Queen Lili'uokalani - A Team Building Story
Queen Liliʻuokalani was the last monarch of a unified Hawaiian kingdom that spanned the better part of the 19th century. While she abdicated her throne (under pressure from western interests) before Hawaii was annexed by the USA in 1898, she continued to fight to preserve the Hawaiian monarchy, as well as native customs and culture. In doing so she became an icon for Hawaiians (it also helped that she wrote the famous Hawaiian musical classic, "Aloha Oe"!), and is the namesake for the world's largest iron-man outrigger paddling competition. Every year on Labor Day, thousands of paddlers from around the world descend upon the Big Island and climb into hundreds of canoes to race up and down the Kona coast.
During the just completed 2012 Queen Liliʻuokalani race, I was fortunate to be part of a six-person outrigger crew from the San Diego based Kanaka Outrigger Canoe Club. The race weekend in Kona-Kailua is truly a life experience, beginning with an international mixer evening and culminating with a torch light parade and, of course, a luau. Crews participating in the event form a bond in a way that only comes from sharing a challenging experience.
The Queen Liliʻuokalani race served as a reminder of the essential ingredients needed for a successful organizational team building experience. The elements revealed and reinforced included:
- A Task Focus. Teams are best built when there is a goal or product in mind; in this case it was striving to win bronze, silver or gold! In the world of organization development, we've named this preferred approach TOTD; (Task Oriented Team Development), and more successful events focus on both process and product.
- Challenge/Risk. The Queen Liliʻuokalani race provides the challenge of a demanding open ocean race of 18 miles without crew change or rest. This is a bit much for corporate team building, but any event can include a trek, or other natural challenge. In addition, discussions of vision and stretch goals for the team invite more commitment.
- Mission, Vision, Values, Goals and Roles. In good team buildings, the core purpose of the team is made explicit, along with other key team elements. All these are explored for current relevance, and changed if necessary. In a Kanaka canoe, everyone knows the club's mission (Competitive Crews, Conditioned Paddlers, Camaraderie, and giving back to the Community). They also know its vision ("being competitive while offering the most aloha in any setting"), goals (win, place, show), and team roles. In paddling each seat (paddler) has a specific responsibility. For example, seat #1 is the stroker (the most physically demanding as the stroker must set the pace for the canoe). The last seat, #6 seat, is the steersman, the most skilled position. The common presenting problems of poor team communication and unhealthy conflict are often just manifestations of lack of clarity around purpose, process, goals and roles. Teams should START with addressing these elements when communication problems or conflicts surface.
- A Natural Setting. Just like peak experiences, great team buildings rarely happen under florescent lights. Learning and development professionals can attest that the best training venues require residence, and often contain an extraordinary natural setting.
- Good Leadership. While a team building experience can be enhanced with a good professional facilitator, nothing can take the place of good team leadership. It's up to the team leader to shepherd the experience and provide coaching and recognition along the way. It also helps if leaders build some fun into the experience. In Hawaii, our pre-race practices included an occasional snorkeling break in Hawaii's crystal clear, warm waters.
Mixing these ingredients with a team challenge in a natural setting also does something else - it breaks down hierarchical barriers and can build trust through required sharing. It's been said that you really only know (and trust) someone once you've camped with them! Anyone who's had to share the duties of carrying equipment, camp set-up, cooking, cleaning, etc. with a team can attest to how quickly character can be revealed and trust established (or not). Outrigger paddling is famous for its "aloha" culture and paddlers regularly share equipment, canoes, and recognition. Trust and cooperation are the outcome.
The Queen Lili'uokalani experience also underscores the importance of something often lost in many of today's virtual teams - specifically, the realization that teams need to meet physically (especially during the early stages of forming and norming), and occasionally thereafter, to fully understand and trust each other; video and teleconferences are only substitutes for real time events.
Part of the value of shared team experiences is what psychologists call the "initiation" phenomenon. This is usually an unconscious process in which the individual faces a potentially unpleasant situation, successfully overcomes the adversity, and is then accepted into the community. Much like pledging a sorority or fraternity, or surviving boot camp, the successful outcome leaves the individual with a positive feeling toward the organization that sponsored the challenge. The strong team bonding that comes from a successful "initiation" is what justifies building a little challenge into the process. Ultimately this argues for including some discomfort when planning a team building!
In sum, the story of the Queen Liliʻuokalani race does provide a template for building, or reinforcing, needed ingredients for team morale and performance. Sustained team performance requires personal commitment and good team building can result in more member engagement, commitment, and productivity.