Breakthrough teams: life’s a shipwreck, but don’t forget to sing in the lifeboats

I spent a recent Saturday at the Moelfre Lifeboat Station on the east coast of Anglesey for their annual open day, when you can wander around the station, meet the volunteer lifeboat men, read the accounts in the log of rescues through the years, and pause to reflect on the bravery, heroics and humanity which the RNLI represents, from the old photos and press cuttings on the boathouse walls. I left inspired and humbled.

Moelfre Lifeboat Station, which opened in 1830, has a remarkable history of bravery, with its lifeboat crews awarded 37 medals for gallantry, four of which are Gold – the V.C. of the lifeboat institution. Gold Medals were awarded to Captain Owen Jones, volunteer lifeboat man, and William Roberts, second coxswain. The remaining two Gold Medals were awarded to the outstanding figure in the station’s history – Coxswain Richard Evans, one of the few lifeboat men ever to be awarded a Gold Medal for bravery twice.

Dic Evans became a crew member in 1921 when he was just 16. He took over as coxswain from his uncle, John Mathews, in 1954, himself a recipient of the Silver Medal. His father, and both his grandfathers had already served with Moelfre lifeboat by the time he was born. He earned his first Gold Medal five years later, during a rescue saving the crew of the stricken SS Hindlea in hurricane force winds. The second Gold Medal came in December 1966, when he helped save 10 men from the Greek ship Nafsiporos, adrift in heavy seas.

In 1969, the year before he retired, Dic received the British Empire Medal. He died on 13 September 2001, aged 96. A 2m bronze statue of Dic Evans, sculptured by Sam Holland is located at the Seawatch Centre, Moelfre, keeping a vigil over the sea. For sculptor Sam Holland it was a passion, as her grandfather served on the Moelfre Lifeboat with Dic Evans.

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824, at a cost of 600 lives lost in service. The charity was founded with royal patronage as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home. The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854.

Today, the RNLI operates 444 lifeboats and provides Lifeguards on 200 beaches. Crews rescued on average 23 people a day in 2013.Most lifeboat crew members are unpaid volunteers. The RNLI is principally funded by legacies (65%) and donations (28%), with the remainder from merchandising and investment. As an organisation it has clear statements of purpose, vision and values, vital to give an organisation – and individuals and teams – an identity and focus:

Purpose: The RNLI saves lives at sea.

Vision: To end preventable loss of life at sea.

Values: Our work is based on, and driven by, our values. Our volunteers and staff strive for excellence and are…

Selfless: willing to put the requirements of others before our own and the needs of the team before the individual, able to see the bigger picture and act in the best interests of the RNLI, and to be inclusive and respectful of others. Prepared to share our expertise with organisations that share our aims.

Dependable: always available, committed to doing our part in saving lives with professionalism and expertise, continuously developing and improving. Working in and for the community and delivering on our promises.

Trustworthy: responsible, accountable and efficient in the use of the donations entrusted to us by our supporters, managing our affairs with transparency, integrity and impartiality.

Courageous: prepared to achieve our aims in changing and challenging environments. We are innovative, adaptable and determined in our mission to save more lives at sea.

In terms of what an organisation stands for, and in setting an RNLI life boatman’s personal compass, the above words are inspirational, full of vitality and purpose. Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men can give us clear learning points to take into our business thinking about team work. RNLI teams achieve extraordinary results by fusing talented individuals into what I call a ‘breakthrough team’.

At the heart of any great organisational success, you will find an inspired team of individuals who have united to make something remarkable happen – a revolutionary, high performance team, energised, producing outstanding and innovative results by harnessing the individual talents to achieve team goals. The team is transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose.

This team achieves a breakthrough – a ground breaking result, a unique achievement never realised before – and then goes on to make its mark with further notable performances and impacts. Examples of such ‘breakthrough teams’ include Steve Job’s Cupertino team at Apple, Kelly Johnson’s Skunkworks team at Lockheed in the 1940s, and the Apollo XI moon landing team under the guidance of flight director Gene Kranz.

Breakthrough teams differ from traditional teams along every dimension, from the way they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, their culture and values, and from the expectations they hold to the results they produce.

The headlines from my research shows that breakthrough teams are fundamentally different from successful groups that most organisations have, in several ways:

  • Their working style has an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm and set of expectations; maximum effort is the minimum requirement
  • The team emanates a discernible energy and focus
  • They are utterly unique in the ambitions of their goals, the intensity of their conversations about their objectives, and their focus on results
  • Intense, yet personal and intimate, they work best when forced to work under strict time constraints, but retain a focus on the welfare of colleagues
  • Team members put a great premium on collaboration, there is authentic team-working
  • They focus on thinking correctly under pressure
  • Each team member has a personal credo of be the man that makes a difference; be relentless, be limitless

I’ve fond childhood memories of the RNLI station at Moelfre, I spent many happy summer holidays there as a child, sat on the pebbles eating fish & chips and watching the lifeboat launch, time and time again.  On my recent visit the cohesion of the team, their vibrancy, their single-mindedness, their intimacy and camaraderie were evident from their passionate talks and enthusiastic demonstrations.

There is something both uplifting and concerning about seeing a lifeboat crew arrive at the station and launch. As a young boy it’s the spectacle, as an adult its appreciation of the bravery as to the uncertainty waiting for them and what the result of their actions will be. Here’s a team where the results are genuinely a matter of life and death.

High-functioning teams are what make high-performing organisations like the RNLI click. High performing teams, like the RNLI lifeboat crews, aren’t the result of happy accidents, they achieve superior levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration because their members trust one another, share a strong sense of group identity, and have confidence in their effectiveness as a team. In other words, such teams possess high levels of group emotional intelligence.

A team, like any social group, is governed by shared attitudinal and behavioural norms, which, though sometimes unspoken, are understood within the group. Teams that enjoy high levels of group EI have established norms that strengthen trust, group identity, and group efficacy. As a result, their members cooperate more fully with one another and collaborate more creatively in furthering the team’s work. When you create a climate of trust and the sense that ‘We are better together than we are apart’, it leads to greater effectiveness.”

It’s also important to establish comfortable, group-sanctioned ways to express the inevitable anger, tension, and frustration that arise in a team endeavour and to positively redirect that energy. Inevitably, a team member will indulge in behaviour that crosses the line, and the team must feel comfortable calling the foul.

To have a great team, there is no easy recipe for success, but it resonates around collaboration, having people who understand each other and work well together. Having the right mix of trust, ambition, and team mind-set among your team members is crucial. Reflecting on this, here are my ten thoughts about teams based on my experience and research:

Mutual respect is a key element in relationship development, the catalyst for a strong team. Inevitably, the team will take shape and will discover common ground and mutual connections, and as the teamwork progresses and conflict arises – an unavoidable part of collaboration – the team that has respect for each other will be able to move past conflict towards resolution and ultimately work together.

Specialisation A rugby team shows that where players have different roles but combine effectively to win the game, good teamwork comes from members coalescing their special talents to achieve an end goal. Figuring out who works best where will come naturally as the team spends time together, but it’s important not to suppress individual talents. Allowing each person to make their own unique contributions will lead better outcomes.

Establish clear objectives If the goal of the team, whether short or long-term, isn’t clear from the beginning, many hours will be wasted in frustration, working that goes nowhere. The very first step should be to determine a clear outline of the aims and the end result. Change is always necessary along the way, but a clear focus at the outset is paramount.

Adaptability Being flexible is a key trait of any team player, confronting and resolving crises, rushing to meet deadlines, or working to face unexpected challenges all require adaptation. If someone on a team is unable to change gears and refocus, odds are more issues will arise to further impact the efficient workflow process.

No finger pointing When a mistake is made, it’s easy for members of a team to find a scapegoat and lay individual blame. This will only lead to distrust and low morale. It’s possible that if one person keeps making critical mistakes, they may not have the right skills. The entire team should accept responsibility for shortfalls and move forward together make sure it doesn’t reoccur, before resolving team membership issues.

Hold your hands up If a project has setbacks, it’s better to admit it and start over rather than giving up or presenting a flawed product. A good team will roll with the punches, recognise that each step is essentially an experiment, and stay positive even when facing serious setbacks.

Patience Working with others requires the most the most difficult trait of all, patience and tolerance. We all strive for it, but few people are truly unflappable. Patience will keep a team motivated and allay conflict.

Delegation A capable leader will know one of her primary jobs is to delegate responsibility. One or two team members should never be saddled with all the work, instead the workflow should be distributed evenly and each person given a reasonable amount of work to achieve.

Self managed teams A team doesn’t need a superstar leader to excel, but they do need a self-assured, trustworthy, ambitious leader that keeps morale high and knows when to rally the troops. From this, all team members should listen constructively, monitor the quantitative and qualitative results and maintain good peer-group support.

Competitiveness A healthy dose of internal competition is fuel for inspiration. When you’re working on a team it’s easy for people to become jealous or possessive of each other’s attributes or contributions. However, healthy, respectful competition motivates others to develop even better ideas, because it makes people ask themselves, ‘if she came up with this, can I create something even better?’

Building a breakthrough team requires the expression of open, positive emotions. Recognising individuals not only strengthens a team’s identity, but it also spotlights its effectiveness and fuels its collective passion for building a sense of solidarity, efficacy, and identity – clear traits in the RNLI breakthrough team.

Voltaire said ‘Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats’, whilst Churchill, on the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the RNLI in 1924 said, ‘The lifeboat drives on with a mercy, which does not quail in the presence of death; It drives on as a proof, a symbol, an affirmation, that man is created in the image of God, and that valour, and virtue, have not perished in the British race.’

Two quotes that vividly capture the image of the lifeboat enduring in our lives in times of hardship, and thereby the crew, a breakthrough team of unity and collaboration. The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison, recognising that none of us is as smart as all of us. I hope you can build a breakthrough team in your business, and achieve outstanding success.

Lion Kings – Gatland vindicated as Lions roar to victory

November 2003, the Rugby World Cup Final. Australia v England, three minutes of extra-time remaining. Matt Dawson passes to Jonny Wilkinson. The whole rugby world stops to wait and see what would happen next.

Coach Clive Woodward knew, and the drop kick from English rugby’s golden boot sailed over to give England the World Cup and break Australia. The move had been rehearsed – recall Wilkinson’s post-match interview – the last 38 seconds were six years in the making – the tactics and the team selection were spot on.

Rugby is a game of physicality and belligerent attitudes. You’ve got to have people working hard, asking of your opposition, being physical on every occasion when you meet them, making their momentum as difficult as possible and then creating momentum yourself when you have the ball.

You need to be mentally strong, get up when you’re knocked down, even if you’re hurt, and go again. Keep the ball in hand and in play to create space, put runners into gaps and also deny the opposition by slowing their ruck, or better still, turning over the ball.

Wilkinson was the man for that moment, indeed for the entire game. So much planning, investment and hope comes down to 80 minutes, you need the right players to execute the game plan. Who is the first name on the team sheet? The debates can be long and hard, but decisions are made and team sheets are posted. Often the choices spark controversy, not least in those overlooked for the 1st XV.

Ten years on from England’s glorious World Cup triumph, the British Lions were back in the same Sydney stadium on Saturday for the Third and final Test against the Wallabies. With the series level at one game apiece after the Wallabies replied with a gritty 16-15 Second Test victory following the Lion’s 23-21 triumph in the opener, it was winner take all grand final rugby, the last throw of the dice with everything to play for.

Brian O’Driscoll was expected to be named captain in Sam Warburton’s absence. O’Driscoll understands playing under pressure, and captaincy under pressure, he has gravitas as well as edge, a leader with influence. When it is bedlam all round, he has the ability to remain calm and see just what is needed tactically. Not everyone has that gift.

The Lions environment is a very emotional one. The jersey itself generates a huge amount of emotion. You need someone to manage all that. You need a rallying point in a game. You need someone to draw it all together. But O’Driscoll was dramatically omitted from the squad by coach Warren Gatland. Surely he was the first name on the team sheet?

As selection bombshells go, it is hard to think of any that have created quite such a stir. Gatland’s decision to drop the experienced Irish centre was met with shock, bemusement and condemnation by players, pundits and supporters. The finest European player of his generation, a proven performer on the biggest of rugby stages, and a leader of men. With the injury to Sam Warburton, O’Driscoll was anticipated to be the leader, for what would have been his final Lions game.

O’Driscoll’s stellar Lions career was ended somewhat ignominiously after four Tours. Former players queued up to question Gatland’s decision. Some may not forgive him for ending an iconic player’s Lions career in such brutal fashion, cast into the wilderness with nary a backward glance.

Ian Robertson BBC rugby union correspondent didn’t sit on the fence: I was convinced Brian O’Driscoll should have been named as captain. It’s catastrophic leaving him out. He’s still one of the top centres in world rugby. He’s a fantastic guy and has been on four tours and knows it all inside out. It’s a massive mistake.

A fit O’Driscoll has always been in the side for the matches that matter, whether for Leinster, Ireland or the Lions. How did he respond to this crushing blow having been told he was dropped? By immediately offering to help out those chosen ahead of him in their preparation, before going off to deliver a coaching clinic for schoolchildren. Such is the measure of the man.

So what prompted Gatland to do the unthinkable and leave O’Driscoll out, not even on the bench? The hard-bitten Kiwi was acutely aware of the respect and affection in which O’Driscoll is held, and as Ireland’s coach, Gatland gave the then 20-year-old O’Driscoll his Test debut back in 1999.

Assembling a team to complete a particular game, or work project, is a critical task. If you get it right, you can immeasurably improve both the efficiency of the project and its outcome. You need the right mix of skills and of personalities to ensure the task gets done with the minimum friction and the maximum effectiveness. You need to be methodical, and unemotional, as you select your team members. Gatland was clearly that.

Picking the right players involves an assessment at a strategic level before you begin to allocate shirts and places in the team. First, you must examine the purpose of the team, which players fit the game plan, and answer a number of other questions. For Gatland, these were his questions:

  • Which players fit our game plan best?
  • Which players can exploit the Wallabies’ weaknesses best?
  • Which players can counter the Wallabies’ strengths best?
  • Which players have the mentality at the big-game level?
  • Who forms the best combination with players around them in key positions?
  • Which players are in form?

This analysis offers indicators of who fits the ‘big picture’ but also be best suited to accomplish certain tasks. Ask questions and insist on straightforward, honest answers:

Which of your proposed team members has a great, consistent attitude and lots of energy? Who is more cautious, more detail-oriented and better able to view the team and its project or mission with a big-picture perspective? Who has a reputation for being a high performer when the chips are down? Who is great at idea generation, and who is great at analysing the workability of new ideas given the constraints of the project, deadline and available resources?

In a rugby team there is a high level of interdependence, which means that people with different strengths can readily, easily and hopefully seamlessly play off of one another. In business, you want your team players passing pieces around the metaphoric table to the best person to handle the job, as you do movement of the rugby ball on the pitch.

The foundation of team building is asking probing questions of potential team members. Look for good fits, some alternatives, great communicators and a diverse roster of likely players who can offer a melange of opinions and experience.

Building a team is arguably the hardest part of a start-up business. In fact, the quickest way to kill a start-up is to make the wrong hiring decisions. Getting financing, acquiring customers, generating revenue – you just need to be smart to figure those things out, but ultimately, the success of a company depends on how well the team works together.

This is a fact that most entrepreneurs underestimate. Many entrepreneurs start hiring like crazy but it takes time to build the right team. The research of Tuckman into the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing matrix of team development is well proven.

Of course, you should bring in people into your team who can fill your weaknesses and can complement your skills, but when it comes down to making the decision, chose attitude over aptitude. Therefore, don’t get pushed into hiring people just because it will speed things up. Always remember what’s at stake.

Gatland knew what was at stake, responding to criticisms of his team selection by saying You live and die by your decisions, so we will see what happens at the weekend. If he delivered the Lions’ first series victory for 16 years, his selection would be viewed as bold vindication for a man who trusted his instinct in the face of public opprobrium.

And we now know. It turns out that Gatland knew a bit more about how to do the head coach’s job than many who excoriated his player selection. The British and Irish Lions ended the 16-year wait for a series win with a stunning second-half demolition of Australia in a pulsating decider in Sydney. Leading 19-10 at half-time via an early Corbisiero try and four Halfpenny penalties, the Lions roared to victory.

Sexton, North and Roberts all crossed in a breathless spell with three scores inside 12 minutes of the second-half to make it a record points tally against the Wallabies. A thumping 41-16. The forwards gave the platform, with a 10-3 scrummage score, including six against the head.

Gatland doesn’t do sentiment. He could see the storyline the media and public craved – O’Driscoll the icon leading the Lions to victory in his final outing in the red jersey. But he went for a team selection and game plan based on power rather than finesse, tactics rather than guile, and picked the team based on a game plan, not reputation. Lions roar, they don’t hide in the long grass and hope something happens.

Such a picture had been flashed from the Second Test, that of George North carrying both the ball and his rival Folau over his shoulder. It was a statement of competitive rage and nerve, which had so rarely surfaced when the Lions had the ball in their hands. Gatland wanted the team to show more physicality and belligerence this time out.

There had been dramatic conclusions to both the first two Tests, a kick to shoot the pot, to grab the glory. Both times the target was missed. The cliff-hanger style bears endless repeats. But the Third Test was the definitive team performance, a Lions series victory and a record thrashing of Australia. Save the glorious to last, they were the beasts of Sydney. The 41-16 slaughter of the Australians was an occasion to be happy as well as historic, but Gatland didn’t gloat over his vindication.

Gatland confessed to mixed emotions, caused by the hysterical reaction to his decision to omit O’Driscoll from the squad. It was a decision vindicated by the win. I think many of us were miffed at discarding O’Driscoll, but Gatland’s team selection and tactics were spot on. A decent Kiwi hooker who never made it to an All Blacks shirt, he is a picture of intensity. We may have occasionally wondered what on earth he was up to, but he showed us – he becomes one of only four coaches to have successful Lions Tours on their CV, joining Carwyn James (1971), Syd Millar (1974) and Ian McGeechan (1989 & 1997).

Gatland produced unity despite making six changes to the starting XV. Their working style had an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm, driven by a set of expectations. With a discernible energy and focus, you could see the on-field conversations had an intensity, yet a focus on thinking correctly under pressure. Teamwork is the synergy of individual’s success, and each team member had a personal credo of it’s down to me to make a difference.

O’Driscoll embraced Gatland, both hugging and smiling with warmth and affection, amidst the on-pitch victory celebrations at full-time. A team is many voices, but has a single heart. Now O’Driscoll can add a winning Lions series success to his CV, his career is sealed, even if played no part – on the field at least – in its conclusion. Any other outcome would have left a bitter taste indeed.

The RNLI and Breakthrough Teams

The RNLI has saved more than 139,000 lives since its foundation in 1824.  The charity was founded, with royal patronage, as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwrecks after an appeal made by Sir William Hillary. Hillary lived in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and had witnessed the wrecking of dozens of ships from his home. The name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854, and cork lifejackets were first issued to crew members in the same year. In 1891, the first RNLI street collection was held in Manchester. The C20th saw the RNLI continue to save lives through two world wars. The lifeboats moved from sail and oar power to petrol and diesel, and the first women joined their crews.

This weekend has seen the poignant 125th anniversary of the Mexico disaster in the Ribble Estuary, off the Lancashire coast, where 27 volunteer lifeboat crewmen lost their lives. It’s the worse disaster in the 187-year history of the RNLI.

On the night of 9 December 1886, the German barque Mexico was wrecked at the mouth of the Ribble during a gale. Three lifeboats from Lytham, Southport and St Annes put out to attempt to rescue the crew. The Lytham Lifeboat launched first and rescued the 12 men on board the stricken vessel. They landed them safely back at Lytham at 03:15 GMT on 10 December to loud cheering from a large crowd gathered on the beach

The Southport Lifeboat was taken along the beach to a suitable launching site and put to sea. Washed ashore, it reached a position close to the Mexico and was about to go alongside when it was capsized by a large wave. Fourteen members of the 16 crew members drowned

The St Annes Lifeboat headed out and was not seen again until it was found upturned on Southport beach the following day. Its entire crew of 13 drowned.

Memorial services were held this weekend at both Lytham and Southport.

Without doubt, the bravery, performance and contribution of the teams of voluntary lifeboat men can give us clear learning points to take into our business thinking about team work. One of dna people’s thought leadership pieces of research concerns RNLI teams – achieving extraordinary results by fusing talented individuals into a Breakthrough Team.

At the heart of a great organisational success, you will often find an inspired team of individuals who have united to make something remarkable happen – a revolutionary, high performance team that is energised, producing outstanding and innovative results by harnessing the individual talents to achieve the team goals. The team is transformed from a collection of individuals into a single entity with a shared identity – team members become a plurality with a single-minded focus and purpose. This team achieves a breakthrough – a ground breaking result, a unique achievement never realised before, and then goes on to make its mark with further notable performances and impacts. The RNLI Breakthrough Teams differ from traditional teams along every dimension, from the way they recruit members to the way they enforce their processes, their culture and values, and from the expectations they hold to the results they produce.

The headlines from our research shows that Breakthrough Teams are fundamentally different from ordinary groups that most organisations have in several ways:

  • Their working style has an unforgiving, frenetic rhythm and set of expectations
  • The team emanates a discernible energy and focus
  • They are utterly unique in the ambitions of their goals, the intensity of their conversations about their objectives, and their focus on results
  • Intense and intimate, they work best when forced to work under strict time constraints, but retain a focus on the welfare of colleagues
  • Team members put a great premium on collaboration, there is authentic team-working
  • They focus on thinking correctly under pressure
  • Each team member has a personal credo of it’s down to me to make a difference

We’ve identified the dna of Breakthrough Teams, producing outstanding and innovative results in all areas of human achievement – in business, the arts, sport and in other day-to-day challenges like the emergency services. We’d like to share our insights with you and how to play to the standards of some of the greatest uncompromising, creative and catalytic teams of our times. Find out how these teams set out to revolutionise their worlds, and how you can build a Breakthrough Team of your own. Contact us for a copy of this research.

But back to the RNLI. My favourite lifeboat station is that based at Moelfre, on the east coast of Anglesey. I spent many happy summer holidays there as a child, sat on the pebbles eating fish & chips and watching the lifeboat launch time and time again. The cohesion of the team, the vibrancy from their single-mindedness, and the cammaraderie was always evident. There is something both uplifting and extremely sad about seeing a lifeboat crew arrive at the station and launch into the sea. As a young boy it’s the spectacle, as an adult its appreciation of the bravery and fear as to what the result of their actions will be. Here’s a team where the results are genuinely a matter of life and death. Checking their web site, they’ve launched three times this weekend –http://www.btinternet.com/~coxmoelfrelifeboat/

The RNLI is an independent charity, funded entirely by voluntary donations. Quite shamefully, they receive no Government funding. I’ve been a longstanding donator, they could not save lives at sea without public support. So in return for a copy of my research, why not make a donation to the RNLI, or a visit over the Christmas break to a nearby lifeboat station – all manned 24 hours a day by unpaid volunteers, or attend their Lifeboat Day, an annual fund raising event? Some 7000 people attended Moelfre Lifeboat Day in 2011, it’s scheduled for August 18 in 2012. Go along and support a Breakthrough Team that makes a difference to the safety of our coastline.