Principles of Excellent Teamwork

- January 2021 -

Written By: Bill Pierce

Would you like to be a member of a great team? The best times I had in my forty years with the NPS were the times I was a member of an excellent team. These teams included my times in Parks as a ranger and superintendent and the teams I was on for emergency operations and special events. I will admit that I also had experiences on poorly functioning teams in my career. So how do we use our personal leadership to develop and participate in excellent teams during our careers? We will explore this in the coming months as we discuss excellent teamwork in the NPS.

A team can be defined as a group of people with common goals working toward a unified product or objective. The team’s strengths are the commitment and competency that each member brings to the problem/opportunity at hand. Every team member is responsible for the desired results. Those results are accomplished through the application of resources, time, direction and delegation. Effective teamwork has distributed participation, leadership and individual accountability. The two dimensions of teamwork are goal accomplishment and team maintenance.

There are four steps each successful team must accomplish in order to complete any task:

  1. What needs to be done (define your goals) — a critical step that should be explored in depth by all team members since defining the problem/opportunity correctly and with clarity is essential to success.
  2. How will success be measured — developing a strategy and tactics to accomplish your objectives. You will need to define your objectives using the SMART principle so that they are: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic (flexible), and time sensitive. You can then develop your strategy and tactics based on a risk analysis and probability of success for the various tactics available to you.
  3. What does it look like when completed - Focus on the finished work and what success looks like so that you will stay on track to accomplish it.
  4. What is needed to accomplish the objectives - Success will be reached by applying the right resources at the right place at the right time. This is where the principles of reserves, positioning, and sufficient resources applied to key locations and logistics comes into play.

An example of a diverse team that was successful is the team that searched Wind Cave some years ago for a lost student from NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School). A team was assembled of NPS, NOLS, and volunteer cavers from around the USA who had been in Wind Cave before. A total of 110 people searched for 1 1/2 days and found her alive in a fissure where she had fallen after becoming lost. The search was successful because sufficient qualified people were organized and deployed quickly in the high probability area with logistical support and a risk analysis to select the best tactics. We were successful because everyone parked their egos and titles at the cave entrance and worked together to safely and efficiently accomplish the objectives of the incident action plan.

Principles of Excellent Teamwork:

  1. A common mission — establish and incorporate team core values and clear, attainable (SMART) goals into a team work plan.
  2. Share information openly — factual information and timely feedback on plans, goals, issues and ground rules are essential to successful teams.
  3. Be part of the solution — get involved, speak up and share solutions. Everyone leads and everyone follows at times.
  4. Seek first to understand — listen with empathy so that you understand and respect each member for who they are and what they bring to the team.
  5. Get the facts - Define the issue, identify options, create alternatives, challenge underlying assumptions and perceptions as you seek the TRUTH in any situation.
  6. Make the best rational decisions based on current information and document the process and results.
  7. Eliminate internal competition — establish cooperative processes, incentives and rewards that support the team process to accomplish the goals.
  8. Build Trust with Integrity - walk the talk at all times and hold all of the team accountable for the goals and processes. Personal ownership, responsibility, accountability and empowerment are the keys to great teamwork and results.
  9. Treat one another with respect — pay attention to all the members and their concerns, ask for and provide help as needed, offer support, value diversity and maintain a positive attitude. Teamwork is an interdependent process that takes all members participating at a high level to succeed.
  10. Accept mistakes and learn from them — root cause analysis, concurrent critique, and flexibility to adapt to change are important. Correct for mistakes and move forward, learning all the time.

There is a great deal of content in the discussion and we will dig deeper into many of these principles in the coming months.

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