CRISIS: A Recipe for Good Team work

In her remarkable book , A Paradise Built in Hell, author Rebecca Solnit describes how in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters — such as the one that unfolded in Fukushima, Japan — human beings tend to respond by banding together, not tearing apart.

We have often witnessed the same truth being played out in the many crisis that our country has faced – be it the July 26, 2005 deluge in Mumbai, the December 26, 2004 tsunami or the horrific 26/11 Mumbai attacks, all of which saw people coming together to help and offer solace to each other most selflessly.

team working togetherBut does this also hold true for corporate teams?

Author Patrick Lencioni in ‘Silo Politics and Turf wars’ talks about how a crisis can often be a rallying cry that brings out the best in the companies by tearing down silos and uniting people. It is said that when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity. Its an apt representation that these are often two sides of the same coin.

There are many true stories that add credence to this. Here are three such to munch on:
Chrysler Corporation:
The year was 1979. Chrysler Corporation – a legendary American company was on the verge of bankruptcy. The company brought in Lee Iacocca – the number 2 person at Ford. Iacocca set the tone and took up the challenge by taking up the job for just a 1 dollar per year salary. The employees were galvanized – and supported him staunchly through all the tough measures the company had to undertake. Other than a 1.5billion dollar loan from the government, the company was also helped by nearly 2 billion dollars in concessions from labour, dealers and other creditors. The rest as they say is history.

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In one of the most remarkable turn-arounds in corporate history, by 1983, the company paid back the loans years in advance and made $500 million in profits!

The Miracle of Flight 232:
Another such inspiring story is what is now called as, “The Miracle of Flight 232”. What started out as a very ordinary flight on a United Airlines DC-10 turned into a catastrophic situation when it experienced engine failure in its #2 engine, leading to loss of all hydraulic power to the airplane. Using the two remaining engines as their only source of steering, Captain Al Haynes and his flight crew managed to bring the plane into a crash landing at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa.

While some passengers were lost, 184 people survived. The miraculous survival of so many lives was because of an extraordinary team work shown by the aircraft’s pilot and crew, the country’s coordinator of emergency services, local health professionals and a competent air traffic controller. The pilot later cited few key elements that helped them in the crisis – Preparation, Cooperation, Communication and Execution.

Apollo 13 Lunar Mission:
One of the most inspiring stories of teamwork under crisis came about during the now famous Apollo 13 lunar mission. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the whole craft. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to rectify the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

President Nixon perhaps summed it up the best when awarding the Mission Operations team the Presidential Medal of Freedom, “The men and Women of the Apollo XIII mission operations team performed such a miracle, transforming potential tragedy into one of the most dramatic rescues of all time. Years of intense preparation made this rescue possible. The skill, coordination and performance under pressure of the mission operations team made it happen. Their extraordinary feat is a tribute to man’s ingenuity, to his resourcefulness and to his courage.”

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So, what is the lesson for corporate teams from these stories? Two key themes that emerge are that of Preparation (well before a crisis hits) and building a culture of Collaboration.

The smartest companies today – do invest in both these endeavors. Preparation is by using Scenario Planning, by play acting possible crisis scenarios using interesting techniques like Lego Serious Play. Collaboration is achieved by relentlessly focusing on driving this message through team building interventions, that are not just fun but also meaningful. A key insight for leaders is that making people work collaboratively starts with them. If leaders model it, others will too. Collaboration isn’t a technique. It’s culture.

What would a crisis do to your team – have you thought about it?

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