I’ve been thinking about teams recently, and in particular the types of teams that are brought together where nobody really knows anyone beforehand, but where they are expected to start work and be productive pretty much immediately.

Take, for example, flight crews on aircraft, particularly with bigger airlines. Everyone has a role to perform: pilots and co-pilots, cabin crew and so on. They get to the airport, get onto the plane and are up and running pretty much immediately without ever having necessarily seen each other before.

The roles that they have are super-defined. They in many cases are actually scripted (“there are two emergency exits at the rear of the aircraft…”). Everyone knows what they are there to do. And they are also well drilled in what to do in the event of an emergency when the nature of the role changes from the comfort of passengers to their mortal safety.

Take, for another example, film crews. Again, groups of people who are often strangers to one another (although more likely to see people bringing in people with whom they have worked in the past), and who are expected to get up and running quickly. The codification with film crew roles is very tight – for example, it’s possible for people to write about them like this: https://rosstinney.com/2019/06/18/who-does-what-in-a-film-crew-heres-30-production-roles/

The situation and the (literal) script are different from film set to film set, but again having tightly defined and (presumably) well-understood roles helps everyone to know what they are supposed to be doing.

What would happen, however, if you brought half a film crew and half an airline crew to make a movie? Or vice versa to fly a plane?

There would be some roles where the technical knowledge missing would be overwhelming. Putting a pilot in charge of a Panavision camera or a cameraperson in charge of a Boeing are both terrifying, one maybe more so than the other. There are other roles where it might be assumed that it would be easier for people to pick things up on the job, and they are also where there is probably a startling amount of expertise which means that that isn’t the case.

But far more fundamentally with so many people missing, the experts in the field would struggle to cope. Would everyone even acknowledge that there were big issues? Maybe so if everyone turned up in their usual “uniforms”.

What about if this half-and-half team were tasked to do something completely unfamiliar? Be the pit crew for a car-racing team, perhaps? I can imagine two scenarios one possibly more likely than the other. The less likely scenario is that people would stick rigidly to their know roles. The Gaffer from the film crew would dogmatically sort out the lighting. The Cabin Crew would religiously check the driver was wearing his seatbelt over his blanket.

Everyone would get very frustrated because they individually would know that they were performing their own role correctly, but wouldn’t understand why this wasn’t leading to their expected results.

That seems ludicrous. What is more likely to happen is that everyone would acknowledge that they were in an unfamiliar circumstance, that they could acknowledge that they had different skills and experiences to bring to the party, and would try to muddle through the unfamiliarity as best they could. They’d probably be a terrible pit crew. But at least they’d come together to try to sort the issue.

In work, sometimes, we assume that we have the right people around us to do the job. That everyone knows what they are doing. That what they are doing is the right thing in the circumstances. And all of those assumptions, if not tested, can cause huge amounts of friction in the ways in which people work with one another. Because, let’s be honest, in technology not that many of us work in roles which are as neatly and consistently defined as the crews that staff aeroplanes, film sets and race car pits.

One thought on “Model teams

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