Date: July 6, 2010

Author: JT

Tags: , ,

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Leadership Demands Team Coordination

Does it not?

Read Dan and Chip Heath’s article in Fast Company today, “Team Coordination Is Key in Businesses.”  Quick overview, they used three real-world examples emphasizing their point.  In short, while you can do brilliantly, alone, for an organization to be successful you simply must work together.sxc - Uncoordinated Wood Stack - 1211697_wood

It’s likely you have experienced situations where, even when individuals performed their roles just fine (admirably even), the main activity itself failed.  If everyone ‘did their part,’ the odds are it was a lack of coordination causing the failure.

This is something hard to teach, often learned only through painful experience.  Early in my professional career, I strived to be the brightest star, or the shiniest tool in the tool bag.  As my horizons moved beyond being an individual contributor, it quickly became clear how important coordinating with others was to my—or my teams—success. How often do we each tend to work hard at being the ‘star’ rather than making sure we fit well with others?

Which is more important? The saw or the saw’s tooth?

Military boot camp teaches this in dramatic fashion; some lessons are by design, others not.  One such example struck me after lunch one day.  I had just returned to the barracks, double-timing it down a 10’ wide sidewalk. At an intersection I had to stop for traffic to clear before crossing.  Later, as part of an 80-person company, I was marching back down that same side walk, in lock-step with the cadence being called out.  As a polished company, a team, it felt as though there were nothing that could stand in our way.  I almost felt like daring someone to stop in front of us at an intersection!

Later, I was the senior sensor operator on a naval aircrew, tracking submarines.  Successfully tracking a submarine requires the utmost in fever-pitched team coordination.  The best crews have sensor operators, pilots, a tactical coordinator, and navigator almost reading each others minds—communicating freely—and anticipating each others needs.

Just as incredible as coordinated team’s successes can be, their failures can be every bit their equal.  One mission pitted us against a friendly sub in a training exercise.  At the time, we were the Wing’s top-ranked aircrew.    For over an hour everything was going beautifully.  Then, ironically, the ‘tacco’ or tactical coordinator ignored requests for an equipment change.  He ‘felt good’ with the situation, ignoring his team’s repeated requests, until finally it was too late.

The submarine took advantage our complacence and disappeared.  After a half-hour trying to re-attain the target, it was clear: all was lost.  It was a perfect example of how, if just one person drops the ball, if one crewmen thinks they’re the ‘star’, an entire mission and $100Ks can be wasted in an instant.

More recently, in the real world<g>, my team was struggling under the burden of endless ‘fires.’  We were performing our own tasks without problem.  Internally, I knew my team members were all doing their jobs.  Yet, we seemed to never be able to damp out the fires.

We created a list of all the major points of interaction between our team and others.  Things like sales people reaching to individuals for special requests; project timing pressures; customer requests; equipment failures; and, the like.  Then, we created a matrix noting how often each problem occurred and the time involved with each incident.

Surprisingly, the most ‘visible’ sources of problems had the least impact. A relative ‘sleeper’ turned out to be how we managed change requests.  The process was dated, lacked key information, and allowed too much informality (e.g. tracking).  After redesigning the change request process, the team met with external parties to educate them as to the need, the mutual benefits, and the new process itself.  Four months later, as changes worked through the system, we finally noticed that, yes, the wild fires were starting to subside.

Not too many of us are able to succeed entirely on our own.

A team, no matter how big or small, can only succeed if everyone talks with one another, coordinating their actions.  In the end, a well-coordinated team looks as if it were one.

Photo credits
Wood texture: Rosille
Wood stack:  Marta Sobo

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