Employment Today – November 2004 issue      back to articles menu

“Teambuilding - a Mammoth Task”

Without being able to quote my source, I’ve read that one of the prime spurs to Humans learning to speak was survival itself. While I’ve never seen a Mammoth apart from the cartoon one in Ice Age, I expect it’s probably a similar situation to a very large grumpy elephant in a fur coat. Since this was a major food source for Humans, the ability to turn one of these beasts into x number of steaks without losing limbs or lives in the process was an essential survival function – yet one individual acting alone hadn’t got a hope. It required a Team Approach.

 Part of the Strategy in bringing a Mammoth to the cave hearth in small chunks was in fact to stalk it, split your team and circle it, drive it into a place it couldn’t get out of – like a strategically-place pit - and then kill it with rocks and spears. Since during this process, any number of Team Members might be temporarily out of sight of the Leader, hand signals, meaningful looks, a wink and a raised eyebrow simply wouldn’t cut the mustard. Ergo (apparently), a system of grunts was added to the hand movements, “Urgh-Urgh” might mean “I’m coming around to your side” whereas “Urgh-Aaaaargh!” might mean “I’m impaled on a tusk”. In some ways, not unlike Eden Park on a Saturday, face-paint included, but these days of course it might mean “Get me another beer and a hot-dog”, or “is the Ref totally blind?” Such is evolution.

So if you were thinking that ‘teambuilding’ is a modern thing, now you know. Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man did it first, without trainers like me to guide them – either the Leader learned to do it effectively or one of the rocks or a spear ‘went astray’ (early OSH incidents) and a new Leader was given the chance. The Clan depended on success in the Hunt for life itself, performance measurement was continuous, judgement was swift, and there were no golden handshakes. With the advent of ‘verbal’ communication, came the ability to act collectively, to have a Strategy, to operate as a Team. Along with this then, must come some form of commitment on the part of each Team Member to self-discipline, to suppress the urge to act as an individual, for the individuals’ own goals to be subordinate to that of the Team. It simply wasn’t acceptable, in the middle of herding a couple of tonnes of angry ‘burger-on-the-hoof’, for a critical team member to wander off in search of some magic mushrooms for the after-feast festivities, worthy as that task might be in the absence of DVD and wide-screen in-cave entertainment.

If we come forward then to today, and consider the rise of technology and an associated move to smaller teams achieving more, the ability to act as a coherent Team is at least as critical if not more so. We simply don’t have the spare bodies floating around on the payroll – every Team Member is critical.

Jim Collins, in ‘Good to Great’, reports that the Hero Leader, the Celebrity Leader, does not have the impact on sustained success that we’ve been led to believe – the empirical research simply doesn’t support it. He states from his groups research: “We expected that ‘good-to-great’ leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage “people are your most important asset” turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”

Along with ‘right’ in terms of skill and knowledge, what’s the point of having all that talent unless you can weld it together and apply it to a task as a single entity, with an agreed strategy and an agreement and commitment to some kind of shared ‘end result’. How does this compare with Military strategy? Well, Montgomery knew about this. He had a list of faults, his own super-ego being one of them, but bad strategy wasn’t in the list. He had the ability to take hundreds of thousands of individuals, mass them together at the point of least resistance, clearly establish the objective, and move forward with relentless force. When you look at the failures and set-backs the Allies experienced in Normandy, you can see a thread running through it of a group of well-intentioned, highly-skilled senior Generals with large egos which unfortunately led them to act as individuals, with individual ideas about what the overall goal was, which gave Eisenhower an unenviable task in trying to weld them together as a single, coherent Team. Inevitably there were failures – there was only so much in the resource pot to draw from, and instead of applying all the available resource to one objective, the effort was dissipated over several competing ones. It added six months to the duration of the Second World War in Europe .

And now, back to NZ, 2004, workplace reality. Why has HR grown from being sole-operator ‘personnel officers’ in the 60’s to fully discrete departments staffed by academically-qualified professionals today? I think because CEO’s know, deep in their bones, egos aside, that it is the Team that brings them their result. Therefore to have the right people in the right seats is paramount to the survival, and then the future sustainable growth, of the Organisation. We look to Leaders to set the Vision, communicate it clearly and unambiguously, and ‘sell it’ to the Team. We look to the Team to achieve it. That’s why Teambuilding will always be a matter of study, research and training. It’s a Mammoth task with no room for woolly ideas.

Carpe Diem

Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2004 All rights reserved by the author.

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