viernes, 8 de julio de 2011

The secret to success: Teamwork.

I must say that during most of my years in school I strongly relied on my capacity to excel in exams by exploiting the good memory I used to have. I would always wait until the last minute and cram all the information in my head right before the exam. It was not until my College days that I started to realize that no man is an island. Indeed, heroes, stars and leaders require from others to rise up. A leader without followers is usually just a schizophrenic with dreams of "grandeur". Although we stress that  outperforming in today's society requires us to be competitive and gifted with the individual skill of entrepreneurship, humanity managed to survive in a highly hostile environment by forming groups and societies. 

The outcome of poor team coordination,
natures extremes + human vulnerability = Disaster!
We swallowed tons of Nile water.
My father has always been a strong advocate of high performance team work. He would repeatedly mention to his selfish son that no one needs little stars or geniuses. That the secret to success lies in being able to form balanced teams of people with complementary skills and characters. I learned the hard way in the world of consulting that doing the best analytics was not enough if your client did not understand what you talk about and that if you were not capable of forging a good relationship with them your highly developed quantitative senses were not very useful in the real world. At the same time, people in the office, your coworkers, your boss, your subordinates will never support you if you work on your own even if it means money for everyone. During my years as a consultant I had some great successes but I have to say that I also had enormous failures. I succeeded because of my abilities as a consultant, computer engineer, extroverted personality and negotiation techniques, my failures were often related to social factors. I would convince myself that it was the clients fault, the providers faults, the taxi driver fault, my coworker fault. I got to the point of some quite unprofessional attitudes that made me loose one of my first subordinates in the company. It took quite some time, one amazing girlfriend and stepping away for a couple of months from my consultant career to realize everything I was doing wrong. It reduced to one single thing, I was not good at team working. 

I remember in 2009, in the midst of the "great recession", I started loosing some major contracts, everyone was at the time. I was so frustrated by the situation, one day I asked my father: "What can you do in such a situation". He said: "High performance team working". 

Even if you manage to stay in the boat,
loosing one of your teammates to the white waters
 usually means failure.
You loose paddling power, stability and moral.
All for one and one for all.
That year the company I used to work for managed to transmit the feeling of urgency to the whole office. I still do not know how we managed to ride the storm out. A combination of need for information from our clients as the car market was free falling, our fear to get fired, our desire to prove that crisis can mean opportunity and especially a motivated group of young professionals with diverse skills and backgrounds and thirst for running the extra mile managed to do the impossible and we, not only maintained revenue and reduced costs, managed to grow. When I finally left Urban Science to shift into the world of sustainable development I had finally learned to appreciate what a fine-tuned group of people can do when paddling together in the same direction. Team Work is the secret to great achievements. 

Joining the ranks of Ivy League graduate students, inserted me back in a world of individualism. In the country were individual freedom is praised as the most important value, in the city where there is no free lunch, in a university were each one is reaching for one's dream, teamwork is not so highly regarded. Envy, competition and ambition are common in Columbia. It is of course only half truth because I have also made some amazing friends and colleagues and teamwork also exists but success in academia depends on being the best. I have met some amazing people in Columbia, but I have to say that PHD's and Master Students tend to work on their own, some people even decide to not work in groups for working on homework. 

As you start improving interpersonal skills you
avert total failure but half a failure is still a failure.
Plus you have to rescue the team one by one.
My Master in Development Practice classmates and I are dispersed all over the least-developed work, trying to contribute to organizations that focus on alleviating poverty in these development-forgotten areas of the world. We are all discovering that we have to rely on others to do our work. Whether fetching a project car to go to a meeting, obtaining data from the local team, organizing a meeting with the coffee farmers, preparing the logistics for a sanitation training or receiving support from New York, we are back in a situation where you have to rely on others to achieve your goals. An let me tell you, grad students at this level don't like to rely on others, we are little stars that want to shine on their own. And of course it doesn't work...

We had a fantastic trip to raft on the Nile this past week end. We discussed about the possibilities of contracting schistosomiasis from the still waters of this tropical river. We took the risks of braking a bone in the level 5 rapids. But most importantly we risked ourselves to get on the same boat with six other individuals with different physical capacities and experience. Rafting is all about synchronizing efforts and following instructions. Forward, back, left forward, right back. Simple instructions, but once you are paddling to avoid turning flipping you discover that you are actually with a bunch of lazy paddlers that have absolutely no coordination capacities... right? Wrong, again it is all about trust and team work, you need two good leaders that coordinate their paddling, with strength, not rushing like a madmen with rapid strokes but with deep strong paddling. Oh Hisse! Oh Hisse! The rest must follow this rythm, have bad leaders and you will fail to navigate the rapids. If you fail to balance the strengths between sides you will be turning instead of going forward. If your people get scared in the middle of the rapid and hide inside the boat you will fail. 

You need the brain, the heart and the guts to succeed. 

Perfect coordination!
We tipped twice in the first two rapids, swallowed tons of water, probably got the nasty worm and irritated our guide and ourselves. We tried several combinations of leadership, we tried to stay on the boat, rescued our team members when they fell to the water. And slowly, we started to understand that the secret to stay dry was to follow a good set of leaders, work hard, talk to each other and be ready to help one another. When we finally reached the final rapid we were one of the only teams to survive a triple rapid of whirlpools and enormous rocks. By the end of the day we were completely exhausted, in pretty bad shape and feeling a little bit defeated by the river. Once in the lodge we watched the video of our exploits that day. We saw our first failures, everyone paddling without any coordination, yelling at each other, hiding in the boat. As the video continued and we realized that we were one of the only teams to perform that bad I felt the need to write this post, we were terrible team workers. One japanese, three colombians, one nicaraguan, one american and myself, the mexican were completely incapable of agreeing on anything. It took some hours of hard comments, some trial and error with the leaders, a couple of people loosing their temper to start scoring some points. By the end we were (almost) like an perfectly oiled machine whose paddles moved in perfect harmony (exageration) and with individuals that were risking a little more than they would normally to put their paddle one or two extra times into the water. The video was amazing, we all grabbed one another and just yelled like cavewomen (because using men would be sexist!) while drinking our beers. We had bonded! 

The brains, the heart and the guts!
Yesterday I was talking to a Ugandan Colleague over some Waragi (the local drink) and Rolex (the local fast food) about the difference between Latin american poverty and development and the one of subsaharan Africa. It certainly seems like Latin america has managed to move forward while Africa has had some limited success. He told me that the problem in Uganda is that you belong to your tribe and then to your region and then to your country only because you were forced to. Governments benefit their clans and put obstacles on the rest. How can you move forward in this situation. Then aid comes and creates a situation of dependency that limits entrepreneurship even more. Corruption and disbelief in the future are the result, people stop believing in the common good and they decide to work by themselves for themselves (or not work at all, I must also say). 

Work together and you might face challenges
you thought impossible to overcome.
The world today looks a lot like this actually. We are aware that our current development paradigm is a failure (there is still even some groups of blind people that are unable to put things in perspective and acknowledge that the era of cheap development is over). Sustainable Development is no longer a matter of ethics or of just being nice. It has become a necessity. We are all in the same raft, we cannot keep making holes to the raft to fulfill our needs, we all need to paddle and we all have to move forward and we need to thing of those who will use the raft after us. I have discussed in previous posts the needs to shift our linear production/consumption system to a cyclical one, we need to decouple growth from fossil fuels and environmental degradation, we need to ensure a better distribution of wealth and we need to stop believing in the impossible idea of infinite economic growth (per capita) in a planet with limited resources. But we also need to work as a team, we need to become planetary citizens, we need to govern ourselves at the planetary level. We have to work together as a planetary society. Governments, corporations, entrepreneurs, organizations and institutions and especially the civil society urgently will have to learn how to manage common goods and avoid the scaling up of the outcomes in Easter Island. Humanity will have to overcome the terrible situation of the prisoner dilemma and game theory and start with real global cooperation. Maybe it is impossible, in which case we are probably going to tip the raft. Let's hope we don't swallow too much water...

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