Explain to the group that you all want the boat to move really fast, but that there are some anchors holding it back. Give the anchors names and stick them onto the boat. Estimate how much each of these is holding things back. When the group has finished putting the anchors on, review each of them, explaining what you mean and what needs to change.

As they explain, the game works because it gives people a way to express their frustrations without letting a group mentality or a single person to dominate the discussion. More importantly though, the Speedboat metaphor effectively creates a ‘safe’ environment, where people can talk about what’s wrong from the point of view of an observer:

Many people don’t feel comfortable expressing their frustrations verbally. Giving them a chance to write things down contributes to the “safer” process. It also helps give them an opportunity to reflect on what is genuinely most important… Asking them to verbalize their issues, especially in writing, motivates them to think about these issues. Many of them will self-identify trivial issues as just that: trivial issues, and, in the process, focus on the truly big issues. Thus, they end up getting to voice their complaints, but they’re put into perspective, and when they get used to THINKING about their complaints, especially quantifying what the impact is, they are more reasonable and contribute more to success.

I’ve also run a few SWOT analysis with senior managers and teams, to help them identify and share strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

What would be great to do is combine the boat metaphor and the safe environment — and add to it a bit by identifying both negatives and positives, as well as make more explicit what is inherent to the organisation itself and what is beyond their locus of control.

So, with that objective, I’ve added to and extended the original game into something that is more well-rounded and structured — whilst retaining the safe environment and focus on generating constructive ideas to help improve a team or organisation.

Sailboat Exercise

The game setup for “Sailboat” is almost identical, except the picture is one of a sailboat and the paper is separated into four areas. This way you can separately consider both positive and negative factors and also help identify whether they are internal (attributes of your organisation that you can control) or external (environmental factors that are difficult to control).

Sailboat Exercise

Sails – strengths: positive factors that are internal to your organisation
Things that help your boat go faster because of the crew (your people) or the attributes and ship itself (the company and how it operates). For instance, your brand, your proven ability to innovate, speed, agility, culture.

Anchors – weaknesses: negative factors that are internal to your organisation
Things that are acting to pull or drag your organisation, acting as a brake and holding you back. These are typically things that the organisation has more control over. For instance: your processes, governance, organisation, skills and experience.

Trade-winds – opportunities: positive factors that are external to your organisation
The tide moving in your favour (technology, obsolescence of operating models) Sunshine and clear blue waters (the luck that might push you forward and help you) plentiful fish (new customers etc) to replenish you and sustain your crew.

Storms – threats: negative factors that are external to your organisation
Typically things that might happen to you and you can’t necessarily control them. Sharks (technology disruptors, loss of key people, things that could hurt your profits) and pirates (competitors who might plunder and steal your market share). The gale force winds that your organisation might face in the future, the huge waves that could break you in two (a PR disaster, losing a key client), rocks or other hazards that needs to be navigated carefully (regulatory issues).


Allow people to start wherever they want and make sure you don’t rush it. Typically there will be an initial flurry of activity as people quickly get all the most obvious things out. Then there is often a bit of a lull and only one or two ideas might come out. Encourage and allow people to dig a bit deeper though and often there will be a second wave of ideas and thoughts that come out. If you cut this off too soon you may miss some more insightful and creative ideas.

It’s good to then make the time to talk briefly through each of them. There are no wrong answers, this is divergent and people are entitled to their opinion. Don’t let it get off track at this point though. Set a guideline 2 minutes max for people to explain each one, and only delve deeper if there is misunderstanding. Disagreement is ok. Healthy even. There will be duplicates and areas that are closely related and overlap. Group them as best you can to help see the commonality, as well as an overview of the whole.

Getting to actions

Having done that ask the group to consider where you could:
a) Match strengths with potential areas of opportunity
b) Convert weaknesses into strengths and threats into opportunities (or minimise them).

The last step is the convergent part, bringing it back to some concrete actions. These can form part of a longer term strategy, especially where there is a fundamental shift required – but there should also be lots of potential initial steps, to either confirm assumptions about opportunities or address weaknesses. Ask the group to prioritise (we would suggest CD3, of course) and identify who is best placed to lead on each of them. You may want to review the output of this in a months time and see if anything new has changed the landscape of what is holding your organisation back.