Entrepreneurial learning journey: steel bands of Antigua

The Caribbean is made up of over 5,000 islands, reefs and cays, each with its own unique attractions, local cuisine and culture, the perfect destination for a relaxing break. Boasting picturesque white sandy beaches, charming villages and friendly locals, Antigua is my favourite Caribbean destination. It has intimacy, simplicity – and coconut ice cream in abundance wherever you go.

So I recently set off to spend a week in the Antiguan sun, and like my visit to America back in November, aimed to build upon my research and unearth new insights from local entrepreneurs operating in different cultures. I am curious to learn from practitioners and share their experience, and I am just downright nosey too!

The seductive steel pan sounds hang in the air and hit you long before you see the brightly coloured gazebo and the ensemble beneath it – an animated crew of musicians in perfect harmony, arms flailing everywhere, united by a single passion. Here in Antigua, something magical is afoot.

The intoxicating sounds and rhythm of steel pans reverberates through your body, it stirs the emotions and engulfs the mind. This is food for the soul and you can’t help but be entranced.

Concentration is etched on the musician’s faces, the performers are lost to the effort, arms whirring, brought back only by the jubilant applause. Boy, are they having fun, laughing and swaying, it’s a spectacle of sheer human enjoyment, simple in its creation but such a richness of acoustics, an uplifting, epic sight.

Once dubbed the devil’s music, a ghetto pastime with instruments as rudimentary as hubcaps and scrap metal, traditional Antiguan steel bands are today as much part of Antiguan culture as Carnival, goat curry and fried dumplings.

The steel band originated from French planters and their slaves who emigrated to Trinidad & Tobago during the French Revolution. The slaves formed their own celebration called canboulay, taken from stick-fighting and African percussion music that was banned in response to the Canboulay Riots.

They were replaced bamboo sticks beaten together, which were themselves banned in turn. In 1937 they reappeared in Trinidad, transformed as an orchestra of frying plans, dustbin lids and oil drums. In 1941, the US Navy arrived on Trinidad, which began the international popularisation of the steel pan sound.

Today, the modern pan is a chromatically pitched percussion instrument. The pan is struck using a pair of straight sticks tipped with rubber, the size and type of rubber tip varies according to the class of pan being played. Some musicians use four pansticks, holding two in each hand.

Pythagoras calculated the formula for the musical cycle of ‘fourths and fifths’, and steel pans follow this configuration, designed by Anthony Williams, in an arrangement of notes known as the ‘cycle of fifths’. Williams is one of the great pioneers of the steel pan, along with Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Mannette and Neville Jules. These four innovators have lead the development of the instrument in terms of design, sound and craftsmanship, true entrepreneurs, and revered by every band.

The standard form of note placement for lead pans enabled tuning of harmonic overtones in individual notes, a key feature in the orchestration of the instrument and the sounds we have today.

Today’s steel pans are built using sheet metal with a thickness between 0.8 mm and 1.5 mm, no longer the traditional build from used oil barrels. In a first step, the sheet metal is stretched into a bowl shape (this is commonly known as ‘sinking’). This process is usually done with hammers, manually or with the help of air pressure.

The note pattern is then marked onto the surface, and the notes of different sizes are shaped and moulded into the surface. After the tempering, the notes have to be softened and tuned (initial tuning). The note’s size corresponds to the pitch – the larger the oval, the lower the tone. There are lead pans, double tenors, double seconds, double and triple guitars, four cellos and various bass pans. Some have as many as 36 notes.

The world’s oldest, continuously operating steel orchestra is Hell’s Gate, based in Antigua, with this year marking its 70th anniversary. Founded as Housecoat Band in 1945, the instruments first used were automotive clutch housings, hollowed piped, biscuit cans, pieces of solid iron. They were obtained from Townsend’s Blacksmith shop on Mariners Lane, St. John’s.

The name Hell’s Gate was given to the band by the people of the local area, chosen mainly because of the local noise and variety of rhythmic beats produced by the then instruments used. I suspect they are more accomplished musicians today, notwithstanding their moniker.

I enjoyed talking to and learning from the players about the history of their instruments and their culture, but my biggest takeaway was their passion for their band. The team spirit they showed was infectious, togetherness and sense of community was awe-inspiring. Benjamin Franklin said We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately and the sense of kinship and shared identity was poignant.

So what lessons did I take from the steel pan bands for entrepreneurs to consider in their businesses?

1. Build a team based on camaraderie and trust Shared experiences over time build relationships and friendships. The bands I saw played with a collective responsibility to make the song sound good. If someone faltered, the rest of the band noticed it, and rallied to make it right. They seemed to say ‘We sound as good as our weakest link’, but there was no stopping, no blaming, they played through and figured it out through eye contact, facial expressions, and sometimes wild gestures and cries of encouragement – followed by laughter.

Every part of a team is important. Every part contributes. There is amazing satisfaction in coming together with a team, working hard to perform a show. The teamwork in a steel band is about individual and group self-improvement, underpinned by trust, competing with self, comparing results with self over time, but recognising success is as a collective.

2. It matters who you take on your journey with you I was taken by how the bands had come together. They were strangers when they first met together as a band, and some players have played for a handful of months, others for over twenty years – different ages, ethnicities, personalities, life circumstances. Yet all were supportive and kind to the other, with a common goal of making music together and having fun.

It matters who you surround yourself with. It was almost tribal. Is your team positive and optimistic? Or toxic and pessimistic? Choose kind, sincere, warm, compassionate, fun people. Remember also that it’s more enjoyable going through life, and gigs, with a tribe rather than going it alone.

3. As a team, do hard things that scare you Showing up where people see you – in life or on stage – is both hard and scary. Trying new things is hard and scary. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be critiqued or judged, is hard and scary. Do these things anyway. The bands seemed to playing as complex music as they could in creating their unique sounds, they didn’t sit back and just play the tunes they knew well.

We don’t get a choice to show up to life every day. Every day that you wake up, there are opportunities for people to judge you, to critique you. So your choice then is to either build walls around yourself to try to minimize these hard moments in life, or you can accept that life is hard and scary, and that you can do hard and scary things. The applause at the end shows the effort is worthwhile.

4. Ensure the team lives in the moment It flies by. Time is a blur. So when I stood watching the performance behind their steel drum kits, I was mindful as I looked around and breathed in the lights and sounds and smells. This was my moment. I was not going to walk away not remembering this. I made every moment count in the spectacle. And so did the players.

It did fly by, but I know I lived in each of those minutes, and it was glorious. Life speeds by too. Don’t get caught up in a future that may not occur, or stuck in the past that you can’t change. We can’t slow life down, but we can savour every moment of it.

5. Make it your own, and own it Some of the bands had fantastic individual musicians, with years of experience. Several times I say younger players asking them for advice, if she could play certain chords this way or that way. The answer, after giving them guidance, was always the same, decide what you’re going to do and make it your own. If anyone questions you about it, tell them it’s your style and you’re sticking to it.

Simply put, do what you’re comfortable with. Do what you’re capable of. Be proud of that. And you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone else. Above all else, enjoy yourself. Things will happen that we can’t control. You lose a drumstick. Bad things happen on stage and in life. But have fun anyway. This is the one life you have. Make it a good one before you exit stage left.

For an effective team in any endeavour, there are two truisms: Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us; not one of us could be as good as all of us playing unselfishly. No one can play the steel drum sound alone, it takes a whole band to play it and it’s the same in any business or organisation where team spirit, collaboration and togetherness create success.

Enabling high performing individuals to power high performing teams

A thumping for the Northern Hemisphere in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals – match winning performances from Juan Imhoff, Julian Savea, Fourie du Preez – and the absence of Paul O’Connell – showed the impact of high performance individuals on a team game.

Ireland’s defeat to Argentina was unexpected, and the loss of captain Paul O’Connell was keenly felt. However it ends, I’ll feel lucky O’Connell once said about his career, but his forced international retirement due to a hamstring injury was a huge blow. He was their talisman and leader.

Whether playing for and captaining Munster, Ireland or the British Lions, O’Connell has been a dominant presence at the heart of the scrum, the lineout and as a leader of every team who have followed him out of the tunnel. Much like Martin Johnson, O’Connell is a galvanising force when the spirit of those around him looks as if it might dip or flag.

Having lead Ireland to successive Six Nations championships, he is Ireland’s third most capped player, the twelfth most international capped player in rugby history. Not bad for someone who only started playing rugby at 16.

O’Connell has never given in without a fight. It is his defining quality. His lineout prowess, ferocity of his scrummaging, his octopus-like stretching arms over the maul, his work-rate, his rugby intellect – all marked him out as a key player in any team. It is the fierce, elemental nature of his play that sets him apart. That has been ‘Paulie’, uncompromising, committed, a colossus.

Another milestone at the Rugby World Cup was the 100th cap for the explosive All Black centre Ma’a Nonu. He has built a reputation as a beautiful passing centre, a blockbusting runner able to break the line, off-load the ball and set up or score scintillating tries.

On a cool Friday night in Newcastle, he ran out first onto the field versus Tonga for the 50,000 crowd to acknowledge the achievement. At the final whistle, brother Palepoi hung ula’lole around his neck, blindside Jerome Kaino lifted him on his shoulders through the player’s tunnel, and Richie McCaw presented the tasseled silver cap recognising a century of appearances, only awarded to only five other men before him.

Despite Richie McCaw’s absence due to injury, there were a historic four centurions in the All Blacks team – Tony Woodcock (118 caps), Dan Carter (109) and Keven Mealamu (129), joined Nonu. McCaw has a staggering 145 caps. Mils Muliaina is the other centurion on 100 caps, retiring in 2011. Sadly, injury to Woodcock saw his international career end on the night.

It’s a fantastic achievement to gain one cap for the All Blacks, let alone a hundred, and whilst many claim great teams operate to the maxim ‘there is no I in team’, there is no doubt that successful teams are comprised of high performing individuals like O’Connell and Nonu. If you crush the individual character and spirit of those who form your team, how can your team operate at its best?

The strongest teams don’t neutralise individual tendencies, they leverage and harness individual talents, not stifling them – the All Blacks clearly show this with over half their team being the best in the world at their position. Yet, with great individual talent to hand, why is it hard to get teams to realise their potential? How can people work more effectively in teams?

Key business dilemmas such as these were researched by Mark de Rond, in his book The I in Team. Combining social and psychological research with stories from team sport and high performance athletes, de Rond tested many popular notions about teams. His findings advocate a new way to view team potential as a path to business advantage, and shows what team leaders can learn by focusing on the individuals within them.

His overriding conclusion is quite stark and unexpected: Performance should take precedence over teamwork because over-emphasising the harmonious nature of a team can have a negative impact on performance. The assumption is that team harmony is somehow a cause or precursor for performance – a lot of the evidence points exactly the other way.

So the maxim There is no I in Team turns out is only half true. It ignores the fact that great teams have great individual members, and high performing teams are not always easy places to be – de Rond acknowledges that with few exceptions, the qualities that make individuals gifted can make them wearisome as team members, and that powerful teams are made up of individuals who have chosen to work as a team.

In his research, de Rond tackles other realities of teams:

Everyone is not equal In high performance teams, star performers increase a team’s overall effectiveness but only to a point. If the proportion of stars versus average members exceeds 50%, you begin to experience diminishing returns.

Emotional intelligence plays a part de Rond reports that ‘If someone is strongly disliked, it is almost irrelevant whether or not he is competent. By contrast, if someone is liked, her colleagues will seek out every bit of competence she has to offer, meaning that a little likeability has far more mileage than competence in making someone a desirable team member.

Too much harmony can hurt team performance Without internal competition, teams may underperform. A healthy level of internal competition can help get the best out of high performers. While we want everyone to be on the same page, people have different versions of reality.

Productivity tumbles with size de Rond shows that productivity and team size is less an issue of coordination, and more a problem of contribution. Team members are more likely to optimise their performance when faced with slightly fewer members. Larger teams were inclined to seek consensus rather than explore novel ideas – de Rond describes this as ‘social loafing’.

Teamship de Rond’s research highlighted that the most effective teams are unsurprisingly comprised of consistent membership. In a group of ten, where six members have been together for six months or more, this is the tipping point where socialisation of new members is manageable and doesn’t impact productivity; beyond this, the imbalance of existing and new team members is dysfunctional and has an adverse impact on performance.

Complimenting de Rond’s research, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational team failure, identifying the five dysfunctions, where a team becomes silos of individuals.

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

Having these concerns, the key challenge is to ensure team cohesion and that high performing individuals fit into this dynamic process, building the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of goals and objectives.

We have seen star teams do extraordinary work. For example, it took just 600 Apple engineers less than two years to develop, debug, and deploy OS X, a revolutionary change in the company’s operating system. By contrast, it took as many as 10,000 engineers more than five years to develop, debug, deploy, and eventually retract Microsoft’s Windows Vista.

The blockbuster movie Toy Story – one of the most innovative and top-grossing films of all time – wasn’t the product of one visionary filmmaker. Rather, it was the result of an often prickly but ultimately productive collaboration among Pixar’s top artists and animators. If you have world-class talent on a team, you multiply the productivity and performance advantages that stand-alone stars deliver in terms of sheer firepower.

Take another sport, cricket, where the individual performance matters and there are star performing individuals, but always, for the greatest impact, it has to be channelled towards the collective end. Individuality alone is insufficient – a batsman may continually hit centuries, but if bowlers and fielders don’t perform, the team won’t win.

Contrast James Anderson and Kevin Pietersen in terms of attitude and behaviour. Anderson a world-class performer who is committed to the team and whose authenticity and humility are self evident, it was instructive to find the telling remark made to Kevin Pietersen, a similar ‘solo’ performer to Anderson but who is disruptive to the team, was made by his former England colleague Matthew Hoggard, that ‘maybe team sport’s not for you, Kevin?’

Pietersen is a highly gifted cricketer, a unique batsman, a fearless seat-of-the-pants player capable of transforming a match. To a great extent he has done so by marching to the beat of his own drum, for which, while he was at his peak and delivering awesome performances, allowance was made for his maverick tendencies.

Having been acknowledged as England’s primary batsman, guaranteed to deliver, his England career decline coincided with his decision to seek riches elsewhere, lauded for his talent as an individual performer, notably the IPL. These mercenary tendencies manifestly began to intrude on and take precedence in his thoughts.

He opted out of being a team player and playing for himself. He sought rewards for his personal performance as a bat-for-hire, hawking himself around the franchises of the cricket world, playing mediocre cricket by his standards. Playing for the England team became secondary on this agenda.

It is also noticeable that this focus on himself and not the England team career coincided with his public conflict with the team management, and tension with his teammates. Pietersen had little respect for the team cohesion. As a result, he will not play for England again and to suggest otherwise is just delusional.

The implication is that leaders should look to assess an individual’s attitude around the ‘I in team’, specifically ensuring that team members are clear about and happy with team goals that have been identified. Appropriate action should be taken on developing team communication and shared responsibility – developing the ‘we’ mentality, that it would appear Pietersen lacked, but O’Connell and Nonu have in spades.

So considering all this research, what attitudes and behaviours should you look for in high performing individuals when building a team? For me, there are three primary considerations to consider high-performing individuals:

A sense of humility & equality Humility is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Everyone in an organisation contributes through assigned roles. While high-performers will potentially deliver more impact, everyone on the team deserves to be treated with respect.

Authentic and collaboration Authenticity and collaboration are critical to both individual and team success. High performers who are team players are active participants. They come prepared for team meetings and listen and speak up in discussions. They’re fully engaged in the work of the team and do not sit passively on the sidelines simply focused on their own agenda.

Share positive, contagious energy Emotions are contagious and infecting a team with either positive or negative energy. You can be a germ or a big dose a Vitamin C. When you share positive energy you infectiously enhance the mood, morale and performance of your team. Remember, negativity is toxic. High performers with high egos are energy vampires and sabotage teams.

Both O’Connell and Ma’a Nonu shows that if you want a winning team, you need to ensure that each individual team member is responsible and committed to contributing to the team, and accountable for their performance and behaviour, no matter how much of an individual performer they are.

Effective teamwork is critical to an organisation’s success. We are better together than we are apart said Richie McCaw. When you score a try for the All Blacks, you do it for the team, because the silver fern on the front of the shirt, and the shirt itself, are more important than the name on the team sheet.

No one can whistle a symphony, it takes a whole orchestra to play it. Individual commitment to a group effort – that’s what makes a great rugby team work, a company work. Many of us are more capable than some of us, but none of us is as capable as all of us, but when you have an individual like Ma’a Nonu or Paul O’Connell in your team, it makes a difference.

Teamwork – individual commitment to a group effort

Brasil 2014 was the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game. Superbly drilled as a team, tactically astute and individually disciplined, they provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 demolition of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final, and a cohesive team performance to clinch victory in the final against Argentina.

With teams carried by one creative talisman, with individual talent seen a potential match winners – Lionel Messi, James Rodríguez, Neymar and even the Netherlands were reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben – whilst Germany had talented individuals, it was the relentless team performance that won.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was the first World Cup I recall watching on television. Broadcast live by satellite and in grainy images, I recall Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous, a team game played and won by talented individuals.

However, despite individual talent, football has become increasingly systematised, sides playing less as collections of individuals and more as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch and ‘Total Football’ rather than the dribbling and flair of a Pelé.

With statistical analysis and improved understanding of team strategies, structures and tactics, a pressing-style emerged.This has made the game more tactically sophisticated and interesting, but also reliant on consistency of team selection as players fit into a style of play and regime, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the early round games were often filled with glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals were able to exert a powerful influence.

Some games were a throwback to the romantic fervour of a bygone age, a return to the playground style of attack-and-defence, suggesting that the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. However, in the later stages where the best teams came head-to-head in more competitive games, the counter-counter patterns re-emerged, and even in the individuals’ World Cup, the system came to assert itself.

It was also noticeable that consistency of team selection – an obvious characteristic of successful teams – became a defined feature, where a small number of individuals working together on a regular basis in a defined system were successful. This counters the assertion that big squads are needed – it’s the most consistent team that wins, collaboration, empathy and familiarity outdo a wider pool of talent, with focus on team spirit.

Bigger teams don’t mean better when it comes to work either, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously coined this with the two pizza rule. According to Bezos, the ideal is the ‘two pizza team’: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

Working with small teams, they often wish for more brains on deck to work on projects, build more complex features, and talk with more customers. It’s just natural to believe that larger teams means you’ll get more stuff, and better stuff done, and much more swiftly – but the research shows that throwing more people at a problem is one of the most common productivity traps to fall into.

People in smaller teams are far more personally productive. As group size rises, all sorts of issues spring up. Individual performance levels diminish and people start to grow less engaged. So while larger teams may get more done altogether, it’s happening at a rate lower than the sum of individual efforts. Even if more people provide a greater pool of resource, they also require greater amounts of coordination and management, to the point where size becomes an impediment.

Forget herding cats, herding humans is a challenge enough, having to grapple with three hidden costs that start to climb with team size: coordination costs, motivation costs, and relational costs.

1. Coordination Cost

The late Harvard psychologist, Richard Hackman, bluntly stated ‘big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time’. What Hackman found is that it is not the number of people but the links between them that accumulate when group size increases. The coordination cost proliferates with every new addition, and management is a project of handling the links.  His formula shows how the links grow at an accelerating rate:

Number of links = n(n-1)/2, where n = the number of people

To put this more simply:

  • A start-up of 7 people has 21 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 12 has 66 connection points to maintain
  • A group of 60 has 1770 connection points to maintain.
  • An enterprise of 6000 has 17.997m connection points to maintain.

Each additional person increases total productivity of the team but at a decreasing rate, which means if you were the third member to join a team, you made a bigger impact on its productivity than if you were the thirtieth.

Every steep jump in links also produces a steep jump in the potential for mismanagement and miscommunication. Delays emerge from the snowballing time and effort required to keep everyone informed, coordinated and integrated. Adding human-power to a late project just makes it later.

Research shows that the magic number for the most effective teams varies between four to nine, and more often six or seven. What’s clear is that if you want your herd of humans to get more stuff done, avoid having your team numbers hit double digits.

2. Motivation Cost

The mere perception that you’re in a group can deplete your own motivation and effort, a phenomenon known as ‘social loafing’, fear of getting lost in a crowd and depleting the strength of relationships.

A study by Latan demonstrated the social loafing effect with groups as small as six. Participants wearing blindfolds and noise-masking headphones had to shout as loud as they could. Everyone made less noise in groups compared to when they shouted alone.

While the total sound produced was louder, it didn’t grow in proportion with the group size. People in teams of six shouted at 36% of their full individual capacity. When researchers controlled for any possible coordination loss by having participants shout in concert when they were actually shouting alone, people still didn’t perform at full capacity, producing 74% of their full potential sound.

Another explanation for this phenomenon is Ringelmann’s rope pulling experiment, which shows clearly how input per head decreases as group sizes get bigger.

Ringelmann tested the effort capable of being exerted by seven individuals, on individual rope pulling tests. He then put them into teams, from two to seven, and found the collective output fell from 100% (baseline for individual effort), to just 55% per individual when seven formed a team – an attrition rate of 45%.

Social loafing is a feedback problem, when groups get larger, you experience less social pressure and feel less responsibility because your performance becomes difficult to correctly assess amidst a crowd. Human nature makes us try less hard, as we think our colleagues’ effort will compensate. The reality is a serious degradation in output as team size increases.

While initially you might not be cognizant of social loafing, that unconscious disengagement can quickly morph into purely selfish, self-interested behaviour, a fall in commitment to the team, a lack of intimacy and active disengagement. If you don’t feel like you matter, or have to make a difference, then what’s the point of trying so hard?

3. Relational Loss

University of San Diego Professor of Management, Jennifer Mueller uncovered ‘relational loss’ as the third element of why individuals’ efficiency decreases in larger teams.

Relational loss is when you feel as if you are receiving less and less support as teams get larger. This includes emotional support, assistance in performing work and overcoming setbacks. You become isolated, and don’t feel you have a shoulder to lean on or someone to help you out of a jam.

When you’re in a team, you regularly interact and spend time with each other every day. Mueller suspected that the deteriorating quality of those multiplying links contributed to weaker individual performance – just think about how the more connections you make on social networks, the weaker those ties usually are. People’s perception of support decreased as team size increased and this relational loss accounted for poorer individual performance.

The price of relational loss is paid with feelings of isolation, which harms cognitive ability and causes poorer performance. Mueller found that in larger teams, people were lost, had no identity with the team, and disconnected.

So what tools and techniques can we utilise to overcome the three risks of dysfunctional and unproductive teams? Here are some suggestions:

Figure out and apply the right communication tools The cult of productivity is often inwardly focused on the personal, while neglecting the needs of the collective. Find and use team based communication tools and processes that lower coordination cost and save people time. Focus on team productivity not personal.

This may mean finding opportunities for collaboration, apps or changing how you run meetings. Create meaning and connection through an adaptable cadence of communication rather than causing frustration and guzzling time. The agile practice of daily stand-ups is a highly effective tool for this.

Break teams down into smaller units Breaking teams down into units where everyone knows their colleagues name, role and personality makes common sense. The research highlighted earlier shows smaller teams are more effective where personal relationships are closer, there is intimacy and camaraderie, which creates a greater sense of belonging and purpose. Enabling rapport is a great way of improving productivity.

Be adventurous with your office configuration Find new ways to create opportunities for connection and personal interfaces, Skype and Google hangouts are effective for virtual teams, but having a café style area in the office for team conversations creates greater social meaning and also an opportunity for more intense and direct interaction.

Become radically transparent Transparency helps prevent behaviours such as social loafing and free-riding, which rely on the fact that there’s somewhere easy to hide, and power plays, which rely on hoarding knowledge like an information miser. Ensure all your team are highly effective communicators and socially comfortable with total transparency – half your job besides doing your work is communicating to colleagues about it, make knowledge a team asset, accessible, visible and a collective responsibility, chronicling decisions and processes, and being inclusive. Sharing daily learnings is a positive, protective shield against relational loss.

Give frequent feedback to each other Don’t isolate feedback to some twice-a-year supervisory formality, get the conversation flowing among everyone in your team to help strengthen the connections between individual effort and performance, which get swallowed up in the crowd through motivational loss. Make feedback meaningful.

Ask questions, show your teammates gratitude and appreciation, and respond to distress signals. Creating a high frequency feedback culture, where there are daily discussions on what everyone gets done and monthly one-on-ones, helps everyone connect, understand other’s issues, and be better at their own jobs.

But back to Sunday’s game. It was nerve-rattling, energy sapping and hard-fought. Despite the dearth of goals, there was never a dull moment inside the Maracanã Stadium and the match proved worthy of a World Cup Final. It was only during the second half of extra time that striker Mario Götze, who only joined the game in the 88th minute, scored the game’s only goal.

Mario Götze’s goal was of irresistible elegance, the crowning glory for the tournament’s best team, the one which had always sought the initiative. The German coaching team’s tactical flexibility, whether it was fast vertical play or patient ball retention,  always found the right answer for every tactical challenge. Joachim Löw played a crucial part in this triumph – he always had the right team strategy, right team structure, right team processes – and the right team players.

‘It doesn’t matter at all whether we have the best individual players or not,’ said German captain Phillip Lahm, ‘you have to have the best team. We had unbelievable coherence, cohesion and closeness’.

It’s a strange exclamation mark at the end of a tournament of free and flighty moments, from Neymar’s and Messi’s flitters of brilliance and after all the positive and negative passion and emotion, that the winner is an effort of pure planning and the fruits of the intricate and organised system they put in place.

Even in the chances they created, you got the sense of contrast on offer. While Lionel Messi provided the natural and the unexpected, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos provided the learned and practiced, and for all the Germans’ movement, intricate passing and attacking that was evident from the early stages as they prodded and probed at the Argentinian massed defence, there was a sense of training ground planning to much of it. A winning team on top of their game.

That’s not to take away from their talent and threat, but it’s a misplaced narrative we are left with. They are the world’s best team, with some of the world’s best players – but they don’t have the best individuals. Other teams now must take note of how Germany created their success as they look to beat them. For business, the lessons of effective teamwork and relentless pursuit of the team goal was there to be seen.

Reflections from D-Day: camaraderie & selflessness

Friday saw the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 1944, when Allied Forces launched a combined naval, air and land assault
 on Nazi-occupied France. Codenamed Operation Overlord, the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches marked the start of a long and costly campaign to liberate north-west Europe from German occupation.  I also wonder whether it was the pivotal day of the C21st. It was certainly the greatest team effort of that century.

Just after midnight, the Allied assault began. The operation caught the German military command unaware. Low tides and bad weather – combined with Allied deception plans – had convinced the Germans that an attack was unlikely at that time. As more than 1,000 British bombers began to pummel Normandy’s coastal defences, Rommel, commanding German defences in France, was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday.

The initial Allied assault was made by airborne infantry, who secured key bridges and crossroads on the flanks of the landing zone. Some of their most important and celebrated achievements included the capture of Pegasus Bridge and the town of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Commandos also attacked key targets ahead of the main landings. One remarkable feat was the attack by US Rangers on Pointe-Du-Hoc, a headland which housed a coastal battery that threatened the landing beaches. The successful assault involved scaling a 30m cliff face under German fire.

At 6.30am, US soldiers went ashore by landing craft at Utah and Omaha beaches. An hour later, the British and Canadians arrived at the beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword. When British and Canadian troops landed, the tide was high, leaving fewer metres of beach to traverse. Although mines sunk a number of boats, soldiers succeeded in silencing German machine guns within half an hour.

At the day’s end, although they had not yet taken their objective of Caen, the soldiers had penetrated six kilometres inland, and their foothold in Normandy was secure and could begin their advance into France. At 6pm, when Churchill addressed the House of Commons, it was to announce the astounding success of an operation, which would go down in military legend.

Enemy gunfire has never sounded in my ears, the anxiety of an unseen enemy has never entered my body, the life and death sacrifice of fighting for my country has never been a choice for me to consider. These realities are a result of the freedoms I have, and I am grateful for all who have accepted the work to defend my country.

Despite my intellectual understanding of the realities of war, I spent most of last Friday with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat watching and listening to the poignant stories and pictures of frail, yet spirited men, most in their 90s, distil their recollections of that momentous day.  Age had finally wearied them. They marched proudly on Sword Beach with stiff legs, bent backs and, in some cases, tears in their eyes.

As D-Day passes over the horizon of living memory, nowhere do you feel the power of teamwork, shared purpose and ultimately shared sacrifice more than in a military cemetery. Looking across the thousand upon thousand of white stone graves at the Normandy Cemeteries, gazing out across the English Channel, it takes your breath away. It is almost beyond imagination to realise the bravery of these men, who put aside their personal freedom, their individuality and paid the ultimate price.

I was struck by a number of thoughts from the D-Day commemoration around teamwork, notably how a small team of motivated individuals can beat a much larger, well-provisioned adversary. But overriding this, it was camaraderie that struck me as the lifeblood of a team. It is what fuels results, and it was that emotion which filled my senses on Friday from the veterans.

Without it, fractured relationships slow down a team, the team is more readily blindsided by surprises and may not withstand the impact. Without camaraderie individuals fight for recognition tearing apart that palpable connection. The sense of the D-Day veterans was that they were part of a team, and that camaraderie was what made the coastal invasion a success.

However, there were a number of other factors contributing to the D-Day victory, which I think we can take into our everyday business thinking.

Vision is important Without vision an organisation will lack direction, focus and purpose. Vision takes individual concerns and focuses the team, giving them confidence. This fosters teamwork on a number of levels. While seemingly attainable, a true vision lies just beyond achievable. When the team accomplishes things it didn’t at first believe possible during its journey to achieve the vision, everyone’s confidence is boosted and team development is furthered. The D-Day landings showed the unifying power and purpose of a vision under extreme circumstances.

Planning Strategising in a chaotic environment is essential, many unforeseen factors affect the outcome of a plan – the weather was the biggest issue on D-Day. Planning for contingencies is imperative in business too, the externalities we face can create a chaotic environment in which planning becomes even more critical. I am a big believer in a one-page business strategy and a plan that keeps things simple, focuses on top priorities, key actions and leaves flexibility to change as conditions evolve. It’s the planning not the plan, which is vital.

Inspiration Having a big, meaningful goal is a tremendous force for motivation, and cohesion. The D-Day mission was not some vague, abstract adventure, rather it was tangible, concrete, easy to understand and internalise for all involved. While each veteran I saw interviewed had his own particular story, everyone had a common and powerful pride in what they had accomplished and in the people around them. It was frankly overwhelming and astounding. Even in the best organisations I have worked with, in my experience, such a core consistency of inspiration to achieve an outcome and pride in its achievement is extremely rare. Of course, most organisations don’t have a mission as inspirational as the British forces did that day.

Relationships mean everything During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Hardships create strong bonds within a team, which in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more. Trusting one another and, in turn, developing real relationships will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives.  Simply put, interaction fuels action and a collective resolve, mental strength in a crisis.

Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment Imagine the military briefings on D-Day. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics, and while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest-ranking leader makes the decision. In business, one bad decision may not mean ‘life or death’, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your business.

Every situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.

No one is left behind Wounded and dead soldiers are carried on comrade’s backs and inside crowded vehicles to safety, or to a proper burial. Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other was a clear message from the veterans. Everyone crosses the line together. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone’s got your back. Pulling each other together and watching for each other’s success is what Henry Ford said: Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.

It’s not about you We all have a propensity to think we live in a bubble. You don’t.  As a business leader, this truth carries more importance, as whatever your ambitions or challenges, fostering teamwork demands equality. Each person or role has its place, and they are self-defined based on the team dynamic, creating balance, and respect for them. Respect isn’t just an altruistic ethic, it’s a necessity. It was there in bundles in the hearts, minds and voices of the veterans.  Whilst most companies are well integrated when it comes to race and creed (less so gender), when it comes to respect among individuals, most organisations have a lot to learn.

100% performance From moment to moment, the D-Day landings exposed the Allied men to an extraordinary degree of danger. But they made it look simple and got on with it, despite their fear. The key is training, training, training, and total focus and dedication when you are on the line. The activity on the beaches from videos of the day looks a little random and pretty informal – no tight formations, but in the end, you realise you’ve watched an amazingly choreographed event, with an underlying intelligence and efficiency that comes from a lot of people working together to optimise the total performance of the organisation. But it wasn’t about the organisation, it was about the individuals, giving 100%.

Function as a team Teamwork is critical in military context, as it is in business. In the D-Day landings, the separation between the officers and the troops was very limited. They dressed alike, got their fill of sand and sea water alike, and while there was equality, there was also clarity of function, such that every team member knew their role and became their best.

Many of the veterans referred to their Captains, often the first to die on the charge up the beaches. This was literally about leading from the front, and in such circumstances, decision-making isn’t a democracy – the leader is in charge and their behaviour shows this. We’re only as strong as our weakest soldier is the reality, and in military situations, one weak soldier can cost not only his own life but also the life of the whole team. Therefore, everyone has to pull together to make sure the team functions well and survives. At the same time, weaker players get the team’s support to bring them on par with the rest. The mutual commitment to success is strong.

Team debrief Allowing your team to have a real voice and offer transparent feedback is one of the things that really builds camaraderie in a team. Again the veterans recounted the after action debriefs, a review of the tough lessons learned from each event, to constantly improve tactics. In the same way, successful business leaders learn as much from their failures as their successes, but as long as you collect the right intelligence and properly apply what you have learned to the next situation, you can ensure more successes than failures down the road.  Building a culture around transparency is a key tool to building effective, high performing teams.

Team training Always be learning and always be training, the D-Day campaign saw rehearsals of every single stage prior to execution.  As mentioned above, once a mission is completed, one of the most important elements in the debrief is the discussion of lessons learned. What are we going to take away from this operation to help us improve as a team and always develop as an organisation?  The most successful companies are often the most innovative.  So how do they become innovative? They do so by encouraging and supporting growth, providing resources for constant learning, and rewarding creativity.  People succeed when they are inspired and excited to come to work, and given the skills for growth.

The success of any military unit, sports team or business doesn’t just come from great leadership and management, it comes from the alliance, connectivity and contribution of the individual team members, working in a collaborative environment. The D-Day landings showed this in circumstances that most of us are unlikely to experience.

For me it was the camaraderie and sheer selflessness in the veterans that gave me a new definition of teamwork: selfless acts towards a common goal. Selflessness is perhaps the most important element for an individual in a team.  Once individuals act selflessly, the goals of the team are within reach. Not bad principles for a business.

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.