If you’re going through hell, keep going.
— Winston Churchill
Author Dennis Perkins pens his latest leadership book, Into the Storm. The author tells the story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart sailboat race in a concise and entertaining fashion. I found myself flying through page after page to see how the story ends.
The author paints a picture of turbulent storm conditions: 80 foot waves and 105-mile-an-hour winds. While many boats decided to sail around the storm, the crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler choose to head into the storm and sail through it.
The decision to go through the storm along with the crew’s talent and teamwork enabled the Rambler’s team to beat professional sailers on larger and better funded boats.
After studying the treacherous 1998 race — and the Midnight Rambler’s journey of victory —Mr Perkins delivers enlightened lessons on teamwork and self organizing teams.
The author divides the book into two main parts. The story, and the strategies for teamwork at the edge. The teamwork section refers to examples from the story to reinforce concepts. Mr. Perkins’ concept of self organizing teams aligns with concepts from the world of Agile software development.
The author is spot on with his view of self organizing teams, their need to practice and create real options. He also debunks the notion that teams can simply grow and organize without leadership. Teams need a leader. Teams need a skipper.
The author describes several strategies for teamwork. Let’s look at two of them.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Teams facing challenges need to prepare for every contingency.
The Rambler had multiple systems in place for planning and preparation. While the skipper is focused on steering, other crew members are thinking about sea conditions and the next leg of the race.
Successful teams master the art of bifocal vision. They have the ability to focus on current challenges while preparing for longer-term opportunities. They know how to prepare and race at the same time.
Agile Development teams know how to plan and sprint at the same time. During a two-week development sprint, they also prepare the product backlog for the next sprint. Being Agile is a trait that even the Marine Corp embraces.
The author tells the story of the US Marines assault on Fallujah in the fall of 2004. After several days of intense fighting, the battle was not going as planned. About the battle, General Richard Natonski said, “Plans very seldom survive their first contact with the enemy. Fallujah was no different.”
What was different? The planning team had prepared a contingency plan. Like a quarterback calling an audible, General Natonski dialed up the new plan and won the battle of Fallujah.
To capture the spirit of flexibility, General Richard Natonski uses the phrase, “Semper Gumby.” Gumby was a sixties flexible clay cartoon character who could be twisted in any manner imaginable.
For the Marines, Semper Gumby means always flexible.
And having flexible systems increases the team’s speed and creative capacity.
Teams that win under extreme conditions share two qualities: determination and creativity. Innovation comes not from a brain trust seated in Semi Valley, instead the team doing the work sparks a new idea.
Under adverse and limiting conditions, the crew of the Midnight Rambler often invented ways to continue racing. When they lost a wind instrument, they created a device to detect wind speeds. The crew was determined to finish a race or win the whole thing by innovating.
Ed Psaltis, skipper of the Rambler, said this about the team’s attitude, “There is always another move, and another option.”
I’ve briefly touched on two of ten strategies for teamwork. After reading the book, I thought about how much the strategies could help Agile teams, or anyone who believed in the power of teams. This is one of the few books I've found that gives practical advice for leading self organizing teams.