Effective teamwork pays off for “los 33″

Not since the safe splashdown of Apollo 13 in 1970 has the world been so focussed on the lives of men in desperate straits as the events at the San Jose mine unfolded.

Camp Hope, set up in the Atacama desert 50km from the nearest town, lived up to its name as the rescue smoothly proceeded and families were re-united, emotions ran high, and the country celebrated and sensed it had been reborn.

Surely there will be books, films, docu-dramas and probably more personal drama as the miners attempt to return to some semblance of normality. Above all this proved what effective teamwork could achieve.

Hackman’s model of effective teams stands up well in this scenario. There was a team below the surface and there were teams of rescuers, all united in a single purpose – to rescue 33 miners from 2,000′ below the surface who had been there for 69 days in 90 degrees temperature and 90% humidity. Think Florida in the Summer but without the sunshine and AC.

Hackman’s 3 core conditions are:

  1. The team must be a real team, not just a group of people doing their own thing – are they dependent on each other, do they know who is in the team and who isn’t, do they know how much authority they had, was it a stable team?
  2. The team must have a compelling direction in its work. Did they have a vision which energised and engaged them?
  3. It has an enabling structure which facilitates rather than impedes. Did they see their work as meaningful, did they feel personally responsible for work outcomes, did they receive trustworthy feedback on what they were doing?

In this model leadership is about creating and maintaining the core conditions using whatever skills and expertise you have and regardless of whether or not you have a formal leadership position. We know that there was a shift supervisor who was respected by the men and accepted as their leader. From reports we have learned how he organised people into teams, assigned specific roles and structured their day with prayer sessions, exercise, and rest periods. And let’s not forget that for the first 17 days they were on their  own and left to their own resources not knowing how much people on the surface knew.

Hackman also identifies two supporting conditions:

  1. The team must operate within a supportive organisational context
  2. It has available ample and expert coaching in teamwork

Once contact was made with the surface the rescue teams sprang into action. Communications were established (the telecomms expert simply said he was asked to make contact with the 33 and that’s what he did). Engineers, medical staff, psychologists, experts from NASA, special forces, survival experts, and rescuers worked together – encouraged by the President (who apparently was advised not to become so personally involved as it was considered a political gamble).

The miners were advised on how to cope, inventors responded by designing items small enough to fit in the “doves” they used to transport items down to the men. Beds and boots were all made to be re-assembled down below. The Chilean Navy designed and built the Phoenix escape pod. I think the miners, and just as importantly for morale their families, knew that they did have support and expert advice.

Hackman argues that effective teams shape and exceed expectations, it become more capable as time goes on, and that individuals acquire new skills and knowledge and new perspectives. And there is a sense of fulfilment and the knowledge that the team really achieved something together, something to look back on with pride.

Something like this can be life-changing and it is possible that some of the miners may suffer from PTSD or some will want to do something different with their lives. For some they may never again enjoy the comradeship they felt underground. But for almost 70 days, culminating in that extraordinarily successful rescue, we were reminded how great we can be when we work together for a common purpose.

Apparently the President was advised not to become so personally involved as it was considered a political gamble and he wasn’t that popular at the beginning. For whatever reason he did become involved and showed a very human face with his wife and cabinet colleagues at his side.

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