How to create strong Fluid Teams through Team Development Training

The recent pandemic has created fast-changing major global disruptions impacting business on a global scale – possibly even more than the historical events of 9/11 and the GFC. Large-scale social, technological, environmental, political, economic, and legal changes have created an imperative that organisations are more adaptive than ever before, and in a completely new way not witnessed previously, to swiftly respond to accommodate rapidly fluctuating market demands, new challenges and more international competition.

This has resulted in a significant structural change, both short and long term, for the workforce to become far more flexible than ever before and for organisations to look at doing better with their team development training.

The traditional and stable configuration of fixed teams has had to swiftly adapt to accommodate more dynamic and fluid combinations of staff numbers and skills at short notice with sudden shut downs, isolation laws, new rosters, travel restrictions and social distancing.

New team configurations range from; temporary, project-based, e-teams, remote teams, virtual teams, casual teams, free lancers or outsourced to meet those needs. This brings new challenges to both managers and employees to work together in flux, with frequent fresh team formations happening frequently, for some even many times a day. The stress and trials of unfamiliar, ever-changing group dynamics, combined with the necessity to rapidly create healthy, short-term, cohesive, and effective teams is a major challenge that need to be effectively managed as for many sectors this is unknown territory with no guidance.

There is however one sector that has already invested a significant amount of research into the successful design and construction of high performing and yet fluid teams over the last forty years, and that is the airlines.

I spent thirteen years working alongside cabin crew, in teams of highly focused people that that come together for only a short time, perform with a strong sense of accountability for achieving their goals and often never see each other again – the epitome of fluid teams. Each crew are highly skilled and able to interchange their roles, supporting each other to surmount any barriers in achieving the team’s goals. Safety was always first, non-negotiable and customer service swiftly followed that in every decision made. It was very clear, and each team member felt empowered by that clarity.

In my time with the airlines, I have been one of the crew members involved in a May Day situation over the Pilbara. We were on a Bae146 jet which encountered an uncommanded engine roll back, so we had no engine power and there was no-where flat to ‘land’ the plane, not even a salt lake, it was rough terrain. The plane slowly glided descending for what seemed a lifetime. During that time the crew got the cabin prepared strapping all possible projectiles and everything down ready for impact. The oxygen masks dropped, it was dark, with an electrical storm outside and it was the first time I had seen St Elmo’s Fire as it hit the nose of the flight deck. There was the sound of an odd and annoying pinging sound as we sat strapped in our seats waiting for impact, already in brace position, when the Captain suddenly came over the speakers to let us know that it was all going to be OK and we would be making a normal landing at a place called Meekathara. State emergency services, with as many body bags as they could get their hands on, and the Royal Flying Doctors came out to meet the plane. There was a full-on BASI investigation and all the crew were commended and awarded for their crew resource management (CRM), communication and training. A documentary was made of the event as a demonstration for all airlines to use as an example of a real life incident with a crew in action to showing the importance of a strong safety culture, thorough training, clear communication and CRM all working together.

This was a team who had never worked together as a team before that night, but we all knew what to do because of the training. This is what I mean about creating high performing fluid teams

I would like to share with you what I see from my experience five keystones to how the airlines construct these strong, effective, fluid teams.

1. Structure

Underpinning everything is the set up and structure. There is crystal clear organisational structure, chain of command and a compelling vision that is reinforced daily. Yes, I did say DAILY. Everybody knew what the vision and values were, and what they weren’t, as they were reinforced and demonstrated every single day in what they said and what they did. Each job position is clearly articulated, and they know they may be repositioned at any time, depending on aircraft type and loading, so knowing each team member’s scope, and limitations, is standard practice.

The vision and values to work towards are reviewed at every single briefing which could be several times a day as different crew joined or left doing different sectors, so this might be several times a day. Practical demonstrations of living the values are volunteered in front of the other crew at each pre-flight briefing (huddle) and incorporated into each sector.

Over the course of a day a crew member could be on four separate flights with four different crew formations so creating this foundation of clear structure and vision creates a strong culture of knowing what you are doing and why you are doing it. This also creates the ability to be fluid and move when needed.

If everyone knows the destination, then you know there is always more than one way to get there. If the organisation is clear on what the vision and values are then there is greater flexibility in meeting them. Once you are free of the rigidity of repeatedly doing things the same way (because ‘they are always done that way’) new possibilities open up that may be better for both the organisation, the staff and the customer.

In my team building workshops I often set my participants the task of coming up with 40 completely different ways that you could get to the nearest city centre, should you choose, if time and budget weren’t factors. It is interesting how such a simple task opens up discussion for different ways of approaching how things are done in their workplace. It’s an activity that often results in people seeing familiar things with new eyes and 360° vision.

2. Selection

Recruiting right is another keystone of success. Select for the right attitude as well as abilities. Attitude is generally a tougher cookie to crack than building a person’s skills, confidence, and experience.

The airlines always insist potential candidates to come to them ready with all the tickets and licences they require and put them through a grilling and lengthy multi-staged recruitment process to test them under varying conditions before accepting them into a period of probation, which itself includes frequent checks. This is ongoing even in if permanent status is achieved. Attention to performance never slackens.

When I left British Airways in the UK and moved to Australia to join an airline here the final stage of the initial recruitment was to see how I would behave at a ‘cocktail party’ and if I would be a suitable ambassador for the airlines reputation when overnighting or on long trips away. I’m not suggesting that is something to use for other occupations as it was specific to the kind of work and lifestyle of the airlines, but you probably get the idea.

Are you currently using assessment centres where simulations of the actual job can be replicated in some way and is it phased or multi-staged recruitment process and onboarding, and are you including probation and if so, how long for?

Many organisations I have consulted to complain they are ‘stuck with’ staff they have inherited and feel these staff members are are holding back the others or creating a toxic effect on the energy of the team.  They don’t know what to do about it as they are not trained in, or confident about, performance feedback and performance management. This is a huge cost to any organisation on many levels.

There is a saying my father used to say about “measure twice, cut once” which I think is good advice you can also apply to recruitment.

3. Development

Commitment to continual development of each team member is another keystone to creating strong fluid teams. This could be through individual coaching both on the fly and formal, group coaching, team coaching, job exchange, buddying, formal training and revalidation of licencing, 360° feedback, assessment centres, simulations and role plays, refreshers and drills, and mock-ups like an all services hijack scenarios (which I’ve got to say are an exhilarating experience). There is a deeply embedded learning culture layered in airlines coming from many angles.

4. Monitoring

Performance is constantly monitored with consistent and transparent feedback. Daily checks are conducted at pre-flight briefings by cabin crew managers and formal checks several times a year by management. Undercover external checks and inspections are carried out by CASA, the civil aviation safety authority (like food safety inspectors do in restaurants). Everyone is clear that safety is completely, and utterly non-negotiable and crew resource management (CRM) and good communication are central to that. Check lists are frequently used job aids and many crucial tasks are double checked by another crew member as standard operating procedure. This means no one takes offence at being checked, as it is an everyday and normal event i.e. “Doors to manual” requires a fellow team member checks your work (which is a good thing, trust me, or the person opening the door on the outside could get the full force of a gas propelled evacuation slide deployed in their face). Monitoring is transparent and equitable. There is a safety culture in place where everybody is confident to speak up and monitoring happens 360°. Seriously, there is no room for complacency when you are in a tin can flying at 31,000 feet.

5. Reward

The final keystone is to recognise and reward outstanding behaviours and to celebrate success – no matter the size. Sometimes it’s remembering the small things that create the big things that counts. This is commonly missing from many teams I have worked with or had the opportunity to observe since leaving the airlines and quite frankly I am mystified why. It is not something that has to cost money but makes such a difference to motivation and team work. Psychology 101 – people need to know where they have done well or been of value as that reinforces positive behaviour and at the same time sends a clear message to other staff. Rewards could be as simple as a nod and a smile at recognising great customer service or it could be being invited to step up for an acting role or  promotion, or once, and this is a bit unusual, I had the honour of being offered a car park space for a year as a reward and that worked for me. Rewards and recognition have to be about what the person values and if in doubt – ask – you might be surprised what another person values!

Airlines also give mini briefings in-flight where progress is discussed with each of the crew and encouragement given. Crew are also debriefed and offered feedback after each and every flight. It is rigorous but so effective to create high performing teams that look after themselves. They don’t have to wait six months, or even 12 months, that some businesses do to be recognised. It is instant. Likewise, staff that do not meet the criteria are quickly dealt with and immediately pulled off line, they are grounded until they can prove they are competent or compliant.

The first airline I worked for would pull crew offline for putting on too much weight (yes!) and ground them till they lost it. Totally illegal now, but those were the days when you could also still smoke on flights. Thing change. You would also get pulled off for poor grooming, which could be hair, makeup, uniform incorrectly work or poor time keeping. If you were even a minute late, you’d lose your trip and the loading and pay that went with it (I learnt that the hard way very early on). It was black and white. Strict and non-negotiable. Measurement was clear, transparent, and consistent, so there were no complaints of favouritism, or feeling ‘picked on’, as everyone was equal and knew what the guidelines were. Airline staff know when they are doing well, when they are not, and success is freely and frequently celebrated.

So, there you have what I see in my experience from 13 years in the airlines as the five keystones for creating a successful fluid team. Structure, selection, development, monitoring, and reward.

All the best

Louise Kelly
Communication & Team Building Specialist

Louise has been helping people and organisations improve their professional development for over 20 years, and in that time has worked with hundreds of businesses and thousands of participants throughout Australia, South East Asia and the UK.