The answer is YES. We took 12 people to Patagonia, of varying ages and experience, some Special Operations veterans, others successful business executives and spent six days on the southern Patagonia glaciers in a circumnavigation of the Mt Fitz Roy massif. We had a great trip. We all came back without injury, we hit our major milestones and we all had a great time; the team worked so well together that it is a blueprint for constructing a high performance team.
Our group didn’t know each other, two of the Special Operations had worked loosely together in the 1990s and I knew one other socially. The team came from all parts of the US, and we never gathered in person until we met in Argentina. Fortunately, most of us knew our leader, Jan Rutherford. Companies form project teams all the time from disparate portions of the organization and usually there are few consultants thrown into the mix. Many times the corporate team doesn’t live in the same city – just like us. Company projects are expected to produce right away – no one goes to the effort flying in people then waits for them to get comfortable with each other before working. We all expect teams to produce immediately. So we can comfortably say that our Patagonia expedition’s start and team formation mirrors what we see in business. In business, commitment to the team isn’t emphasized. For the Special Operations guys, it was crucial. Placing the team’s welfare and function at the head of the priorities allowed us to focus on the goal; the military guys brought a mindset that made us more successful immediately than what we get in the commercial world.
Like many corporate projects, our goal, circumnavigation of Mt Fitz Roy, was pretty clear, but the details of how were left to the team. Like many company projects, our collective mountaineering experience varied greatly. If there are consultants on the project, they usually bring their ‘method’ which may conflict with the company’s culture. We were transparent about different methods and we quickly organized ourselves. The military approach that we used for the practical arrangements (what to put in your backpack) was also matched to business (Agile) approach of getting through the current task before detailed planning of the next task began. Our takeaway was good communication and transparency trumps devotion to method.
One thing the team was very good at was managing uncertainty. I wrote about this ability here (Want an expert in international management? Hire a Green Beret) and think that the Special Forces training, like my own training at Thunderbird, is very different from standard MBA approaches. Uncertainty can destroy a team’s momentum, teams can be so overwhelmed with choice that they become tentative or wait for guidance from higher ups. Not our team. For example, the weather in Patagonia is very unpredictable and dictates the ability to move in the mountains. We didn’t dwell on the ‘what ifs’ – what if the weather pins us in camp? What if it snows at the pass and we have to retreat? What if we can’t find a safe way up (we did kind of put up a new route the second day). In business the questions translate to: what if the customer doesn’t like our work? What if our project is simply too expensive? What if we don’t get the budget we need? What if we can’t get the key person on the team? And so on. Nothing in business or in the mountains is certain; our trip is an example for all. Our Patagonia team didn’t agonize (although we did prepare) and like a good business team we pressed on, creating our own luck – Jan, our leader characterizes this as 'team audacity'. So the second learning is to get your team to embrace audacity.
Constructing teams for projects is always hard. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The question is: is there a way help ensure success? High performing teams can do wonderful things – as a leader I am always astonished at the great ideas and execution that come from teams working well together. Thus as a leader, you should always be worried about team performance; it’s your job to set them up for success. Based on our experience in the mountains far from home, one very good answer, as articulated by my tent mate, is to put an SF person in the team.
On this day we’re honoring veterans. Our men and women sacrificed a lot for us, but they also bring superb skills that we can all use. Please do more than just observing Veteran’s Day; go hire a veteran and ask him or her to help make your team better – without a doubt they will.