Travel to Mars is probably within our grasp, if we're clever. In one scenario, we prepare the way with robotic missions that establish a constellation of GPS and communications satellites; deliver supplies, power plants, ground vehicles, landers, and return vehicles; find resources for mining fuel, oxygen, and water; and construct smelters, launch facilities and habitat. By the time people arrive much of the work is already done.
Still, making the trip would mean years of isolation and confinement, when perhaps the most daunting challenge would be maintaining functional relationships among the astronauts. We might want to put the explorers into an extended sleep state, not so much to save on life support, but to reduce the likelihood of interpersonal disasters.
Choosing the right combination of personalities would be a key to success. We're beginning to make significant advances in our understanding of personality, but assembling high-performance teams — and maintaining their functionality in stressful conditions — is another matter. We know a lot less about that.
The technology of interpersonal relations might not yet be up to this challenge. Certainly, if we look around at our project teams, we can find few that could tolerate a trip to Mars. Would yours make the cut?
Since a high-stress project can often feel like a trip to the moon, if not Mars, it's helpful to know what the experts look for in members of such teams. We all can exhibit these traits when we want to, in both polarities. Which polarity is best? It depends on the situation.
Here are some of the dimensions to consider.
- Openness to new ideas, approaches, and experiences makes it possible for teams to transcend the capabilities of any of their members.
- Determination to stand by your beliefs can protect your team from groupthink or trips to Abilene. See "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002, and "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001, for more.
- A high-stress project
can feel like a trip
to the moon,
if not Mars
- Volunteerism, yielding in conflict, empathy for others, and frankness about yourself, help your team get through the rough patches.
- Loyalty in opposition, and a willingness to raise objections, ensures that your team faces its doubts and the hard realities before it commits to a course of action.
- Reliability, organization, a results orientation, and a drive to completion help the team stay focused on the mission.
- A willingness to deviate from cherished principles if circumstances demand it can help the team deal with extreme situations, especially emergencies. See "Managing Technical Emergency Teams," and "Declaring Condition Red," Point Lookout for August 22, 2001, for more.
- An outgoing, charming manner lifts spirits and both provides and supports leadership, especially when the team celebrates or faces challenges.
- When confronting difficult, complex problems, comfort with quiet and with solitude can produce novel first-of-a-kind solutions.
Although many of us prefer one particular pattern of response, choosing the approach that best meets the team's needs in a given situation is the real challenge. If you want to make it to Mars, look for people who can tolerate and celebrate differences in others. Top Next Issue
The article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More
For more on human factors in spaceflight, see M. Ephimia Morphew, "Psychological and Human Factors in Long Duration Spaceflight," McGill Journal of Medicine 6: 74-80, 2001. Available at www.medicine.mcgill.ca/mjm/v06n01/v06p074/v06p074.pdf. For more on models of personality, see, for example, www.personalityresearch.org
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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