Survival Of The Fittest Is About Teams

Q: What do the U.S. Navy, Blue Angel pilots, and Radio City Music Hall Rockette dancers have in common?
A: Synchronization

Building successful business teams is not like swim teams, where individual contributors’ points are rolled up into one team score. Rather, business teams results are only achieved through trust, accountability for individual jobs, dependence upon each other to complete tasks, and desire to create a rhythm of winning. Mac Anderson videoed Blue Angel pilots after a practice run and the ensuing discussion was tense, harsh, direct, and reflective of team members who were determined to synchronize the slightest detail, since mistakes could be fatal.

Great teams challenge each other and require conflict. We so often try to avoid conflict, but only through engaged conflict can true greatness emerge. ‘Greatness’ happens with trust, forged with fierce determination and debate to execute clear team goals.

Worse than no conflict is unresolved conflict.” ~ Alison Levine, Mt. Everest climber

Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School and the Emeritus Chairman of Bath Consultancy Group, has worked in drama therapy and psychotherapy in mental health organizations. He said in the 1970’s people were treated for shell shock (battle fatigue, PTSD). Some units were experiencing people with high levels of breakdown and other units weren’t. It didn’t have to do with differing levels of stress on the units, as suspected. Units that produced high levels of emotional breakdown were also producing high levels of discipline issues, addiction issues, and other forms of distress and disturbance. These units and teams were dysfunctional.

We may have misunderstood Darwin
We are now in a world where the level and speed of change that’s needed can’t happen only through individual change. We think the unit of survival (of the fittest) is the individual, or the team. But it’s not any of those. The unit of survival is any team in dynamic co-creation with its ecological niche. We can’t talk about a high performing team or individual, we can only talk about a team that’s co-creating value with and for all its stakeholders in its ecological niche.

After many years of coaching we find we are asking the wrong question. We start, like many, by asking individuals what they wanted from the coaching, and everyone naturally complains about their colleagues.  If we start from individual views, we get really ensnared in historical dynamics. We need to start from the future back and outside in.
Outside in:

  • What is it that your customers, investors, or employees need you to step up to?
  • In two years, what will you regret not having addressed now?

Models of Coaching
In the mid-1960’s, the Tuckman Model discussed stages of team development – Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. This model is similar to Ken Blanchard’s 4 Developmental Styles. It is also similar to Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of teams – Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Collaboration. These models and others talk more on the individuals in teams, and less the dynamic for what today’s leaders need in coaching, which is how to build high performing teams. If we start with the factors destroying teams, if we can resolve and minimize those factors, we can build positivity into exercises once we are out of the darkness. Like good medical care starts with first stopping the bleeding.

Evolution of team coaching
There is a lot of data suggesting that team coaching will really grow in the next 10 years and that we will see big growth in board coaching and team coaching. There’s no shortage of good individual coaches, facilitators, and trainers. But we are going to need people who can connect the individual level, team level, organizational level, and wider system level. In a complex ambiguous world, we need more of those people.

In Hawkins latest book, he talks about how we help people develop systemic being. “Teams are living systems, not manufactured products…We need not a mechanistic science of teams, but an ecology…”

Even more important than for individual coaches, systemic team leaders and teams need diagnoses and coaching, particularly as environments shift.

We’re one human family; we’ll only survive by an ethic of collaboration and teamwork.


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