Is your team a rock band?

During the summer months, I spend most of my weekends skydiving. More specifically, I am a skydiving cameraman. Even more specifically, I specialise in being a cameraflyer for competitive Four-way Formation Skydiving teams. I won’t bore you with fine details of what this entails – if you are really interested you can find out here. But, briefly, each team of four skydivers is trying to perform difficult, technical, precision-choreographed manoeuvres in a high-stress situation (i.e. while falling towards the ground at 120m.p.h.) faster than competing teams. Which I, the fifth member, film for later judging.

What has this to do with my work? Everything! It gives me great opportunities to watch how each team functions or dis-functions, and what strategies lead to best results. What I have learnt is that such teams are a bit like rock-bands. They come together for a variety of reasons – some just for fun, hoping to play minor gigs, some with dreams and ambitions of major success. Like rock bands, skydive teams often comprise members with strong egos that may or may not be matched by talent.  The have to work very tightly together to bring off a good performance. And like rock bands, the members can have very strongly held, but very different, convictions about the best way of doing things.

Most significantly of all, they usually have no formal leader, so everyone voices opinions on all decisions, and often very loudly! And just like rock bands, the conflict this causes really surfaces when the pressure is on. Classically, rock bands tour happily together for years, then start to fall apart fast just after they sign a record deal and release an album, with the possibility that they might actually make it big. For skydive teams, that threat of success translates into at, or just before, major national and international competitions.

There are a number of strategies that seem to help.  One major one is for the team to have clarified in advance what they are hoping to achieve, and what resources they are willing to bring (time, money, etc.). Another is when there is a clear leader – either one more-experienced member who is player/coach, or when there is an outside coach.  Failing that, it helps to at least clearly distribute responsibility for different aspects, and have someone designated “captain for the day” on a rotating basis, so not every small decision becomes a point of debate and possible conflict. Lastly, it helps if every member understands that they need to work as hard at keeping the team cohesive and smooth-running as they do at achieving their tasks. That means modifying their own behaviour to be as team-orientated as possible.

We can very easily see how this can translate into the workplace. Do you ever have to operate as part of a team? Are the members of your team all crystal clear and in agreement on the aims, objectives and level of commitment and resources required?  Is there a clear leader, or are responsibilities distributed?  Do you answer to someone external, or just yourselves? Who chairs each meeting?  Do you stop and think before acting or speaking “Will this help or hinder this team achieve its goals?”.

The best skydiving-teams, like the very best rock bands, seem to run like effortless clockwork, to all get on famously, and to win consistently. The truth is that they have to work very hard to perform like that. How does your team compare?

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