The Indirect Route: Do You Know How to Tack?

I grew up sailing, and still consider myself a sailor at heart. I learned the basics at an early age while my family spent weekends and summers cruising around Florida on our Tartan 27 sailboat.

As a child, there was one concept that I had some difficulty grasping, and that was tacking. I couldn’t quiet understand why, when our destination was across the bay, we sailed left (port) and right (starboard), instead of heading straight there. Being an impatient person, if I had been given the choice, I would always have chosen the shortest course.

Over the years – and a few sailing classes later – I came to understand that tacking is essential. It’s the best way to take advantage of the wind, and will get you where you want to go much faster than shooting straight for the finish line. Surprisingly, this holds true in business as well.

Why Does Tacking Work?

Sailing is all about physics. Harnessing the wind in your sails creates pressure, pushing the boat down against the sea while the water pushes back against the hull of the boat. The result is like squeezing a watermelon seed between your fingers: when you apply the right amount of force, the seed shoots forwards. Catch the wind at the right angle to your sail, and the forces will propel you forward quickly, gracefully and sometimes rewarding you with an exhilarating splash of water on your face.

Tacking Patterns

In business, like in sailing, you need to work with the prevailing winds. Running straight into the wind will exhaust you, making it harder and harder to reach your goals. Tacking requires you to change course, frequently or occasionally, depending on how much space you have to work in. Interestingly, whether you chose the long tack or a short one, you’ll cover the same distance, just at a different pace.

Chart Your Own Course

Expand the concept of tacking, and think about all the little detours you can take on the way toward your ultimate destination. I love a side trip, exploring stops along the way. Inevitably, I learn something new that helps me later on down the line.

My parents still cruise every summer, although they’re graduated to a larger and more comfortable boat. We stay in touch when they are in cell phone range, and sometimes I hear they are “stuck” waiting for repairs. (Every boat, it seems, is alway in need of repair!)

One on call, I expressed concern that they had been holed up for two weeks, waiting for a part. “You must being going crazy,” my type-A self said. “Not really,” replied my mom, “we’re actually kind of enjoying it.”

It turns out the break was just what they needed, taking time to explore their surroundings, stock up on supplies, and rest for the next leg of the trip. What a good lesson for me, that sometimes even the unscheduled stops are blessings to be appreciated.

Learn to Tack

As I sail through life, I try to remember when it’s time to tack. I see interesting parallels to the term “tactical,” and realize that the two concepts are very much alike. Tactical planning is all about charting your course. And sometimes you need to change tactics and adopt an indirect course. The wind shifts, the seas change, and you need to adapt by changing course, trimming the sails, or seeking safe harbor until the storm blows by.

So it is with business. You can’t always forecast the weather. You can only plan with the best information available, and be ready to alter your course as needed.

Rather than being laser-focused on the destination and missing the scenery along the way, a little zig-zagging can expand your vision. Being open to different courses can uncover new opportunities that make your business richer and more interesting, so your ultimate success is worth the trip.

Have you learned to tack? Share your story with a comment below.

Diagram by Lindert, via Wikipedia. Photo: istockphoto

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