Travel to Mars is probably within our grasp, if we're clever. In one scenario, we prepare the way with robotic missions that establish a constellation of GPS and communications satellites; deliver supplies, power plants, ground vehicles, landers, and return vehicles; find resources for mining fuel, oxygen, and water; and construct smelters, launch facilities and habitat. By the time people arrive much of the work is already done.
Still, making the trip would mean years of isolation and confinement, when perhaps the most daunting challenge would be maintaining functional relationships among the astronauts. We might want to put the explorers into an extended sleep state, not so much to save on life support, but to reduce the likelihood of interpersonal disasters.
Choosing the right combination of personalities would be a key to success. We're beginning to make significant advances in our understanding of personality, but assembling high-performance teams — and maintaining their functionality in stressful conditions — is another matter. We know a lot less about that.
The technology of interpersonal relations might not yet be up to this challenge. Certainly, if we look around at our project teams, we can find few that could tolerate a trip to Mars. Would yours make the cut?
Since a high-stress project can often feel like a trip to the moon, if not Mars, it's helpful to know what the experts look for in members of such teams. We all can exhibit these traits when we want to, in both polarities. Which polarity is best? It depends on the situation.
Here are some of the dimensions to consider.
- Openness to new ideas, approaches, and experiences makes it possible for teams to transcend the capabilities of any of their members.
- Determination to stand by your beliefs can protect your team from groupthink or trips to Abilene. See "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002, and "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001, for more.
- A high-stress project
can feel like a trip
to the moon,
if not Mars
- Volunteerism, yielding in conflict, empathy for others, and frankness about yourself, help your team get through the rough patches.
- Loyalty in opposition, and a willingness to raise objections, ensures that your team faces its doubts and the hard realities before it commits to a course of action.
- Reliability, organization, a results orientation, and a drive to completion help the team stay focused on the mission.
- A willingness to deviate from cherished principles if circumstances demand it can help the team deal with extreme situations, especially emergencies. See "Managing Technical Emergency Teams," and "Declaring Condition Red," Point Lookout for August 22, 2001, for more.
- An outgoing, charming manner lifts spirits and both provides and supports leadership, especially when the team celebrates or faces challenges.
- When confronting difficult, complex problems, comfort with quiet and with solitude can produce novel first-of-a-kind solutions.
Although many of us prefer one particular pattern of response, choosing the approach that best meets the team's needs in a given situation is the real challenge. If you want to make it to Mars, look for people who can tolerate and celebrate differences in others. Top Next Issue
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
For more on human factors in spaceflight, see M. Ephimia Morphew, Psychological and Human Factors in Long Duration Spaceflight McGill Journal of Medicine 6: 74-80, 2001. Available at www.medicine.mcgill.ca/mjm/v06n01/v06p074/v06p074.pdf. For more on models of personality, see, for example, www.personalityresearch.org
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- When Meetings Boil Over
- At any time, without warning, you can find yourself in a meeting that boils over. Sometimes tempers
rise, then voices rise, and then people yell and scream. What can a team do when meetings threaten to
boil over — and when they do?
- Abraham, Mark, and Henny
- Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual
quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make
things so complicated?
- Dealing with Deadlock
- At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try
to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
- Unnecessary Boring Work: II
- Workplace boredom can result from poor choices by the person who's bored. More often boredom comes from
the design of the job itself. Here's Part II of our little catalog of causes of workplace boredom.
- Ethical Debate at Work: II
- Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others,
but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates
toward wise outcomes.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 23: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX
- An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
- And on May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
- When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbreneOfNaUmQwSapZoICner@ChacalZaKShOONMrotZsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
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- Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
- This program
outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For
many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational
change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization,
because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological
assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We
can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior
of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential
elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But
this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case
not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor.
Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt
so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies
for the modern enterprise. Read more about
this program. Here's a date for this program:
- Wyndham Springfield City Centre, 700 East Adams Street, Springfield,
Illinois 62701: June 12,
Monthly Meeting, Central
Illinois Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Wyndham Springfield City Centre, 700 East Adams Street, Springfield, Illinois 62701: June 12, Monthly Meeting, Central Illinois Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald
Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen
had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished.
As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
development. Read more about this program. Here's
a date for this program:
- Fifth Third Bank, 5717 Madison Road, Cincinnati, OH 45227:
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- Fifth Third Bank, 5717 Madison Road, Cincinnati, OH 45227: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
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- Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
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- …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.