Mission: impossible

Company: Westland Helicopters Mission: to take 10 people who
have never worked together and transform them into a management team to handle
a critical project. By Catherine Stebbings

When aircraft manufacturer Westland Helicopters won the contract to supply
defence contractor General Dynamics UK with Bowman aircraft, it set about
devising a management structure to handle the complex project.

The Yeovil-based firm appointed a team of 10 to the Bowman programme. The
team would have to manage cross-functional groups of up to 50 people,
controlling the four main areas of the contract: training, integrated
logistics, aircraft installation activity and land site conversions.

Nick Whitney, head of training support and customer training, was looking
for a coaching solution that would bring the team together quickly and
effectively, enabling them to lead and work collectively on the project from
the outset.

He turned to outside training company John Matchett Limited (JML), where
head of innovative learning Michael Brown was given the task of coming up with
a suitable team-building exercise.

Brown’s training philosophy is clear: "There is no doubt that
individuals and groups learn better if emotions are fully engaged and
participants are way out of their comfort zone," he says. "Some of
the team had leadership and team experience from military careers, but they had
not adapted them to the office. It was clear the team would need a major
challenge to adequately engage those emotions."

In order to set up this "uncomfortable" training experience, JML
joined forces with Andark, part of the Frontline Training consortium, which
delivers survival coaching to military and commercial customers.

Bowman team members were told the title of the programme – Sink or Swim –
but no more.

They were then invited to a light-hearted evening of food, fun and games –
all carefully devised to allow Brown to assess individual personalities,
relationships, levels of trust and competitiveness, and the natural hierarchy
within the group.

The following morning, the team arrived for a quick briefing, barely long
enough to gauge the enormity of what they were being asked to do – take part in
a simulated helicopter crash.

They were to find themselves underwater, hanging upside down in the
"Dunker", a replica of the cabin of a Puma Helicopter, with only two
exits for five people. Their mission was to get out alive.

Team member Michelle Watkinson, design and development project manager, had
a shock when she realised they were actually expected to carry out the
exercise. "I genuinely thought the preparatory talks were a phoney test of
our nerves. Then we entered the pool area and saw the Dunker waiting for the
first group to strap themselves in and take the plunge," she says.

The team quickly realised that while suspended underwater, they would have
to agree who went first, who waited until last, who had the best lung capacity
or the clearest head. Despite rigorous safety measures, this felt dangerous and
depended on a team performance. Individuals were placing their lives in the
hands of their colleagues.

For a while, the group seemed disparate with individuals feeling isolated,
afraid and embarrassed. Interestingly, it was a while before the more confident
members felt able to offer support.

The team gradually regrouped, offering enough collective support to move on
together. But nothing could have prepared them for the next couple of hours.

"It all happened very fast", says Watkinson. "In no time, we
put on our helmets, took our seats and watched as the water poured into the
craft. It flipped over and we were upside down, totally disorientated, under

"Funnily enough, once down there things seemed to slow down and survival
instinct kicked in. I was completely unaware of my nose full of water or even
holding my breath, just fully engaged in unstrapping myself and heading for the
dim light of the window. All I could hear was my heart beating."

The morning’s finale was an "abandon ship" exercise. The team
barely had time to recover when they were faced with another challenge. The
pool was thrown into darkness, a flashing yellow light reflected on the ripples
of the water and the haunting sound of an ocean storm filled the room.

All nine participants were hosed down in cold water and led through the
storm on to a three-metre high board. They then had to throw themselves into
the water, regroup, inflate the life raft and haul themselves – and each other
– to safety.

Throughout the morning, subtle changes in the group’s dynamics began to
appear. The team developed the ability to quickly and informally share
leadership, with five out of the nine assuming the role during different tasks.
The natural leader seemed to let go unconsciously, allowing individuals to
share their strengths.

As a team, they appeared to recognise their collective skills in
co-operation, empathetic listening, patience and appropriate role shifting.
They began to appreciate that before data can be processed, a process must be
chosen, and before the process can be chosen, effective channels of
communication must be established. These had not shown themselves before in the
work environment

Immediate responses to the exercises were euphoric. As well as a huge sense
of achievement, the group found an immediate respect, pride and comradeship for
each other. Brown focused on this during the final afternoon session,
encouraging them to discuss the experience in terms of team performance.

This quickly turned into a frank discussion about the team back in the
office. Barriers had been broken down and everyone was able to contribute on an
equal footing. Leaders became more open to ideas and team members were more
actively responsive to their leader.

For former naval officer Andy Packer, supportability and ILS new projects
manager, the exercise was routine, but he was impressed by the way it helped
him and others "who naturally don’t have soft skills".

He adds, "The experience has given us a sound position from which to
move forward together. Our meetings have now become far more effective as team

Whitney was delighted with the outcome. "The training got the team
through the forming and storming stages at great speed," he says.
"Individuals could say what they felt about the team formation process.
They felt able to voice their grievances before things became fixed
permanently. I believe we will want to follow this course up in the not too
distant future."

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