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Project Managers prepare to sink or swim

New teams can take a long time to get going. With critical and complex projects this can cost vital time and resources. Some projects sink without trace as a result. So how can one get a group of people to perform as a unit immediately?

Westland Helicopters faced this challenge when they created their "Bowman Team" to deliver the Bowman sub-contract for General Dynamics UK. The team of ten will control the four main areas of the Westland's Bowman programme: Training, Integrated Logistics, Aircraft Installation Activity and Land Site Conversions. They will have to direct cross-functional teams of up to 50 people.

Nick Whitney, Head of Training Support and Customer Training, needed to find a training solution that would bring the team together quickly and effectively, enabling them to lead and work collectively on the project from the outset. He turned to Michael Brown, head of Innovative Learning at John Matchett Limited (JML), to devise a programme.

Michael's training philosophy is clear, "There is no doubt that individuals and groups learn better if the emotions are fully engaged and participants are way out of their comfort zone. Some of the team had leadership and team experience from military careers, but they had not applied them in the office. It became clear that the team would need a major challenge to adequately engage those emotions."

JML joined forces with Andark, part of the Frontline Training consortium, which deliver survival training to military and commercial customers.

Bowman Team members were told the title of the programme, Sink or Swim, but no more. They arrived for a light-hearted evening of food, fun and games. The evening was carefully devised so that Michael Brown could assess individual personalities, relationships, levels of trust and competitiveness, and the natural hierarchy within the group.

The following morning the team arrived for a quick briefing, barely long enough to gauge the enormity of what they were being asked to do; take part in a simulated helicopter crash. They were to find themselves underwater, hanging upside down in the "Dunker", a replica of the cabin of a Puma Helicopter, with only two exits for five people. Their job was to get out alive.

Michelle Watkinson still had a shock. "I genuinely thought the preparatory talks were a phoney test of our nerves. Then we entered the pool area and saw the Dunker sitting silently on the edge of the pool, waiting for the first group to strap ourselves in and take the plunge."

They quickly realised that while suspended underwater they would have to agree who went first and who waited till last; who had the best lung capacity or the clearest head. As the adrenalin started pumping it showed through bravado in some and real anxiety in others. Despite rigorous safety measures this felt dangerous and depended on a team performance. Individuals were placing their lives in the hands of their colleagues and a team of specialist divers they had never met before. Nothing could have prepared them for the next couple of hours.

"It all happened very fast", said Michelle. "In no time we put on our helmets, took our seats and watched as the water poured into the craft. It flipped over and we were upside down, totally disorientated, under water. Funnily enough, once down there things seemed to slow down and survival kicked in. I was completely unaware of my nose full of water or even holding my breath, just fully engaged in unstrapping myself and heading for the dim light of the window. All I could hear was my heart beating."

The morning's finale was an abandon ship exercise. The team had barely had time to recover their wits when they were faced with another challenge. The pool was thrown into darkness, a flashing yellow light reflected on the ripples of water and the haunting sound of an ocean storm filled the room. All nine participants were hosed down in a shock of cold water in the way equipment is prepared for ocean service. Led through the storm onto a three metre high board, the team had to follow procedures to throw themselves into the water, regroup, inflate the life raft and haul themselves and each other to safety. This was a far cry from the water sports the team had originally expected.

Immediate responses to the exercises were euphoric. As well as a huge sense of achievement, the group found an immediate respect, pride and comradeship for each other. Michael Brown fed on this during the final afternoon session, encouraging them to discuss the experience in terms of team performance. This very quickly turned into a frank discussion about the team back in the office. Barriers had been broken down and everyone was able to contribute on equal footing. Leadership became more open to ideas and the team were more actively responsive to their leader.

For former naval officer Andy Packer, the exercise itself was routine, but he was impressed by the way in which it helped him and others "who naturally don't have soft skills. The experience has given us a sound position from which to move forward together. Our meetings have now become far more effective as team events."

Nick Whitney was delighted with the outcome. "The course exceeded my expectations. JML's superb planning and preparation meant that the day revealed a number of issues that team members had on their minds. Everyone enjoyed themselves. The training got the team through the Forming, Storming and Norming stages at great speed. It enabled people to voice their grievances before things became fixed permanently. I believe we will want to follow up this course in the not too distant future."

Both Andark and JML were very pleased with the day. Andark realised the potential of their facilities for management training when using the right facilitators. Michael Brown of JML says, "It proves that Innovative Learning and our thoughts behind it work. Soft skills can be learnt deeply and efficiently through the rigorous survival skills the team have shown on the day. Sink or Swim and our other Innovative Learning formats can deliver a whole range of learning."

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© Copyright 2004 John Matchett Limited. Reproduced with permission. Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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