Is your project’s team spirit ‘flammable’?

You’ve hired the top experts for your new project. You’ve also found the right coach for the latest development process that you intend to follow for the project. Great! You are all set. You plan the project kick-off in a grand manner, the team seems to bond awesome at the kick-off party and seems like nothing could go wrong with this project…until it hits the first rough patch. And that’s when reality raises its ugly face from under the shiny hood. The same team now shows major ideological, political and behavioral cracks and divisions. People who earlier held ‘falling colleagues’ at the teambuilding outing just a few months back now secretly hatch a plan to push those very colleagues off the parapet! People who teamed up at the impromptu beach volleyball match and left everyone speechless by their sportsmanship and brilliant tactics still seem to be leaving everyone speechless – but this time more by their one-upmanship and dirty politics.

What happened?

Welcome to the ‘day-mare’ of leading a dysfunctional team with highly ‘flammable’ spirit – nothing is perhaps more detrimental to project success than such team dynamics. Assembling a crack team doesn’t automatically transform into a dream team. There has to be something that is the binding glue, the secret sauce that holds the team together through its highs and lows and makes people surrender their individual egos for the team to excel. This doesn’t come from individual skills alone, this is not a monopoly of knowledge industry alone, it doesn’t depend on national or corporate cultures, has nothing to do with age, race or gender, and isn’t something that money can buy. It is freely available to everyone as air but yet as rare as pink diamonds. It is as pervasive as the mythical ‘ether’ and yet it is not able to impregnate some of the most stubborn team cultures and individual mindsets. I call this as the ‘project spirit’.  Everything else being, it is what makes a team alive, vibrant, social, engaged, responsive, interlocked, courageous, agile, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, persevering, result-oriented and a true game-changer. And the absence of it can rapidly send the team spirit into a ‘flammable’ tailspin where mistrusting individual egos rip apart the social fiber of the team and lead it to inferno.

How do you ‘brew’ it?

In a true sense, project spirit is the elixir that gives vitality to the team. Too bad, you can’t buy from the pharmacy. However, if you work sufficiently hard, you too can ‘brew’ it in your teams.

In my experience, the single most important factor that leads to teams strong as steel is presence of a common, often ‘unrealistic’, unprecedented but extremely desirable, shared goal.

Before India’s first war of independence in 1857, India was largely a chaotic subcontinent of individual princely states that were better-off settling egos among themselves at the cost of poor people they ruled. Surely there were local battles and mutinies before 1857 that had limited effect, but 1857 war became a pan-Indian effort for the first time in history to throw Imperial British out of India. The cause made princes and people forget their individual differences and agonies, and they set out as one team, overcoming all obstacles in their way. Even though they were not successful, they set the pace and tone for Indian Freedom struggle that eventually resulted in Indian Independence in 1947.

I compare the great freedom movement like the French Liberation, and Russia’s Red Revolution, in the same league. They made the poor and the downtrodden sink their individual differences and come together as a single voice, single team that pulled down even the mightiest of the empires.

Similarly, JFK’s famous Rice Stadium Moon Speech in 1962 fired the imagination in mints of an entire generation of American scientists and engineers on a journey that no one thought was possible in their lifetimes:

“…But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold…It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.”

Misery, common enemy and tragedies are often a great unifier of their victims – they bring people together like nothing else can. Soldiers battling the enemy from their trenches often go through extreme traumatic experiences that they become friends for life. When I volunteered to go to Antarctica for 16 months in 1993, I went through similar life-changing experiences. In that hostile weather, we faced challenges like the fire in our station – on day one of the winter (the ship had just left us a day before!), accidents with our helicopters, and many more. It worked like a charm – what no teambuilding or nightlong parties on the ship could do, the midnight fire brought us all on the same side within a matter of minutes, even though no one had been trained to fight a real-life fire in Antarctica – after all, our survival in that hostile terrain was not an individual matter anymore!

Shared ideology or a sense of purpose is another great way to bring people together and work with extremely high levels of mutual trust – so much so that they can end up taking causes that are beyond normal teams, even if bordering on being illegal. One of the best examples I remember is a work of fiction, “The Four Just Men” by Edgar Wallace published in 1905, where the four wealthy men have a common purpose that transcends the law because they believe they can bring higher good to the society at large by committing murders of people who seem to be above law. Hollywood movies like the Ocean’s series often bring a motley collection of people from different background united by a common purpose, albeit evil.

So, what is the right way to build such project spirit? Surely, cracking the whip to make all foot soldiers fall in line is the idea whose time is simply up. Even the CEO of companies that employ tens of thousands of people have realized the real worth of people. So, while putting the people under unreal pressure of delivery and time commitments might bring them together, but don’t count on it as a means to charge them – chances are that they might charge at you instead!

Creating a shared goal that has never been accomplished before is a sureshot way to build the greatest team ever. Not every project builds Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower or the Dreamliner, but that’s where the true caliber of a leader is built – to achieve ‘extraordinary’ from ‘ordinary’, that ‘extra’ must come from the leader to raise the team’s desire to fly high.

One of Agile’s cornerstones is self-organizing teams where there is a presumption of unquestionable levels of high trust among the team members, they don’t need any external guidance or adult supervision on a daily basis. However, agile methods don’t really help teams understand the process that builds such ideal teams – it just expects it on day one! If every team could start with such highly mature, technical super proficient, and highly collaborative individuals, they simply won’t require any process to organize their work, let alone Agile! However, in real world, you constantly deal with hiring challenges, attrition, downsizing, delays, reduced resource commitment while the delivery timelines shrink, people who often need to be trained on the job, varying levels of competencies and motivation levels in the team, individual career preferences dictating day to day choices about the kind of work people like to do, and organizational needs and realities that need you to brave more inclement weather than what is romanced in the tiny hamlet where our agile team sits pretty!

The point is: build team spirit is a hard job. It requires endless sweat and blood. If you narrow down the problem by eliminating every single source of noise and self-appointing your backyard as the only problem you are willing to confront, then yes, you can build the dream team over a few beers. But that’s the deal – leadership is not about picking the sweetest of apples from the orchard but taking care of the whole orchard from wild animals, storms, invaders and other natural and manmade disasters. Anything short of it will make the team spirit ‘flammable’.

Is your project’s team spirit ‘flammable’…it might as well be because of YOU!

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