Sunday, February 24, 2008

The weakest link

There are many management books and motivational posters that tell us that ‘A team is only as strong as its weakest link’. But this week I have been thinking about this and found myself confronted by a situation that I thought proved the saying absolutely true.

In most instances a team is not a chain at all, and to see it in such a simplistic way is rather nieve. Take a football team as an example. During any particular match there maybe a player who is not performing to their utmost ability. What happens is that the other team members tend to compensate for this. Imagine that the weak player is on the right, then the team will tend to play (during that particular match) more down the left. Sure this is a weakness but it does not necessarily mean that the effectiveness of the team is completely lost. Why? Because humans are dynamic and in times of adversity, they find creative ways to perform to higher levels. Staying with the football analogy, very often, when one of the players is sent off for bad behaviour, the rest of the team adapt their game and can sometimes even play more effectively with ten players than with eleven.

It is a commonly known fact that soldiers are often given bullets that badly maim their enemy but not actually kill them immediately. The reason for this is that when a soldier falls to the ground in agony and their comrades can see that he is only wounded, their reaction is to try and rescue the wounded soldier and to get them into safety. Thus the one bullet is effectively removing maybe three, or more, soldiers from the battle.

Yesterday I, with twelve other people, went on cycling trip through a dissused mine forty metres unders the ground. Cycling in the dark, with often only our bycycle headlights to show us the way, we were confronted with many obstacles and decision points. Sometimes the roof of the mine would suddenly become very low and we would have to duck or crawl to get through. At other times the way was relatively wide and high and we could pick up speed. The leader of the team would shout out instructions or words of warning such as: ‘Left’, ‘Right’, ‘duck’ or ‘stop’ etc. The idea was that each individual would shout out what the leader said so that the message got to the cyclist at the end of the chain. Sometimes the message needed to be returned, such as when the leader wanted to check if everyone was ok and keeping up.

Unfortunately there were a couple of young guys in the middle who were not taking this as seriously as the rest of us and sometimes they would either forget to pass on the message or even twist the words so that the wrong message was received. The result was that on more than one occasion the back half of the team found themselves (unknowingly) going in the completely wrong direction.

The mine was a labarynth and needed expert guides to navigate it. So you can imagine that with more the 70Km’s of tunnels and every one of them looking almost exactly the same, it became very hazadous, in terms of getting the whole team back to base. The rule was that if you thought you were lost you must stop and wait. The problem was that on some bikes the lamps went out when the bike was not moving, which effectively meant standing still in the pitch dark!

The experience made me realize that when riding through the caves, the team was effectively a chain and that in this situation the real challenge was not the physical and mental effort required by each of the team members to get us back to base safely – but communication. People often tend to incorrectly blame poor team performance on ‘communication’ (which annoys me intensely) but in this case, deep under the ground in the dark, it most certainly was the key ellement to success, apart from being careful not to bash your head on the roof of the cave!

So the weakest link is only relevant to team work analysys when really the team is a real chain, and to be honest, I am not sure how often that is in modern business life. So if someone says to you 'you are the weakest link, goodbye' then take some comfort at least in the fact that it was most likely the selection process that failed and not you!

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