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Enough Can Be Too Much – How Underdog Teams Can Win

Antiquated, a bit rusted, perpetually sinking and, by U.S. Navy standards, undermanned, the U.S.S. Blakely (FF-1072) should have been one of the worst ships in the fleet. But, she wasn’t.

The Little Ship That Could

Twenty-five years ago the U.S.S. Blakely was decommissioned, struck from the U.S. Navy’s list of ships, and scrapped for parts, steel and aluminum. Her crew was scattered about the fleet to serve on other ships. Before her demise, an overzealous sailor punched a hole through her thin hull while working in the bilge. The hole was in an awkward place, just over the stern tube where the shaft of her single engine emerged and connected to the screw. Fully repairing the hole was deemed too expensive for a ship her age. Thus, the incessantly seeping of water around the temporary patch meant that she was perpetually sinking.

She was a Knox-Class frigate constructed in the late 1960’s – one of forty-six other ships like her. The one engine she had was unreliable like most of her sister ships. On more than one occasion she went dark and quiet on the open ocean while her engineers coaxed life back into her.

She was a small ship, only one-thirtieth the size of a modern nuclear aircraft carrier.

She was supposed to have a crew of nearly 300 but the Blakely got by on just 180.

In March of 1991 I reported to the U.S.S. Blakely on my first assignment as a new naval officer. She was one of my first choices of assignments and I was excited for the opportunity to join her crew. In the Summer of 1989 I spent a short two-week training cruise aboard her and, despite all of her limitations and apparent inadequacies, I was excited and honored to join the crew permanently. You see, the U.S.S. Blakely was one of the finest ships in the fleet. In her homeport of Charleston, South Carolina, she was known as “The Mighty Battle Frigate Blakely” and “The Little Frigate that Could.”

The Blakely had won the Commodore’s Cup, an award that dozens of frigates and destroyers homeported in Charleston competed for annually. She also had won the Battle “E” Award for extraordinary combat and operational readiness for two years in a row. The third year’s competition had already begun when I reported aboard. Perhaps most impressively, though, she had also won a coveted “Golden Anchor” which entitled the Blakely to paint her prominent bow anchor a brilliant gold color. The golden anchor represented the highest retention rate of her ship class. In other words, her crew stayed in the Navy and onboard the ship after their obligated service was up. Service aboard the Blakely was something her crew cherished and enjoyed. The U.S.S. Blakely embodied excellence in every way.

How an old, antiquated, and poorly resourced ship could excel and distinguish itself among more modern and fully-resourced ships perplexed me at the time. How could Blakely’s excellence be explained?

The Blakely’s senior leaders were truly inspiring, enabling and empowering. They also cared about each and every member of the crew. Her Captain remains one of the best leaders with whom I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to serve. But, I don’t believe that was enough to explain her success. I’ve learned a lot about teams in the twenty-five years since I left the Blakely. I’ve worked with countless teams since then and I’ve noticed a peculiar, counter-intuitive trend – that teams smaller than what conventional wisdom or practice establishes as appropriate tend to have an advantage. And, when the stakes are set against such teams, they step up to meet the challenge. Being an underdog team seems to have its advantages. How is that possible?

I’ve worked in many different companies and industries helping teams and organizations plan and execute strategically, operationally, and tactically. One of the critical elements of a good planning process is the identification of available and needed resources. In my experience, resource constraints usually come down to three things – leadership, people, and money. If you need to accomplish something, people and leadership are essential, while funding is usually an asset that follows from the efforts of empowered people that are well led. Most everything else is of secondary importance. Past a certain point, though, money and other resources can actually impede success. And having too many people on a team can also drag down performance.

Successful underdog teams may appear under-resourced, but good leaders of such teams recognize the importance of organization and communication within the team to collaboratively plan, coordinate, and share scarce resources. Because well-resourced teams have less cause to worry, they often take those resources for granted. And, that leads to both waste and a failure to live up to the full potential of the team. Over-resourcing can actually inhibit high-performance. What follows are some of the reasons why this is so.

Optimal Team Size

Having too many or too few people inhibits high-performance. Unfortunately, most organizations either throw people at problems or throw up their hands and say “we can’t do it because we don’t have enough people.” The former is a mistake and the latter is usually an overstatement. If you believe it will take seven people to accomplish a task, then you can probably get it done with six or maybe even just five. But, you can’t expect extraordinary effort from a team without prioritization and the elimination of low priority, task saturating, requirements. I’ve witnessed countless instances in which a multitude of requirements are heaped on units while a correspondingly large number of people are thrown at those tasks while many of those requirements – and people – add no value. As Harvard Psychologist J. Richard Hackman has noted, “Big Teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time.”i

U.S. Navy ships establish crew requirements through a number of factors that include a wide variety of highly technical specializations. The number of crew increases to support these technical requirements rather than to just operate the ship under both normal and combat environments. The 24/7/365 nature of ship operations and the redundancies of ship systems adds to the often unnecessary bloating of crew numbers. To its credit, however, the U.S. Navy has been addressing these issues over the past decades and has reduced crew requirements.

The U.S.S. Blakely didn’t need 300 crew members to operate. It needed what it had, about 180. Unlike the other ships with their full crew compliments, Blakely was right-sized for her operational commitments – maybe not on paper or in comparison to other ships, but in reality. And that gave her a tremendous advantage – she had to economize, innovate, collaborate, and share scarce resources. Her leadership recognized that and enabled the crew to do so. It was simply the only option she had.

Collaboration and Resource Sharing

On underdog teams, diversity is encouraged and empowered rather than locked away in silos. The work of the economist and complexity scientist Scott Page demonstrates that cognitive diversity arises from training and experience. But, regardless of how good training may be, (and it is excellent in the U.S. Navy) if it is both literally and figuratively locked away in silos, it is never shared in effective collaboration – the source of innovative strategies for success. Page tells us that, except in the case of utter genius, diversity trumps ability.ii We get better outcomes by assembling and collaborating in diverse teams than by working alone or in non-diverse groups to solve problems. For teams to tap into their full potential, experience must be shared.

180 people that work and live together in a confined environment like a ship can get to know each other to a greater degree than 300 or 3,000 can in a similar environment. On the Blakely, every sailor knew the name and responsibilities of every other sailor. Most had much closer personal and working relationships than, say, the modern cubically-organized office space in which people working as close as a few dozen yards may be total strangers. In groups the size of the crew of the Blakely, everyone can know everyone else. When organizations get much bigger these relationships become more and more difficult to maintain until they become impossible. Later in my military career I served on an aircraft carrier with a crew of nearly 5,000. For the two-and-a-half years I served aboard that ship I met one or more new faces every day that I’d never seen before. The latent cognitive diversity inherent in a crew of 5,000 is unquestionably greater than that of the comparatively insignificant size of the crew of the Blakely. But silos both physically and organizationally separated the much larger crew. It was practically impossible to establish such silos on the Blakely.

As a matter of course, collaboration and sharing naturally emerged among the Blakely’s crew. You simply couldn’t get things done without help. You had to ask your shipmate from another division or department for advice, technical assistance, or just plain physical labor to get the job done. And because you lived and worked shoulder-to-shoulder you simply could not avoid getting to know each other and forge a bond of comradeship. Every favor would be reciprocated. Life aboard the Blakely was quid pro quo. From that culture, collaboration and innovation emerges. Resources are shared and efficiently utilized on a daily basis.

Cross-Functional Integration

When no single work group, team, division or department has enough people to do their jobs – not everyday, but from time to time – they must rely on other work groups, teams, divisions and departments to help them. As discussed above, the need to share these resources naturally creates a cooperative and collaborative problem-solving culture. But it also has other important results – improved communication and situational awareness.

It’s cyclical. Resource scarcity requires collaboration and sharing to overcome. That leads to improved communication and cooperation. Thus, underdog teams can achieve a hyper-sensitive awareness and greater agility and capability. The team becomes a whole rather just a collection of parts. Silos disappear.

That’s the lesson of General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams concept that he developed during the war in Afghanistan. Blakely’s crew was able to eliminate fault lines – the spaces between different work groups, divisions and departments of the ship. Fault lines are the ‘spaces between elite teams,’ the walls that separate siloed organizations and prevent the communication, situational awareness and collaboration necessary to achieve high performance.iii McChrystal eliminated these fault lines by intentionally and selectively cross-assigning members of various teams. The effect was similar to what we witnessed on the Blakely. Because everyone knew someone else in another work group or division, information could be easily transmitted, collaboration initiated, and resources shared. Communications travelled at light speeds. The crew gained an acute sense of what was going on and how they could contribute to the overall effort.

Post Script

It was like watching your house burn. Helpless, I and some of my shipmates stood on a beach on the north shore of the entrance into the port of Charleston, South Carolina. We gathered there to pay our last respects. We could clearly see the former U.S.S Blakely being towed out to sea. She had been decommissioned that morning in a formal, teary-eyed ceremony. No one was onboard. She no longer flew old glory from her mast. She was a dead hulk headed for the scrap heap – an utterly inglorious end to so noble a ship.

Only a month before, the U.S.S. Blakely had won her third Commodore’s Cup. In a final tribute, the Commodore renamed the trophy the Blakely Cup.

Bibliography:

  1.  J. Richard Hackman. “Why Teams Don’t Work.” Harvard Business Review. May 2009.
  2.  Scott E. Page. The Difference. (Princeton University Press, 2007).
  3.  General Stanley McChrystal. Team of Teams. (Portfolio, 2015). Pp. 124.

About the author

WILLIAM M. DUKE

WILLIAM M. DUKE

William M. Duke is a retired Naval Officer and Master Practitioner of the Flawless Execution methodology. He is the co-author of The Debrief Imperative (Premiere, 2011) and Down Range: A Transitioning Veteran’s Career Guide to Life’s Next Phase (Wiley, 2013).

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