Building High-Performance Teams: Lessons from the Himalayas
What can a motorcycle trip to the Himalayas tell us about building successful teams? Drawing comparisons between my recent road trip and management research, I outline four points that can guide effective teamwork: strategic leadership, open communication, adaptability and boundary spanning.
As they say about the whole being more than the sum of all parts, we humans can achieve much more when we work together as a team. Be it hunting-gathering, building pyramids, discovering bosons or exploring new galaxies. And we all like to be part of winning teams at that, be it as hypercompetitive 6-year old’s in a little league match or college students building the next unicorn. But, if team-work is critical to our success, why is it so hard to herd a pack of Homo sapiens into high-performing teams?
Humans, as you may have noticed, are not uniformly designed modules. Each specimen is unique and can only fit with some but never all other specimens. In fact, the unpredictability of human-human interactions make teams a complex system. You see it all around, from human teams, to local weather, and the universe (read Chaos by James Gleick). Reams have been written on this, but understanding complex systems and teams is still a work in progress.
Last summer, after completing my PhD in Business Strategy, I spent a few weeks riding a motorcycle across the Himalayas. It was an exciting adventure of a lifetime with a group of riders from around the world and scaling some of the highest motorable passes in the world! Looking back at that amazing journey, I could see parallels between my trip experiences and approaches to managing teams. Every team or organization is trying to get to some place: a new product, an IPO, a baseball championship or becoming a market leader. So, combining my road trip experiences with fresh-from-thesis-writing management literature, I share a few thoughts and guidelines on how we can make teamwork effective, and the journey fun for all.
1. Follow the Leader’s Instructions
By no means was our itinerary easy: 1000 miles in physically exacting terrain, off-road riding 8–10 hours a day, and dodging erratic truck drivers. We drove through waist-deep glacier melts, battled high-altitude mountain sickness, and spent cold nights without heat or electricity. However, what made it all manageable was that prior to the trip (organized by Ride of My Life) we were told what to expect and bring with us — from warm gear to medications.
Even though we were all experienced riders, we were instructed on safe riding techniques for that terrain, and the importance of pacing ourselves responsibly. Every day before we started, the team leader laid out the day’s plan, reiterated the rules and ensured that people stuck to plan. Following the leader’s instructions and detailed planning helped us handle the harsh terrain and reach our destinations safely every day.
Leaders need to know where they going, visualize the path forward and plan for different contingencies as far as possible. Every team aims to reach their goals, but most will fail if they lack strategic execution and detailed planning. Without clear objectives and instructions, members can formulate their own ideas of how to proceed, which may not be in-line with management’s vision (see articles by Porter, Lorch & Nohria & Haas & Mortensen ). Leaders should state clear goals, give teams as much information as possible and follow through on a regular basis.
2. Watch out for Signals
We were taught specific hand signals to use for communication while on the road (e.g. overtaking, bike breakdown). On one occasion, I passed by a teammate parked by the roadside but did not see his “All OK” hand signal, so immediately turned back to check on him. His engine had died and he was figuring out what to do. Another time, other riders stopped to help a teammate who had taken ill while driving.
Throughout the journey, having an agreed-upon signaling system ensured that we were quick to not only ask for, but also offer help. These simple cross-checks made sure that we could help each other recover from setbacks, and get the team back on the road with minimal time lost.
Swim together and you won’t sink alone. Transparency and open communication create bi-directional awareness, reduce the impact of surprises, and allow teams to work together and cope should difficult situations arise. Teams that communicate often and clearly will be able to solve problems collaboratively (see Edmondson’s work). When teams create conditions and signaling mechanisms for open communication & action (e.g. Toyota’s Kanban system) — team members can signal when in trouble, recover rapidly from failures and quickly get back on the path to success.
3. Stay Calm and Adapt
Half-way through the trip one of my wrists started to act up. Repetitive stress injuries from writing and coding flared up due to the long hours of riding. So, I decided to skip a 3-day loop circuit, and instead take a few days off in the ancient city of Leh.
This forced break was therapeutic for many unexpected reasons. It allowed me to interact with the locals, visit old monasteries, and enjoy the local culture. This unexpected event really recharged me, and helped me appreciate the rest of the trip even more.
Unexpected things happen! Obstacles and unexpected roadblocks will inevitably occur in any setting requiring team work. In today’s fast paced markets, disruptive new technologies, business models or products can startle well-laid out plans and team projects. Being open to alternative courses, pivoting the team in a new direction or reconfiguring strategies can lead to new market opportunities and rewards. Organizational research suggests that dynamic capabilities and adaptive strategies can help teams evolve and move forward during periods of upheaval (see Teece and D’Aveni’s work). For instance, AirBnB did not start out as an online hospitality company and there’s no telling how WeWork or Facebook will evolve. Be flexible, and do not be afraid to course-correct!
4. Boundary Spanners: Unique Skill Sets are a Competitive Advantage
On the trip the riders bonded over meals, exchanging stories and learning about each other’s lives and experiences spread over four continents. While most of us spoke English with various accents, two of the riders could only speak Hindi. How do we solve this problem to stay a team if we speak different languages?
As luck would have it, I had picked up Hindi from my wife (a native speaker) over the years, and was able to translate between and bridge the two groups to some extent. Importantly, I was able to understand conversations and cultural nuances, which helped me connect with new friends and greatly enriched my experience.
Social network scientists see the world as connected objects in a giant network. Individuals that connect to different areas have strategic benefits. For example, a biologist with programming skills can tap into two separate knowledge areas to solve problems (i.e. they are boundary spanners). Research indicates that boundary spanners have access to diverse knowledge and are better positioned to solve problems (see articles by Krackhardt and Cross & Prusak). In the workplace, interdisciplinary skillsets can be very valuable in solving problems, partly by their ability to relate to and connect different components of a diversified team. Leaders can leverage these unique skill sets by placing boundary spanners in critical positions to strengthen their teams; likewise employees who connect across disciplines can become more valuable in the organizational network.
To recap, I have highlighted four points that apply to building great teams: strategic leadership, open communication, adaptability and boundary spanning. Of course, not every point will apply to every team and their specific context. But, if you keep an eye on team dynamics and constantly find ways to improve — as a team leader or member, you can bring out the best in everyone and attain your goals. As Martin Lorentzon, the cofounder of Spotify elegantly puts it: “The value of a company (or team) is the sum of the problems you solve together.”
Enjoy the ride!
(Photos in the article were taken on the trip and belong to Sebastian Jayaraj. Please cite this article and source if you are sharing content or pictures.)