The best lessons in teamwork usually come from unexpected places–places outside the classroom, beyond the traditional workplace walls.  For me, they’ve come from my volunteer search and rescue work.

One of the most challenging tasks in a teambuilding session is to get a team that lacks focus and direction to sit in a room and write a mission statement.  So much hinges on their ability to do this successfully, and if they can’t, it really doesn’t make sense to move on to anything else.  What difference does it make if they communicate well, resolve conflict capably, embrace change and diversity, or hold themselves accountable if they don’t have a clear picture of what their mission is in the first place?  It’s like the old saying about how it doesn’t matter how fast you move up the ladder if the ladder is propped against the wrong wall.

But writing a mission statement can’t just be about producing consensus around a wordsmithing project.  The mission statement the team produces has to inspire an “ahh hah” in the members of the team.  It has to be something they instintively identify with and don’t need to post in the hallways.  That’s why I’ve learned so much from my mountain rescue team; we have always known exactly what our mission is, and we’ve never needed to write it down or post it in the hallways.  Our mission is to save lives in the backcountry, safely.  You could ask anyone on our team and although they might use slightly different wording, they will say essentially the same thing.

Why is that so important?  Because it forms the foundation for everything else.  When we need to resolve a conflict, it helps if we have an agreed-upon conflict resolution process, but it’s not as important as having a mission to refer back to in helping us decide what our priorities should be.  Same thing when we need to make changes to how we operate, or we need to evaluate how well we did on a particular rescue.  Having a clear and agreed upon mission gives us a framework in which to discuss and decide on every move we ever need to make.  For example, we often stop and debate the best way to get an injured hiker out of the field, especially when the terrain is rocky and challenging.  One person might advocate setting up a guideline to “float” the litter above a scree field.  Another might say we’ll be faster if we just hand-carry the litter.  Another might argue that we should call Flight for Life and see if we can get a chopper ride out for our patient.  In the end, we all know what the criteria is: what would do the best job of getting the patient safely out of the field while still holding our own safety as a top priority?  We might touch on concepts like cost or efficiency, but only to the extent that they uphold the primary mission.  It helps us get to agreement quickly.

The next time you think about holding some sort of teambuilding activity, ask yourself this primary question first: does the team have a clear sense of mission?  If the answer is no, ask yourself an even more basic question: are they really a team?  Are they a collection of individuals who must work interdependently toward the same overall goal?  If not, then they are not really a team.  Perhaps your efforts and training dollars would be better focused on developing their individual skills in certain areas, or giving them better processes to use when they have to interact with each other.  But if they are really a team, spend your time developing their sense of mission first.  Everything else will build on that.

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