5 Strategies for Teamwork at the Edge

Today’s guest post is from Dennis N.T. Perkins, author of Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, CEO of Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders and teams thrive under conditions of adversity, uncertainty, and change. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, he successfully completed his first Sydney Hobart Race in 2006.

Dennis PerkinsImagine navigating a tiny boat through a sudden, violent storm at sea — with winds roaring at nearly 100 mph and waves soaring to 80 feet — to not only survive, but triumph over formidable competitors in one of the world’s toughest ocean races.

It’s a feat claimed by the crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler, overall winner of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart — the most treacherous and tragic race to date in the six-decade history of Australia’s iconic competition. It’s also a feat rich in lessons for anyone tasked with maintaining smooth, effective teamwork — and delivering winning results — in the unpredictable, turbulent waters of today’s business environment.

Inspired by the Ramblers — the Midnight Rambler‘s team of one determined skipper and six dedicated amateur sailors — here are five crucial strategies, with proven tactics, for Teamwork at The Edge of human endurance:

Strategy #1: Put team unity first. Make the team the rock star.

Winning tactic: Find committed team members who want to go to Hobart. A business team that aspires to excellence may not have the same physical challenges as an ocean racing crew, but lofty goals require sacrifice, dedication, and the ability to persevere. Selecting people with the right levels of confidence and motivation is fundamental. Realistic job previews are important.

Strategy #2: Prepare, prepare, prepare. Remove all excuses for failure.

Winning tactic: Keep preparing while you’re racing. Preparing in advance for everything the team needs to do to succeed is crucial. But so is continuing to prepare while racing toward the team’s goals and while navigating through a crisis. Successful teams master the art of bifocal vision. They have the ability to focus on current challenges while, at the same time, preparing for longer-term threats and opportunities.

Strategy #3: Strive for balanced optimism. Find and focus on the winning scenario.

Winning tactic: Be absolutely clear about what it means to win. For some team members, winning means being the first in their field to achieve a breakthrough result. For others, it means coming in under budget. For any team that aspires to win, the first step is to define winning. Only then will the team have a clear shared understanding of their race. With that awareness, the team can plan a strategy for taking home their trophy.

Strategy #4: Reinforce relentless learning. Build a gung-ho culture of learning and innovation.

Winning tactic: Think gung-ho — a phrase rooted in teamwork. Originally an abbreviation for Chinese industrial cooperatives, gung-ho came to be translated as “work in harmony” by some Americans — including Colonel Evans Carlson, who, during World War II, implemented the radical practice of gung-ho meetings, where everyone, regardless of rank, has a right to speak up. The ability to talk honestly about what works, what doesn’t work, and what might work is critical to effective teamwork.

Strategy #5: Take calculated risks. Be willing to sail into the storm.

Winning tactic: Test your limits before the storm hits. The Ramblers, who had sailed together for years and knew what they were capable of as a team, deliberately pushed their limits early in the race. They broached twice, and each time recovered. As a result, they were ready to take on the storm, with confidence, when it hit. Only by taking small risks will teams be able to assess their ability to take on big ones — and to sail into the storm when they need to.



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