Quote, June 29 2012 — Necessary parts of a team

“You need one person who’s good at solving problems, someone who has ideas, because problems always come up. You need one person who’s good at human relations, who can keep the group functioning together. You need one person who’s kind of a functionary, who’ll implement and get things done. And you need a leader type will push for results.”

– Dr. Robert Hogan, quoted in “5 Scientists Share Their Baffled Reaction on the Science in ‘Prometheus'”, by Carol Pinchefsky, Forbes online, June 20 2012 (site last accessed June 29 2012)

Even if you haven’t seen Prometheus (I haven’t, although I’ve watched a couple of online summaries & critiques), Ms. Pinchefsky’s article is still really good reading. It shows how scientists in the real world think, which is often — very often — different than how movies want to portray them.

All of the scientists interviewed for the article had interesting responses:

–> Wade Catts, an archaeologist at John Milner Associates, was appalled at the characters  in the movie picking up a decapitated head several thousand years old, stuffing it into a bag, then running away with it. “Any time you do an archeological project, you essentially have destroyed the archeological record as you’re going along, so the more information you record, the more photography, the more the handwritten notes, the better off you are”. I had never thought of archaeological digs in that sense before, that you had best record everything you possibly can as you are destroying the actual historical record there is in the process of the dig.

–> Bill Chadwick, geologist at John Milner Associates, was of the opinion that a geologist going into a cave in a mountain should first check some of the physical properties of the rocks in the cave and on the mountain, as going into a cave in a mountain made of unstable or weak rock is not a good idea. Also, any geologist going into a cave should be mapping the cave as they go along.

–> Ken Paige, head of the Department of Animal Biology at University of Illinois, thought it was not very scientific to a biologist to reach with hand for an unknown snake-like thing that was displaying a neck frill, as usually neck frills and other mechanisms that make the animal look bigger are defensive threat displays. Occasionally they can be used to attract a mate, but in general if it’s unknown and possibly getting feeling threatened by you, then reaching out with your hand (and not a stick or clasp on the end of a stick or any other long-distance tool that isn’t your hand) is not a good idea.

–> Dr. Michael Brotherton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Wyoming, points out that a ship going away from Earth faster than light would be visible only as a dull red glow due (I am assuming that is due to Doppler shifting of the light). He also has a separate long critique of the movie at http://www.mikebrotherton.com/2012/06/14/fixing-prometheus-spoilers/.

–> Dr. Robert Hogan, psychologist, authority on leadership, and president of Hogan Assessment systems, had the quote that began this post about the different types of roles needed in a group. To expand the quote:

Pinchefsky: One of the problems with the movie was the group dynamic. One character said, “It’s my job to make sure you do yours,” but two archeologists were put in charge. The result: multiple conflicting agendas and absolutely no teamwork. How would you fix this?

Hogan: I can tell you what you need, for what it’s worth: You need one person who’s good at solving problems, someone who has ideas, because problems always come up. You need one person who’s good at human relations, who can keep the group functioning together. You need one person who’s kind of a functionary, who’ll implement and get things done. And you need a leader type will push for results.

Pinchefsky: The movie had none of those.

Hogan: If you don’t have those four components, the team will fail.

Pinchefsky: They all died, except one.

Hogan: It happens in real life too.

When I initially read the first part of Hogan’s response, “They do that all the time. They hire people for these expeditions based on their technical expertise… and send them off without paying any attention to the kind of people they’re sending.”, I thought he was being sarcastic. Reading the rest of his response, I realized he wasn’t. Yikes!!



I haven’t read any of Hogan’s work, but here are my experiences of seeing the four roles work, and sometimes not work, in groups:

Leader

Talking about the leader first, a lot of people want to be the leader. This is not as easy as it looks. The leader doesn’t just propose solutions (that is more the problem solver role), the leader pushes everyone else to get things done. This takes a lot of emotional energy & will power. If the leader can learn to both delegate authority and keep everyone in the group informed of the goals and the paths to those goals, that leader can eventually take a break for a short time while the group runs on its own for a while.

The leader who doesn’t learn to delegate, or who can’t be bothered to keep the rest of the group informed of what is going on, will eventually burn out and the group will fall apart because there was  never a stronger framework built than the leader at its center. In extreme cases this will look like a personality cult. On the other hand, a group with a good leader will sometimes look like there is no leader at all, things just somehow get done and it’s only when an unexpected challenge comes up and you see who everyone looks to first that you’ll  realize who the leader is.

Delegation is the area where I’ve seen leaders have the most unnecessary problems. There’s a lot more I could write here, but it’s a whole post in and of itself. It takes confidence in yourself, faith and trust in others, good communication skills, and the patience to go through a training period, to be able to effectively delegate. If you are or want to be the leader of a group and you are having problems with delegation, start working on that. Now. Your group will fail if you don’t.

Problem-solver

A good problem solver will not only try to figure out what the problem is, but also what the actual goal is. A poorly trained or insecure problem solver will focus on beating the problem.

As an example, suppose there’s a snow drift in the road and the truck you’re in is likely to get stuck if you just drive through at normal speeds. Most people might try to drive through, get stuck halfway, root back and forth for a while, and eventually either get through or get so stuck they have to go for help. A good problem solver will ask “What are my options and what am I trying to accomplish?”, which will lead to questions like “Can I drive on the sidewalk or ditch if time is more important? If I have the time, can I turn around and find an alternate route?” Driving through the snow drift will probably only be done if that’s the only route, or if the person driving feels they need to push out a track for everyone else and the vehicle they’re driving can do that. That’s the difference between getting too fixated on the problem, or asking “what are we actually trying to achieve?”

As you might have already guessed, problem solvers run into unnecessary difficulties when they lose their focus on “What are we trying to achieve” and instead start focusing on emotional issues like “I must prove I’m right” or “I must show my way is the only way” or “I don’t think anyone listens to me, I have to make something about this problem or its solution really flashy and attention-getting.”

Functionary / Implementer

This is the detail person. I’ve got a to-do list. One of the last items on today’s to-do list is to update tomorrow’s to-do list, which means my to-do list has a to-do list. Here’s your part of the to-do list.

Being an functionary takes a lot of time and attention to detail, but someone has to do it for any group bigger than about three people.

The leader might say “Build a shed”, but it will be the functionary who says “Okay, we need someone to go to the lumber store, someone to go the hardware store, a list of people who are good with hammers, and by the way Mr./Ms. Leader, will this shed need a concrete foundation too?”

The biggest unnecessary problems a functionary will have won’t come from the functionary alone, but will come from problems between the functionary and the leader. Leaders are by nature optimistic big-picture people. A lot of leaders get tempted to spend too much time in “the big picture”, the “thirty thousand foot view”. They set a goal for the rest of the group but are pretty sketchy on actual details and instead keep talking in hard-to-quantify broad concepts. When the leader says something like “a big shed”, the functionary needs to say “Let’s define some things first: what is ‘big’? Bigger than an outhouse? Bigger than a garage? Bigger than a city block? Will it need to be insulated? How about power, heat, or water? I assume it will need a door and a roof, but how about windows?”

(On a side note, if the leader starts regularly getting fishey or sketchy about details, and can’t be bothered to commit to details on anything, that’s a sign the leader is either burning out or is losing interest in being the leader of the group. The leader and the functionary have to work together and if the leader can’t realize this, it’s time to go somewhere else.)

The Peacemaker 

Dr. Hogan called this human relations, someone who can keep the group working together. But I think peacemaker is a better term as that is what this person really does. There will be friction between any two people at some point if they’re around each other long enough. The value of peacemakers is usually not realized until you’re in a group that doesn’t have one, where it’s constant fights and the group is constantly on the verge of exploding.

Peacemakers can do their job by talking to people, but sometimes they can do it through actions too. When I moved back to the farm five years ago, I started cooking food for our harvest crew. To me it seemed like it wasn’t something that really contributed that much, not like driving truck or combine harvester or keeping track of what bins each field was going into — but then I heard my brother say “she’s the one who keeps us from killing each other”. Which is something a lot of leaders don’t realize, good food in plentiful quantities puts everyone in a better mod and the promise of said food on a regular basis will make a lot of cruddy situations (and harvest is miserable: stressful, hot, dusty, long days) a lot more bearable.

Peacemakers will run into their unnecessary problems when they cross the line from peacemaker to enabler. Anyone who is upset, the enabler tells them it sounds like they are right to be upset; but anyone trying to rationally criticize someone else’s actions is told they have to “understand” what the other person is going through. In general the enabler talks as though nobody is responsible for anything they do as long as they can claim they feel strongly enough about the situation. This will result in the eventual implosion or explosion of the group, as people who like to get overly emotional when they are upset are never told to calm down, while people who try to keep a lid on their anger and explain why they are critical of someone’s actions (but are not attacking the person, there is an important difference) are told nothing can change because the person who is supposed to be the peacemaker is instead too focused on talking about how much they “understand” the person everyone is mad at.

People can’t be protected from the consequences of their own actions and peacemakers become enablers when they forget that.

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