Great Teams

The Best Teams Always Create A Performance Challenge

01.10.21 11:16 PM By Mark Pym

and Create Mutual Accountability

This is a picture from a ship I served on in 1986. Her name was HMS Nottingham and she was a Type 42 destroyer.   What made her special was her close knit crew and how we operated as a team.  You don't forget this and I still have very fond memories of being part of this unit.  But most importantly it is what I learnt about building great teams, that has stayed with me. 

Great teams need a number of critical components including  a performance challenge,  a 'way of working', no critical skills gaps  and mutual accountability.  It is the mix of these aspects especially mutual accountability and a performance challenge, that acts as a catalyst and can help evolve a group of people into a homogenous, high performing unit.   The armed forces know this and the structure is such, that its Leaders (be this the Army/Navy/ or the RAF), have this built naturally, into their DNA.   

As I learnt as a young man,  if you want to build a great team, you must first have a performance challenge.   It is the challenge that pulls people together, as they seek to find ways to overcome the obstacles and barriers in front of them.  You may know that the Royal Navy, 'shake down' a ship before it goes on tour. When I served, we did this at a place called Portland, in the U.K and would 'pressure test' all the systems and the crew. It was tough and initially the crew would struggle to meet their targets.  If you failed, you paid the ultimate price and 'sunk' in a scenario sense.  These 'shake down' were also exhausting, including long hours, unforeseen events (such as simulated enemy attacks, fires on the ship and casualty evacuations).  Everything and I mean everything, was tested, to see how resilient the processes, systems and crew were.  The testing was in a live environment. Leadership was closely assessed and this could significantly impact your career, if you received un-satisfactory assessments.   You might phrase this as a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) environment today and at times, it really did feel uncertain and volatile, with limited information and intelligence, at hand, to make quick rapid decisions.  However,  through great leadership,  the crew,  quickly moulded into a high performing team. It was the only way the crew could meet the performance challenge. There was simply no other choice. We had a clear performance challenge,  which in this scenario was to achieve a great 'shake down' and we therefore felt, as a unit, mutually accountable. For sure the in-situ training we were provided, was excellent and we had very limited gaps in our core skills, so we were well prepared. But it was the performance challenge that created the focus The leaderships roles, would change regularly, depending on the time of day/scenario and the crew, would even be tested, to see if natural leaders emerged, when 'disaster' struck.  

Here's a short extract from FOST (Fleet Operational Sea Training), that was sent to HMS Nottingham's Commanding Officer at the time:  ''Nottingham completed a VERY SATISFACTORY inspection which confirmed an overall VERY SATISFACTORY. Marine Engineering and the Executive department were GOOD. Seamanship,  Navigation, Aviation, Tactical Communications and Electronic Warfare were VERY SATISFACTORY. NBCD, Weapons, Medical, Supply, Radio Communications, AIO, UWW  Diving and AWW were SATISFACTORY.  Nottingham arrived well prepared and after a slow start the lively Ships' Company responded well to training. Effective Middle management maintained a clean well-run ship throughout and some impressive results in whole ship evolutions''.   

At the time of this report (a number of decades ago),  getting a VERY SATISFACTORY, was quite unusual so as a team and crew, we were delighted.  Our operational readiness, was later to save lives, when we went out on operational tour, in the Middle East.

The key point here is that without the initial performance challenge,  a 'way of working' and mutual accountability,  the crew would have failed and been very dysfunctional, when being 'pressure tested'.  These lessons stand true regardless of the decade,  obstacles and barriers in front of you and your organisation. They are not unique to the military.  They transcend all sectors, organisations and teams. With todays increasingly rapidly changing markets and business environment,  I don't believe you can deliver the results needed, without first building a great team. This is tough to do,  as a lot of us are  comfortable being individually accountable, as it is where we feel we are at our best. We know we can rely on ourselves.  When you move towards being part of a great team, you loose this 'control' and have to often concede leadership and operate in a much more collaborative and mutually accountable way.  But it can be done and although most teams are not high performing, if you start with the basics {performance challenge, 'way of working', mutual accountability, broad based skills and shared leadership}, you will be steering in the right direction!


It Always Starts With The Performance Challange