Encountering Team Turbulence

In 2007, I had the opportunity to join a team of 12 to climb Aconcagua, a 23,000 foot mountain in the Andes of South America. While returning from setting up a high camp at 18,000 feet, our team encountered a bit of “turbulence.”

A fast approaching storm hit the group and in an instant we were engulfed in a storm cloud. I started feeling what I thought was hail hitting my head but soon realized it was static electricity.

Before I had time to react, I heard our guide shout “TURTLE!” Now, I had no idea what turtle meant in this context but I saw others take their backpacks off, throw them on the ground, and lay on them with their legs in the air so I followed their lead. We all looked like turtles laying on their back but, as it turns out, this was our best option to keep from getting struck from lightning when exposed to the elements.

I’ll never know if “turtleing” kept me from being struck by lightning that day but I still chuckle when I replay the image of 12 climbers laying on their backpacks with feet in the air. We survived the turbulence, we talked about the experience for days afterwards, and we became closer as a team because of it.

There is a good chance your team will hit unexpected turbulence from time to time. Servers or development environments go down. Production issues crop up. Half the team is out from an outbreak of the flu. A change in strategy comes from leadership with scope and dates mandated to the team. Personality conflicts emerge.

To be a truly agile team requires preparation. It’s too late to start installing seat belts after the turbulence has already started. I wasn’t ready for the turbulence our climbing group encountered but here’s a couple of tips to help prepare your team to navigate the unforeseen:

Promote a sense of adventure. Becoming a nimble team requires not just an ability to adjust to a situation but to thrive in it. Knowing there is a possibility for turbulence will allow the team to be ready mentally and anticipate how to react. They get better because of the turbulence. My colleague Si Alhir has written a thorough blog post about the topic of being ANTI-FRAGILE (based on the book by Nassim Taleb) and is worth reading.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

Experience life together. On our climb in 2007, complete strangers became a team in 3 weeks by experiencing the daily grind together. We had our meals together, we lounged around, we listened to stories about life back home. When we are at work, it’s amazing how often we forget our team mates have a life outside of the office. Find ways to learn more about each other and establish community. These connections will create the foundation for the team to emerge stronger when the inevitable turbulence strikes.

Rope up. When a team embraces the adventure and begins to experience life together, real trust emerges. When turbulence is met, the team rallies around each other to overcome. Challenges don’t seem so challenging and hard things don’t seem as hard. Climbers will often “rope up” when hitting a tough stretch of mountain. If one person slips or falls, the others will be there to keep them further harm. Who are you roped up with? Are there people on your team you would fully trust to rope up with?

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