Top tips for teamwork under pressure

This weekend I crewed in a yacht race in the Solent, invited by some of the people featuring in the pics on this website, and it taught me some valuable lessons about teamwork under pressure that can be applied to many business situations.  I knew half the crew quite well, having sailed on a range of boats with them, but the others were complete strangers before meeting up on the Friday night.  By the end of the weekend we had achieved a creditable third place in the regatta on a 40-foot yacht none of us had sailed before.  Yacht racing involves mastering complex maneouvres with heavy loads, highly variable winds and tides, plus the actions of competing boats, all under time pressure, and with the added stress of a hefty damage deposit in event of a collision.  We made many mistakes, but there were a few factors that helped us, and these are the ones that I believe can be applied to any team working under pressure:

1. Clear roles

Jobs on a yacht need to be divided up carefully; playing to people’s strengths, fitness levels, preferences and sailing experience.  On Friday night we decided who was to helm, do tactics, navigate, run the bow, operate the winches and trim the sheets.  Each had their station on the boat, and for some tricky manouevres each task was broken down by the role.

2. Risk-free dry runs

Before the first race we practised some manouevres, without pressure of race or heavy weather.  This meant we could get used to new kit, co-ordinate each  move, and work out ways to optimise the set-up, such as changing which winch to use for a particular sheet so it didn’t snag, or where to stand to trim the sails.  The risk-free environment built confidence and helped the whole team to co-ordinate their actions.

3. Continuous observation

In a yacht race the wind and the competitive situation – and the world outside the race course – are always changing, plus there’s  the risk of gear failure, so as well as carrying out their own task, each team member was continually spotting tacking boats, the next mark, gusts, lobster pots, snags in the rigging and oncoming merchant shipping, and feeding this back to the team in a real-time commentary.

4. Decision by debate

Helm and tactician were continually discussing the next step, providing instructions to the crew, and listening in to feedback from the spotters.   While busy eyes down on a winch, or eyes up trimming a spinnaker, the whole team could tune into the “race radio” to learn what was happening and anticipate the next manouevre.  Tactical judgements such as when to tack or gybe, or which route to take to the next mark became a transparent debate as information was fed back and the options considered.  This could get heated, but it probably resulted in better decisions.

5. Never giving up

Managing setbacks and retrieving the situation from inevitable mistakes is crucial.  We all react emotionally to missed opportunities and poor decisions or execution. Being able to restore the team’s confidence and get on with the next challenge is essential.  In one race we had a late start, had to take action to avoid an Isle of Wight ferry, and had a troubled spinnaker hoist, but still kept working on the details and managed to win the race by a few seconds.

For me, the parallels with project management under pressure are clear: taking the time to allocate roles, provide risk-free dry runs, and encouraging all to observe and feedback, with transparent decision-making, and good management of setbacks are important to any team attempting a task under pressure.

If you have experiences to share on principles of good teamwork, please comment below.  I’m going to apply some of these principles to my next big project, managing the second Specialist Media Show on 25 May 2011.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan runs the Specialist Media Show, an exhibition, conference and workshop programme for specialist media professionals.  She also runs a consultancy, Penmaen Media, which creates digital media and marketing strategies for media organisations and small businesses.