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Teamwork and dragon boating: another perspective

One of the great things about Intergen is the life outside the day-to-day rhythm of meetings and project work, such as the sporting activities on offer. Admittedly, I have never had an active, long-term interest in sports, however this year I thought I'd try something new and join Intergen's dragon boat team – a.k.a. the Yellow Raptors.

So what attracted me to dragon boating?

In short, it was the team spirit. Yes, there are other benefits as well, such as improving fitness, but I had seen the camaraderie among the team in previous years and wanted to be a part of it. Don't get me wrong - there have been projects during work where I've been part of a great team, but there have been times where I wanted to feel part of a wider team than my project team of the time - especially on the few projects where the team consisted mainly of me and the project manager.

Naturally, many things in life are not 'plain sailing', which is where teams become handy to help share the load. There is also an art/science to getting such a team to work effectively as a single unit. Every team member obviously needs to put in the effort to pull the boat forward, and co-ordinate this in the most efficient way. It stands to reason that every team member should also be headed in the same direction to achieve the same shared goal. As my mentor said (himself a dragon boater of previous years), there is no room for people's egos; yet there are naturally times where different team members would disagree on particular details. On one hand this is good - we are all different and can bring alternative, valid viewpoints to the table; however this should not be allowed to disrupt the progress of the team. We are all heading in the same direction, after all.

During training, there have been a few interesting exercises and experiences that have illustrated some of these concepts:

  • Up to half the team paddles while the rest sit there for the ride (at least, until their turn). As a result, the boat travels slower than when everyone is involved, hence it takes longer to cover the same distance. Plus, those who are paddling exert more effort overall. The boat goes even slower when a few of the non-paddlers are 'holding water', in other words actively disrupting progress.
  • Half the boat paddles in the opposite direction to the other half (a.k.a. tug-of-war). The result: torture. It becomes much more difficult to make each stroke and wears out every member of the team faster. The whole exercise probably lasts less than two minutes, but it feels longer. Obviously, the boat basically goes nowhere.
  • Different team members paddle out of time to each other (unintentionally). The good thing is that the boat still makes significantly more progress than when half the team rests. The bad thing is that paddles collide with each other, and the progress isn't as optimal as when everyone is in synchronisation. This may be caused by a number of things, such as lack of clear communication, inconsistent communication, or people's different interpretations of the messages received.

These concepts also apply to the world of software projects (or other business projects, of which software may be just one factor):

  • All team members should be actively contributing to move the project forward as effectively as possible. However, the different roles within a team mean that a particular member would sometimes not be able to make progress 100% of the time, simply because he or she may not be needed on the project at certain periods. This is often seen with our designers, who work on multiple projects concurrently, simply because there is no need for developing visual and/or interaction design on every single day throughout the project, for example.
  • Disruptive members hold the team back from achieving its full potential, though it can be a sensitive topic on how to deal with them - whether it's somehow 'making them' perform productively, or transferring them out of the team. In most cases, people aren't intentionally disruptive – this may be the result of lack of morale for certain reasons (more on this later), or disagreement taken to the extreme.
  • All team members should act to move the project in the same direction, though it is usually uncertain how exactly to get there before the path is travelled. This is where disagreement arises from different members' differing viewpoints. If this disagreement develops into conflict, the project stops moving (or crawls in the direction of the stronger member). An interesting debate is if two halves are pulling in opposite directions, which half is the disruptive half?
  • Communication is essential to synchronise the team for maximum efficiency. Without it, differing assumptions and expectations can cause many a conflict. Lack of communication and co-ordination is also a cause of the scenario where one team member is looking for work to do while another is overloaded with work.

So where does team spirit come into this? After all, a recent discussion amongst the team revealed a sense that there is something missing this year from the team spirit of previous years. Yet in each practice session we have all been steadily improving our technique, both individually and as a team.

It all comes down to morale. As humans we respond to positive reinforcement. As parenting shows would tell us, children respond positively to encouragement and genuine praise. It is the same for us as adults. On the receiving end, we like to feel emotionally well, and will therefore pursue whatever it takes for us to feel good (or at least lessen the pain). Applied to an entire team, a high sense of shared morale/team spirit would allow its members to enjoy being together and show it. There are a couple of factors needed for team spirit to thrive:

  • Respect. Team members need to respect each other and their differences to be able to get along, otherwise tensions can grow and the task becomes somewhat unpleasant.
  • Positive attitude. As was expressed at the start of a European tour I did last year, a positive (or negative) attitude has a ripple effect. If one person expresses their positivity, it improves the morale of those around them and the team as a whole. Conversely, a negative attitude drags down team morale.

So what am I saying here about the team spirit in our dragon boating team? Rather than imply any lack of respect or positivity, I believe that with a new team, it takes time (as well as the right environment) to build up that team spirit to a similar level to that of previous years as we get to know each other better and become more comfortable with each other. That is why it often feels awkward when someone becomes part of an existing group that has already 'got it'.

Don't underestimate morale. It's not some happy-clappy mumbo-jumbo. It is a great source (perhaps the greatest source) of motivation. We need that motivation to help us pull that boat through the water.

Posted by: Daniel McGaughran, Developer | 03 March 2009

Tags: Dragon Boating, Teamwork

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