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Donkin on Work - Teamwork

August 2006 – The value of values in teamwork

One problem with writing this column is that work and workplace issues tend to follow me around wherever I go. For two weeks I have tried to put them behind me during a sailing race around Britain and Ireland.

But the race has proved a microcosm, almost a laboratory, of workplace experiences. Most revealing of all has been the interplay of motives, work and commitment in an isolated project environment.

The project in this case was a simple one: to be class winners in this month’s Sevenstar Round Britain and Ireland race organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club. For a mixed-ability team of varying levels of experience, ranging in age from 24 to 66-years-old, the campaign began with a string of shorter channel races as the team settled in to its best positions.

But planning the campaign started a little earlier with an afternoon-long session among the team members working out a set of ‘team values’ that would govern our behaviours in the race.

Familiarity with this process did nothing to dampen my cynicism. It is one thing to espouse certain values or principles on paper; it is another thing entirely to incorporate them in to everything you do and say.

But Philippe Falle, team skipper and director of Sailing Logic Racing, a Southampton-based sail training and racing company, believes that a shared set of values to which each team member may beheld accountable is an important foundation for any work project.

‘The point is to be clear about what we want to accomplish and the manner in which we shall seek to go about it,’ he says. While everyone in the team agrees that winning is import, no-one believes the goal should be to win at all costs.

So heading the list of values is ‘respect for the sea’, a term that includes safety consciousness and its practical application in always keeping one hand for the boat when doing jobs in a heavy sea.

Some of the values, such as ‘passion’, ‘positivity’ and ‘harmony’ strike me as a little bit corporate straight from the human resources training manual. I don’t feel passionate about sitting in front of a computer screen or when crawling across the foredeck of a boat for that matter.

Nor do I feel much positivity coursing through my veins when the boat is pounded by 20 knot winds and the bunks are soaking water from the bilges. As for ‘enjoyment’, another of our values, you would need to stretch its definition beyond recognition in this arena for most people. There is not much enjoyment about retching over the side of a boat.

But other values such as ‘respect’, ‘trust’ and ‘sensitivity’, would seem to earn their place in the team. I support the inclusion too of ‘humility’ but do not share the warm enthusiasm for ‘boat speed’ the focus, bordering on obsession for all serious sail racing skippers.

Boat speed, like human performance, is surely an outcome of strong teamwork knitted around common beliefs and behaviours. But I would not list it as a value in its own right.

Like a lot of companies that undertake such exercises, the list of values is buried away when the race starts and all but forgotten until we reach a low point when the two ‘watches’, the shifts of crew members that keep the boat running at speed around the clock, are beginning to bicker over jobs.

To some extent this is understandable since even the smallest job such as making cups of tea for everyone can take an age in a rocking boat. When people get injured or seasick it is not always easy to exude sympathy if you are the one who must pick up their work.

The same happens in small teams everywhere, particularly if too heavy a workload puts a strain on working relationships. The workload on a racing boat is determined by various factors: the need to maintain a high boat speed through constant trimming and sail changes, food preparation, cleaning, general boat maintenance, and, not least, the weather.

Most of the above are simplified in gentle breezes. But when such work must be carried out inside and on the exposed deck of a bucking box it is multiplied in its difficulty.

Much time and energy is spent by HR departments measuring and improving levels of workplace engagement since they tend to be linked closely to performance. Engagement tends to have various definitions but most seem to settle around the way people relate to their employer and the willingness of individuals to perform discretionary tasks.

Engagement levels in a racing crew like this one are difficult to determine. Firstly it must be recognised that crew members have paid to be on the boat. Their motivation for being there is already high. All are keen to learn new skills and improve on their existing knowledge.

There is no going home after work but there is the ‘off watch’ where it is sometimes prudent, particularly in endurance races like this one, to engage in what management writer Charles Handy has called ‘proper selfishness’. Going that extra mile for the company is one thing but is it good for an enterprise if overwork leads to illness?

Most crew members have missed watches or parts of watches through illness, fatigue, or injury. Indeed fatigue can cause the mistakes that lead to injury. It can also cause arguments and crabbiness within the team.

Working in such an enclosed atmosphere on a project defined in difficulty by the strength and variation of the weather can only be mastered through a willingness to work flexibly, where each team member can cover almost every job on the boat when necessary. The extent of the project is dictated by distance, not time.

Another big difference between this kind of sports team and a workplace team is that competitors can not be dismissed once the race has started. Every boat has to make the best of its crews, no matter their respective levels of competence.

This is a salutary lesson for the most competent sailors on any boat that needs also to be learned in companies. We could have made the boat go faster, undoubtedly, with a crew of Olympic-class racers but it is amazing what speeds can be achieved by lesser talents with the right kind of encouragement and learning.

Reverting to the list of values within the race helped each of us, the leaders and the led, to take stock, to reflect, and, where necessary, to adjust our behaviours within the crew. It’s not easy to look at your own performance when the easiest option in the past has been to blame others.

But when you have to make a team gel – where there is no alternative – it is amazing how poor performances can be transformed, how character emerges from hidden depths, how the star players are those that work for the team rather than themselves. A lesson for those who focus solely on talent management: it is not the super-stars that make great projects work, it is teamwork, based on mutual respect and trust among members.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved