Whenever a group of smart, talented people are brought together and tasked with a complex mutual assignment, the very first thing that must happen is agreement on the means and expectation for teamwork and communication. In fact, it is really the other way around, communication first and then teamwork, because you simply don’t get anywhere at all without strong, unambiguous, frequent, even redundant communication. I just returned from a pretty spectacular vacation where I experienced first-hand some of the best communication practices that I have ever witnessed. A week aboard the tall ship Manitou sailing out of Grand Traverse bay to parts North and back again. This 114’ schooner is crewed by five professional sailors and a cook. They operate in the old maritime tradition on a ship without electricity (just low-power lighting) and a wood-fired cook stove. We even raised the 500 lb. anchor every morning with a human-powered windlass.
I joined up with 14 other strangers for the week-long adventure and we all tried our hand at the various nautical tasks on board, but by far and away, the most fascinating thing to watch was the harmony of this crew as they worked their ship. This team had been together all summer running day sails three times a day, and the occasional three- or four-day trip, but mine was the season’s big one at six nights on Lake Michigan. Captain Brett and his crew had it down. Every command repeated by every crewman, every task prepared for, executed and confirmed with an echoed acknowledgement. Nothing done until the order was given, but everything perfectly anticipated. Things can happen fast on a big sailboat, control is maintained only by synchronized actions and everybody knowing what everybody else is doing – all the time. Even a simple thing like going down a ladder is preceded by the announcement “down ladder” and echoed by all with “down ladder.” Small tasks and big, all repeated for the sake of teamwork, clarity, safety and efficiency. Okay, it wasn’t 500 men a thousand miles from civilization sailing into the teeth of a hurricane, but it was still a beautiful thing to watch.
So, what is the lesson in this? I don’t think I can get this group I work with every day to smartly repeat everything I ask them to do and then return with a salute and acknowledgement when it’s done, but maybe I can bring a sense of the need for clarity, anticipation, acknowledgement and a copious amount of redundancy just to be sure to the team. We are a group of smart, talented people that are faced with complex mutual assignments every day. If a few hundred years of sailing tradition still works today out on Lake Michigan, I am pretty sure that adopting just a little bit of that spirit and tradition can’t hurt here in the office either.