Going to Mars: lessons for teamwork on Earth


Shared by 
Scott Tannenbaum
The Group for Organizational Effectiveness, President

Scott Tannenbaum, President of the Group for Organizational Effectiveness, explains how the science of teamwork in space can help us to be better leaders and teammates here on earth. Discover Scott's research and work with NASA to prepare for human exploration of Mars in the next decades. Find out how the science of team effectiveness can help manage and sustain team cohesion, coordination, and teamwork so that your organization can thrive during any situation.

The challenge: Cohesion, Coordination and Teamwork 

Let’s be honest, teamwork can be challenging at the best of times, but the last two years have taken the challenge to whole new heights: the global pandemic has pushed many teams to quickly switch to remote working, and even now with some tentative shoots of recovery emerging - hybrid ways of working look set to remain. For organizations to thrive, it will take cohesion, coordination and of course the holy grail - teamwork.

We all recognize those moments when a team really comes together, and whether we’re a part of that team or witnessing it on the football field – it’s a joy to behold.  But what are the assets of good teamwork?  How can we create team alignment on a daily basis given our remote working, and how can we work well as part of a virtual team?

According to Scott Tannenbaum, President of the Group for Organizational Effectiveness, there is a significant amount of synergy between preparing for human exploration of Mars and the challenges many organizations are currently facing. 

Tannenbaum understands good teamwork and working with NASA has shown him how the science of teamwork in space can help us be better leaders and teammates here on earth. 

The solution: The Seven “C’s” of Teamwork 

According to Tannenbaum, what makes great teams great is their ability to learn and adapt and this can be very much observed at NASA, where a great part of the work they do is virtual because there is quite simply no other choice! 

NASA understand the importance of teamwork and they also know that the situations their teams are working in can be incredibly complex to overcome.

Of course, we’re not all planning to go to Mars, but we still need to be able to work together for organizations to succeed. From a practical approach, this means good teamwork skills in addition to technical skills. 

Tannenbaum points out that there is a growing body of empirical research that can really help us crack the code of why teams are effective or ineffective, and in most cases, the findings are relevant whether you are going to Mars or working in your local supermarket.

In the case of NASA, teams are working under great pressure in confined spaces and high-risk scenarios. In this kind of high-pressure environment, everything is exaggerated and amplified – so is efficient and effective teamwork, as well as team decision-making which is absolutely vital.

Tannenbaum sets out the common attributes we see in highly effective teams via his Seven “C’s”: Capability, Cooperation, Coordination, Communication, Cognition, Coaching and Conditions. He points out that there is a common misconception that teamwork is the only way to avoid poor performance, but he argues that this isn’t in fact the case – you need the right knowledge, skills and experience to be a successful team.

Virtual working can exaggerate some of the risk factors that often derail team effectiveness, and fault lines typically appear when teams lack a clear sense of purpose and responsibility.   And with no water cooler opportunities, performing and sustaining shared mental models can be more difficult. 

But Klaxoon is all about those moments when teams come together and collaborate efficiently. And by ensuring visual alignment and synchronization across multiple time zones, it helps teams make very real progress.

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Klaxoon also makes it easier to keep track of information, with one central place to share it and enabling all team members to contribute and comment. A lot of teams are also using the Klaxoon tools to hold debriefs – so that they can learn from what’s happened and plan ahead.

The result: Reflect and Plan for Success

Tannenbaum’s research shows that debriefs are a contributing factor to success for teams across the Board. In fact, evidence suggests that on average, teams that carry out systematic and periodic debriefs outperform other teams by 20-25% - which is a significant margin.

While working with the US Navy, Tannenbaum and his team taught prospective commanding officers how to debrief, then ran an experiment with simulated combat. Teams with a leader who knew how to run structured debriefs outperformed other teams by a staggering 40%.  And to be clear, that’s without anything technical being taught, just how to reflect and learn from their experiences!

Whether in the military, medicine or the corporate world, it’s true that highly effective teams are not necessarily great from day one, which is why a regular period of reflection and adjustment is so important. After all, experience doesn’t guarantee learning, it merely provides an opportunity which the best teams are able to fully use.

So, if someone asks what’s the least expensive way to build team performance, the answer is surely to build debriefs into your repertoire. They don’t have to be long and complex, and they shouldn’t be deployed only when something bad happens – and rather embraced as part of usual business.

For those new to debriefs, Tannenbaum has this advice: start out with discipline and it will soon become a habit. He suggests using your business cycle – the rhythm of your work, to dictate the frequency of debriefs, with the caveat that holding them too frequently or for too long may mean your teams ends up overwhelmed. Better to start out small than not to start at all.

As business leaders, he suggests you ask questions more than you answer them, and try not to be the first voice in the room.

For those who argue that they are too busy to debrief, Klaxoon can help. With a wide set of Templates that can easily be prepared in advance, you could argue that it would be foolish to ignore the statistics and not debrief.

After all, it’s looking increasingly likely that hybrid working is here to stay, so making teamwork fit in this new world is really not negotiable. Fortunately, Klaxoon has the tools to make it that little bit easier for you – and to make virtual working just as effective as its pre-pandemic counterpart.

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