Using an Experiential Program to Uncover Barriers to High-Performance
Exploring Team Dynamics
“My team’s problem is that they kick all of the decisions ‘upstairs’ to me. I think they need a leadership program that empowers them to take some risks and help them make decisions on their own. Can your BoatWorks program deliver on that?”
When first speaking with Mike*, a senior vice president at Northrop Grumman, he could clearly articulate desired objectives for his team's offsite. However, even early on it was clear that Mike's focus was entirely on his team's deficiencies with little acknowledgement of the role he played in the dynamic.
Mike thought that GEL's BoatWorks experience was a perfect fit for Northrop Grumman because it allows small teams to select who is leading and when throughout the day, providing all participants with leadership opportunities. Through thorough consultation, GEL also customized the experience to match Northrop Grumman’s longstanding principles, vernacular, and business models to ensure insights gained during the experience would be easily translatable to the company’s current business practices. What we didn't discuss in detail were the insights Mike might gain about himself during the offsite.
Given Mike's concern about serving as the only decision-maker, we developed tactics during the planning process that he could use at the offsite to help his team take full advantage of the leadership opportunities provided throughout the day. When the BoatWorks experience begins, teams are asked to assign all members a specific role on the boat. I recommended that Mike resist any attempts by his team to put him in a leadership role, instead letting them flex their leadership muscles to gain experience making decisions. Mike was open to these ideas and committed to encouraging his team to drive the activities.
The Offsite: Putting Planning to Practice and Observing Behaviors
As the Northrop Grumman team prepared to take to the water for their BoatWorks program, we separated the 32 participants between eight boats and asked each boat crew to decide on a configuration of roles. We described each role to the teams, highlighting the mental and physical characteristics required as well as the associated duties.
Despite our planning conversations in the weeks leading up to the offsite, as soon as a team member suggested that Mike take the leadership role on the boat, Mike jumped at the opportunity. The individual suggested Mike take the role not because he met the qualifications previously outlined by the GEL instructors, but because he was a senior vice president. Instead of pushing back, Mike moved to the helm without a second thought and sat down in what surely felt like his natural office.
As the facilitator aboard his particular boat, I allowed the team to move on and discuss the other three roles. When they paused for a moment in their deliberation, I interjected:
“Hey gang, I’m curious why you're assigning Mike to this specific role. Did I hear you mention something about his title? I’d suggest thinking back to the characteristics highlighted for each role instead of his professional experience.”
Hearing this, Mike remembered his objective of encouraging his managers to step into leadership positions, and he quickly suggested that he take on a different role. Since he was the strongest person aboard, he volunteered for a more physically demanding job instead of the leadership role that was just as easily filled by one of his team members.
The BoatWorks experience involves a series of timed obstacle course runs in which the fleet of boats attempts to finish in a predetermined order within a specific amount of time. As the day progressed and the crew on Mike's boat settled into their roles — albeit a bit cautiously at first — the Northrop Grumman team was asked to gradually take on more responsibility. Prior to one of the course runs, GEL’s event coordinator announced that the crew of Boat Six was charged with communicating across the fleet to determine the finishing order and amount of time the boats would take to complete the course.
Immediately after the announcement, Boat Six’s strategist radioed to the full fleet asking for Mike's location and what he thought the fleet’s targets should be, almost completely ignoring the event coordinator’s prompt.
Again, Mike fell into his familiar leadership role, this time providing a physical manifestation of the difficulties such a configuration can have on a business. Only the strategist aboard each boat was outfitted with a radio so Mike, not serving the strategist role, did not have an easy way to respond to Boat Six. Therefore, he reached across two crew members sitting next to him to grab a radio affixed to his boat’s strategist. Mike pulled the radio and, by extension, his teammate, across the boat as he prepared to answer the radio call. Before he had a chance to respond, I tapped him on the shoulder. It only took one shared look for Mike to remember his objective and realize what he was doing.
Mike pressed the button to transmit and said, “This is Mike. I’m on Boat Four and my job is to trim the mainsail. I shouldn’t even be on the radio, and now my sail is flapping. My recommendation is that you radio the event coordinator and ask him to repeat the instructions if you didn’t understand them.” He then apologized, released both the radio and his teammate, and turned his attention toward fixing the mainsail.
The crew aboard with Mike looked at him like he had turned into an alien. Where was the Mike they knew who jumped at every chance to lead? Across the fleet there was radio silence – literally. After a few minutes, Boat Six radioed the event coordinator to share the targets they set, notably without input from any of the other boats.
The Debrief: ‘Aha’ Moments and Actionable Takeaways
One of the most important aspects of any GEL program is the group debrief following the program experience. Typically, GEL facilitators tee up the discussion, briefly revisiting goals for the day before posing questions designed to encourage participants to think about their behavior and teamwork throughout the activity and its relationship to their roles in the office.
After Northrop Grumman’s BoatWorks experience, the team came together and our facilitators prepared for their typical introduction to the debrief. However, before they began, Mike stood up and addressed his team:
"I have to share something right off the bat that is a little embarrassing. When I first spoke with GEL about our goals for this offsite, I said that our team’s problem was that you weren’t great at making decisions. What I learned today is that I’m the reason decisions get pushed to my desk. My natural tendency is to take the lead in whatever I’m doing, so I’ve created the norm that I make the calls, even when it’s not my role.”
As the Northrop Grumman team members digested this candid admission, the GEL facilitator thanked Mike for sharing and pivoted from the previously planned debrief to lead the team in a discussion of leadership roles among the team.
Remembering the situation in which Boat Six was asked to set performance targets for the fleet and instead immediately radioed to Mike, the team realized their role in the dynamic too. They identified the exchange as one of the “mirror moments” of the experiential program, reflecting everyone’s Pavlovian response to kick decisions upstairs to Mike.
Building on this realization, the facilitators asked the group to come up with several examples of how this dynamic manifested back in the office. The team discussed the impact on actual business performance, raising issues such as failing to meet deadlines, missing vital input in decision making, and the resulting quality of their work. The facilitated debrief allowed the group to process the business reality of the mirror behavior uncovered during the sailing activity, then address the problem as a team.
By design, the BoatWorks experience for an intact team uncovered blind spots in areas like collaboration, decision making, and functional silos. Mike's participation and initial insight during the planning process allowed GEL to mold the day’s agenda to best address his team’s challenges and to hold Mike accountable to predetermined objectives and goals. By reserving time for a debrief that was facilitated to increase trust while creating a shared understanding of real-world business impacts of behaviors observed on the water, the team was able to identify ways to improve their relationships and individual leadership styles.
As Northrop Grumman's experience illustrates, it’s not always easy to fully realize the challenges your team is facing or your role in the dynamic as their leader. Sometimes it takes stepping out of your comfort zone and working together in a new way to gain the insights that will take your team’s performance to the next level.
*All names in this case study have been changed for privacy.
Northrop Grumman brought leadership development cohorts to locations in Annapolis, Chicago, and southern California, ultimately resulting in more than 500 people participating in the BoatWorks experience. Following the successful completion of the program for leadership development cohorts, Northrop Grumman worked with GEL to further customize the experience to allow intact senior leadership teams to participate and gain their own insights from a day spent working together on the water.