The best teams are more than a collection of talents – they are a unit directed towards a single purpose. But assembling the right team can be an enormous challenge in itself and requires a mix of raw talents, clear direction and timely management.
There is a hotbed of performance in the European particle physics laboratory, Cern, straddling the Swiss-French border just outside Geneva.
Two Nobel prizes have been won for the work done in its labyrinth of halls and tunnels. The World Wide Web was born there and in the famous Large Hadron Collider (LHC), it is looking increasingly likely that scientists have recorded one of the fundamental and mysterious building blocks in the universe: the Higgs boson.
The strange fact about Cern’s talent requirements is that they are for engineers rather than physicists. The LHC is a 27km-long underground particle accelerator, where, inside the coldest and most complete vacuum on earth, particles are smashed together at nearly the speed of light. The ATLAS detector attached to it contains more iron than the Eiffel Tower and holds some of the strongest magnets on the planet. Put plainly, these machines require armies of highly specialised and well-drilled teams.
It’s no surprise that technical staff outnumber Cern’s physicists ten to one. Pascale Goy, Head of Learning and Development at Cern, says: “The machines do need to be upgraded and maintained. When that happens, the usual work has to stop. The stress moves from the physicists to the technicians and for 18 months we need new teams as many of our people have to change their jobs and activities.”
The basis for Cern’s high-performing teams is raw talent. It attracts candidates from NASA, international infrastructure, and the mining, oil and gas sectors.
Case study - A motivated team with a clear objective can achieve astonishing results
Although there were only two people in the vehicle when Major Matt O’Hare and Corporal Phillip Gillespie crossed the Dakar Rally’s finish, there was no doubt about the extraordinary team effort required to get them there.
The duo were part of Race2Recovery, a group predominantly drawn from British and American wounded ex-service personnel, and the first disabled competitors to complete the famously gruelling race, in which 35 per cent of the entire field failed to negotiate the 9,000km of extreme mountain and desert terrain in temperatures nudging 40oC.
Race2Recovery was co-founded by Captain Tony Harris and Corporal Tom Neathway who, like several members of the team, had lost limbs in combat. Aided by a shared military background, they took just 18 months to assemble the group of strangers into a fully functional off-road raceteam.
High-performance teams create an environment that allows each member to function to optimum effect. They have both complementary and interchangeable skills and, crucially, develop an interdependence that becomes stronger the tougher the challenge.
“It was quite amazing to see the lengths that people were prepared to go, to be part of the team, and see the car finish,” says Captain Harris.
“You need to have incredibly high levels of teamwork to take part in the Dakar Rally,” he says. “Despite a number of incidences of bad luck or disaster, I’m incredibly proud that the team didn’t buckle. That was all down to the resilience of some of the main characters and a shared focus.”