Three Sheets to the Wind

Is your business three sheets to the wind?

Is your business three sheets to the wind?

To ease the monotony of quarantine, a lot of us picked up a new hobby or project over the last year. I chose one that would get me out of the house and provide the opportunity to learn something new, with a little adventure thrown in the mix. So last May, I crossed an item off my bucket list and learned how to sail.

It was a pretty intensive course — three weekends on the boat with my instructor as I learned all the maneuvers on the water in a Capri 22. In addition to my practical education, I had to do a whole lot of reading to learn the vocabulary, an entirely new language of sailing terminology. For example, there is a strange custom in sailing of never calling a rope a rope, but by some other name entirely to describe the function it is performing. (Fellow sailors, forgive me for calling lines “ropes” in this article.) I also learned that some of the most well-known and frequently used phrases in our current language have a nautical origin.

One of the most common phrases that persists is “three sheets to the wind.” When someone uses this expression today they’re referring to an extremely drunk person. The earliest known use of this phrase in print dates back to 1821 from British writer Pierce Egan’s book Real Life in London. He refers to a boat called Old Wax and Bristles being “three sheets to the wind.” In nautical terms, sheets are not coverings for a bed, but neither are they sails. Sheets are ropes that attach to the lower corner of a ship’s sails and are used to extend or shorten the sails. They allow the skipper to control the boat depending on the wind conditions. If you were on a sailboat with three sails in high winds and all of the ropes were loose — in the wind — the boat would rock uncontrollably in the water, much like a staggering drunk. Your vessel would be “three sheets to the wind.”

In business, many of us have experienced varying degrees of this. Things are sailing along smoothly and then we lose control of one area. It could be that a key contributor has left the team. Perhaps the product release will be delayed leaving unhappy customers. Or our selling environment has changed because we can no longer meet in person and numbers are suffering as a result. The sheet is flying in the wind and we’ve lost control of that sail. Progress in this part of the business is unsteady and we’re not meeting our goals. This is an area we can see; it’s obvious to spot what’s going wrong, much like being on a small sailboat. Usually, we can get a handle on one problem, especially when our other sheets are secured.

But when too many areas of the business are struggling simultaneously, it’s easy to feel like we’re “three sheets to the wind.”

Securing loose sheets in sailing can be a dangerous task, especially on an unsteady ship in high winds. You’re likely to get whipped with the rope, or worst case, thrown overboard. So it’s best if you have some help to secure the sails and resume control of your boat. An experienced and knowledgeable crew is crucial to success, as well as being able to identify what’s not working. Thankfully the stakes in business are not quite as scary as getting thrown into high seas, but it can feel daunting nonetheless. And depending on our seat or location of the “helm,” we may not always be able to spot the problem right away.

The best path to steadying ourselves in business is surrounding ourselves with the right team, ensuring they’re trained and ready for when a sheet or two comes loose.

So, what does trained and ready mean?

It’s having a solid strategy in place and a plan to achieve your goals.

It’s formulating a mission your team is behind, with clarity of their role in that mission.

It’s empowering others to identify blind spots that could cause a sheet to come loose.

It’s providing effective and consistent communication.

When your crew is aligned, equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify blind spots, with a plan in place headed towards a common destination, it’s much easier to regain control. Are you preparing your team to handle rough seas, or are you handing them a bottle of rum?