Crested Butte trekking in slickrock bowlNever heard of adventure racing?  It’s the best metaphor for corporate teamwork that I know.  A group of people, usually four, must travel from point to point to a pre-determined finish line as a team, navigating the best route as they go.  Sometimes they are trekking, sometimes paddling a boat, sometimes riding a bike, climbing a mountain, descending a rope, roller blading, riding a horse, caving or canyoneering.  You name it, anything non-motorized goes.  The teammates must stay together at all times, leveraging their strengths and weaknesses in each event in order to get through them.  Some of the higher profile events last for six to ten days, and take place in remote wildernesses across the US or in other countries. 

I was an adventure racer for almost ten years, and I think I can honestly say that all my best teamwork lessons came from competing in this exotic and grueling sport.  Here’s what I learned over the years:

1.  You are only as strong as your weakest teammate unless you do something to leverage your stronger teammates.  A group of four people biking will go the pace of the slowest biker, unless you put that biker on a tow rope behind the strongest biker (yes, that’s allowed).   If you have a work team member with a weakness that is holding everyone back, don’t get into the blame game; sit down and figure out who is in a position to help that teammate and how.

2.  The team sinks or swims together.  If someone gets hurt or quits, the whole team is out of the race, at least officially.  There is no point in blaming that person.  If we take a wrong turn, we don’t point our fingers at the navigator; we made the mistake together, and we’ll fix it together.  If the team does well, that glory is shared; no one teammate could have done it without the others.  If someone on your work team is “retired in place”, find a way to re-engage him.  You can’t win without everyone.  If you do win, don’t forget that you did it together.

3.  Strategy is key.  Teammates in an adventure race must constantly strategize together about route-finding, sleep management, food and water, and gear.  Strategy cannot be set without some collaboration.  Everyone needs to be involved and on board.

4.  Communication is key also.  On my adventure racing team, we have to know how to communicate honestly and openly with each other about our physical problems and needs.  And we have to maintain respect in communication when we are sleep deprived, sore, hungry and exhausted; not an easy task.  If we disagree, we have to focus on the strategy we disagree about, rather than on making it a personal issue.  On a work team, teammates need to be able to share their mental models with each other in an effort to understand how to work best together.   They need to talk about problems, not personalities.   And they need to find ways to do so respectfully when someone is having a bad day.

5. Diversity is useful.  Most adventure races require teams to be co-ed, and most teams recognize that they need diversity of skills sets and personality types.  On my team, I am the one who isn’t embarrassed to hold us back and spend time eating, sleeping and organizing gear when the guys just want to GO!  On work teams, diversity might engender a lot more than just practicality–it might be where your most creative ideas come from.

6.  Teams must respond quickly to change.  If we’re racing in the desert and our strategy is to sleep during the day and move at night, we have to be willing to completely change that strategy when a thunderstorm hits.  Work teams must monitor the business environment for change and be willing to respond quickly to it.

7.  Teams must be built on a foundation of trust.  There might be times that I’m hanging on a rope with that teammate.  On a work team, your life might not depend on that teammate, but other things do.  If you don’t have trust, people become defensive and little progress is made toward the goals.

Do you have a sport or a hobby that teaches great teamwork lessons?

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