5 lessons from world-class team leaders who innovated under pressure

The proof that extreme circumstances can bring out better ways of working

September 11, 2015

This month a LinkedIn team will take part in the Dell Management Challenge, which embodies the idea that unusual challenges can bring about the most innovative management thinking. History certainly suggests they can. From John F Kennedy to Sir Alex Ferguson here are six management principles that we owe to leaders who could think differently when the occasion demanded it. They should provide inspiration for anyone who needs to get the most from their team in challenging circumstances:

1. Be clear about the qualities you need – and open-minded about who can provide them

“You can’t win anything with kids,” claimed Football pundit Alan Hansen 20 years ago, after a Manchester United team featuring seven players under 21 had lost their opening game of the season. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to stick to his guns – and given that the seven players included future stars Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and David Beckham, he was clearly right to do so. Ferguson was able to filter out what was relevant (the skills and character of the players involved) from what was far less relevant (their age). Manchester United won the league and FA Cup that year with his ‘kids’ forming the backbone of the side. Recognising talent and being prepared to back it had been the key to the club’s success.

2. Don’t turn your back on disharmony – find a way to harness it

As Olympic rower Greg Searle pointed out in a recent post on our blog, winning teams have members who are focused on delivering collectively and can fit their individual roles and achievements into this framework. Of course, sports teams have the advantage of considerable starting buy-in from their team members (the rowers who compete in an Olympic boat all want to be there). Things get more difficult when you have to earn that buy-in under pressure. This is when understanding individual characters, and how they can slot into the unifying team purpose, becomes vitally important.

After his ship Endurance was destroyed by ice, the explorer Ernest Shackleton had to leave the bulk of his crew on the remote Elephant Island and undertake a ludicrously hazardous open boat journey across dangerous seas to summon a rescue party. His choice of who to take in the boat and who to leave behind was a life-or-death one, because survival would be seriously compromised if either team started to fall apart. Crucially, Shackleton chose to take his dangerously insubordinate carpenter Harry McNish on the boat with him. He knew that McNish would cause serious trouble if left on dry land, but with a vital role and responsibility keeping their tiny boat afloat his attitude could be transformed. He was right – and all 27 of the crew lived to tell the tale.

3. Provide a structure for collaborative working

All teams strive to be more than the sum of their parts – but the collaboration that can produce this multiplier effect doesn’t happen by magic. The best managers are constantly thinking about new structures and processes that enable it to take place. There are few occasions when the pressure to do so has been as great as at the Bletchley Park complex during World War II.

Bletchley Park is famous as the place where the Enigma code was broken, giving the Allies a vital strategic advantage. It was the subject of an Oscar nominated movie (The Imitation Game) last year. However, most versions of the story tend to focus on the individual men leading the project – and that’s a big oversight. In reality, 80 per cent of the 9,000 staff at Bletchley Park were female – and it was their innovative structures for teamwork and collaboration that built the platform for breaking the code.

The complex was divided into huts, each of which approached an encrypted message from a different perspective. Within each hut, cryptanalysts were encouraged to pass messages onto the next person whenever they became stumped, pooling brilliant minds to find the solutions – and avoiding anybody wasting precious time staring at a piece of code in despair. Bletchley Park’s innovative teamwork structures helped to shorten the war by years, and save millions of lives.

4. Encourage free thinking

Often the biggest barrier to innovative thinking can be the overdue influence that one team member exerts – and the rapid way that others rally around their point of view. The best managers identify this and take steps to counter-act ‘Groupthink’ – and in doing so they are following in the footsteps of one of the US presidency’s most innovative management thinkers.

John F. Kennedy had overseen the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, when unquestioning consensus amongst his closest advisers blinded him to the risks of an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. By 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted, he had learned the lesson well. With the world on the brink of nuclear war, Kennedy radically re-tooled the way his emergency cabinet made decisions. Sessions were relaxed and informal to encourage free-thinking, and Kennedy deliberately absented himself from many of them to avoid blind allegiance to his own ideas. Teams were broken into sub-groups to go away, think-up alternatives, reconvene and pitch them back to the others, who would then both interrogate and improve them. The results? A step back from the initial military plan for an immediate strike, an innovative naval blockade strategy that helped avert nuclear catastrophe, and a management revolution that has hugely influenced how the best businesses make decisions today.

5. Keep asking ‘what would it take?’

LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner talks about “What would it take?” as the question that you need to keep asking to operationalise a company’s vision and turn an ideal goal into reality. And it is the type of question that Bob Geldof kept finding answers to in November 1984, after he came up with the notion of launching a charity single to raise funds for famine-hit Ethiopia, in a matter of weeks. Geldof decided that it would take the most famous musical acts that he could persuade to get involved (selected mainly on how much publicity their involvement could generate), 24 hours in a recording studio (the most free time that he could get), a pop video made on the cheap by simply recording the session as it happened, Concorde flights to bring famous voices like Boy George back from US tours, and the hijacking of pre-booked slots on BBC radio to generate publicity. It was this constant redefinition of what was possible in terms of music production and publicity that made Band Aid happen – and has provided the template for celebrity-driven campaigning since.

The Dell Management Challenge is an opportunity to test your own management skills against some pretty daunting problems. It takes place in the Brecon Beacons from September 25th to 27th and LinkedIn will be sending a team to take part. You can register your own interest at the Management Challenge website.