Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 14;   April 7, 2004: Who Would You Take With You to Mars?

Who Would You Take With You to Mars?

by

What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.

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.

Mars as seen by Hubble Space Telescope

In preparation for the Mars Pathfinder landing on July 4, 1997, the Earth-Orbiting Hubble Space Telescope took this high resolution photograph, which shows the onset of Martian summer in the northern hemisphere, when the northern polar cap recedes to uncover dark sand dunes. Photo by D. Crisp and the WFPC2 Team of JPL/Caltech, courtesy NASA.

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.

Flexible/Resolute
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.
Agreeable/Independent
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.
Conscientious/Unprincipled
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.
Sociable/Solitary
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Mudfights  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe 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

A forest pathComing November 14: The Goal Is Not the Path
Sometimes, when reaching a goal is more difficult than we thought at first, instead of searching for another way to get there, we adjust the goal. There are alternatives. Available here and by RSS on November 14.
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Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.

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