My partner and I just returned from a month in Zambia. We spent most of our time in bush camps in North Luangwa and Kafue National Parks, where we had the opportunity to track lions on foot. This was a life-defining experience. We slept in bamboo huts and listened to the big cats calling in the dark. We tracked a pride of lions from a buffalo kill through pathless wilderness, encountering them unexpectedly and holding our breath as they sprang roaring through the trees. At one point, we were charged by a bull hippo and ran for our lives, saved by a warning shot from Justin, our scout, who stood his ground. We spents our nights about campfires in the bush, sipping whiskey from tin cups and feeling the thrum of nature about us.
I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more present and alive than when walking with small groups of people in the African wilderness. The experience is at once magnificently beautiful and incredibly edgy. At one moment you might be feeling isolated, peaceful, and relaxed. The next moment you encounter a pride of lions, some elephants, or a herd of buffalo and the situation changes. Under these circumstances, people instinctively work as a team. I learned five lessons about teamwork from my experience tracking lions in Zambia that cast light on what is required for the best team environments.
From the moment your group leaves the safety of the bush camp, you are working as a team. Your guide gives you strict instructions on how to collaborate in the bush. We walked in single file. The scout, armed with a hunting rile, walked at the head of the group with the guide. Often we had a trainee scout with us, who took the rear. We were told that when we came across lions or any other large animals, we were to pull together in a group. If charged by a lion, we were to huddle closely together, make ourselves look as big as possible, and yell. Never, under any circumstances, should we break from the group and run. Lions typically don’t prey on human beings, but present them with a lone, fast-moving object, and they become like a house cat with a mouse. One of our guides told us a story about a young Spanish woman he’d once taken on a bush walk. Her English wasn’t very good – perhaps she failed to understand the instructions – but when they encountered lions she panicked, broke from the group, and ran. The lion immediately went after her and the scout was forced to shoot it dead.
Failing to collaborate in the wild is dangerous for the whole group. Implicitly, the members of the group must trust one another to work as a team. Collaboration and trust go hand in hand in this environment. It is not safe to go out in the bush unless people can trust one another to collaborate.
Trust is a second essential condition for effective teamwork in the bush. The members of the group need to trust each other to act responsibly and to pull together when required. They also need to trust themselves to keep cool and follow instructions. Lose your head in the heat of the moment and it may not be the only thing you lose. One feels a profound sense of responsibility walking in the bush, underpinned by an awareness that ‘we are all in this together’.
In addition to trusting oneself and the other members of one’s team, one needs to trust the armed scout to stand their ground in dangerous situations. The scout is the only person in the group with a rifle. If they lose their nerve and, say, scoot up a tree, there is a good chance that people will get hurt. We were reminded of how much we depended on our scout on our first day walking in North Luangwa Park. We were watching a hippo lounging in a lagoon when it rose out of the water and charged. Our guide yelled: ‘Run!’ We took off after him into the bush. Fortunately, Justin, our scout, kept his cool. I glanced back to see him fire a shot into the ground just ahead of the charging hippo as it burst from the lagoon. It took fright and motored off across the savanna at an incredible pace. Watching it go, I realised that we’d had no chance of outrunning it. If not for Justin, we’d have been killed.
While teams in the workplace rarely contend with certain death, they require trust in order to work in an agile and adaptive manner. Agile teams self-organise by autonomously selecting chunks of work to be completed within agreed time-frames. Without a leader managing the workflow, it is up to team members themselves to ensure the work gets done. Each member of the team needs to be able to trust the others to deliver on their responsibilities in order to believe in the effectiveness of the team as a unit. Without this trust, team morale suffers, commitment to the work declines, and the team will ultimately fail to function.
Ownership is implicit in collaborative teams bonded by trust. Team members assume ownership by being ready to take responsibility for the team. This means ready to play a leadership role when required.
I assumed ownership one day on a bush walk in Kafue National Park. We had been tracking a pride of lions from a grisly buffalo kill. The tracks led back along the river under some magnificent trees, and as we walked, the group’s attention was momentarily captured by a bird in the branches above. I must confess that I have little interest in birds, no matter how large and colourful they are. However, I found I was, for some reason, deeply interested in the yellow log that lay in the clearing ahead of us. When the log rolled over, revealing a paw, I realised why.
‘Lions!’, I hissed. Immediately, the clearing exploded into life. An adult male lion burst up and roared, shielding the retreat of three females that dashed into the bush. Then he was gone as well.
Under the circumstances, I could hardly have been expected to stay silent. But I was pleased afterwards to have taken reponsibility for the well-being of the team, effectively playing the role of spotter and scout. In agile teams, everyone is ready to step up and lead when the situation demands. This is what it means to take ownership.
Resourcefulness involves thinking laterally about the tools and means required to get a job done. It is often associated with ownership, in the sense that people who take ownership of a task tend to be resourceful in completing it. When other vital signs of teamwork are low, and there is a lack of collaboration, trust, and ownership in the group, people may follow the instructions they have been given, but they don’t think outside the box, and they are easily confounded by upsets. Resourceful people, on the other hand, are always experimenting with new ways of doing things, and they are rarely stumped when something prevents them from moving ahead.
Resourceful people are natural innovators. These are the best kind of people to have on a collaborative team.
I remember talking to some fellow travellers about my work on innovation one night about the campfire, and remarking that the topic seemed out of place in the bush. The guide pointed out that this was not true. People who survive in remote locations are resourceful as a matter of necessity. If a tool breaks or the material required to complete a job is missing, the local people find some other way of doing things. Life in the bush promotes an abundance mentality. Every tree and plant has some use-value. A tall tree is not simply a tree: it can be a hide for watching animals, or material for a house or canoe, or else the bark can be used as medicine. One day on a walk, our trainee scout, Julian, demonstrated how the local people light a fire using two sticks, a leaf, a nut, and some hippo dung. In Julian’s tribe, the young men must demonstrate that they are capable of lighting a fire before they are allowed to get married, which is an incentive to be resourceful.
The final thing I learned from tracking lions in Zambia is the value of process. Process is particularly important for teams that are operating under conditions of uncertainty. In uncertain conditions, situations can change rapidly, and without a clear sense of process, it is easy for the team to become lost and confused. In our bushwalks in Zambia, we maintained a sense of process with respect to how to behave if threatened by animals, as well as a sense of the process of the walks themselves. Each walk was a set number of hours. We would follow the guide’s instructions at all times. Even if we didn’t see anything on the walk, we would return to camp at the set hour and consider it time well spent.
Process is valuable for collaborative teams in workplace environments. When a team is tackling a complex task, it helps to have a clear sense of the process that is being followed. This is one reason why practices like design thinking, agile/scrum, and lean startup method have become so popular in recent years. By following these kinds of processes, teams are able to monitor how they are moving through the work irrespective of how the work itself is going. The team might reach the end of the process and acknowledge that it has failed to complete the task. Nevertheless, by completing the process, they are able to discern forward momentum. Ideally, at this point, the team will apply resourcefulness and try a different approach for the next iteration of the work.
Collaboration, trust, ownership, resourcefulness, and an insistence on process are key attributes of effective teams. This is what I learned from tracking lions in Africa.
This is cross-posted from my new blog, giftsforgreatness.com. Just warming up in the new domain – I’d love to know what you think!