by Krish Iyer on

Picture this.

May 27, 2005, a summer night in Istanbul. We are flies on the wall of the dressing room of the Ataturk Stadium, where the Liverpool Football Club (Liverpool F.C.) soccer team has just been handed a first half drubbing. The goal tally reads 0-3. It is the UEFA Champions League final, and AC Milan, Liverpool’s opponents, are playing at the top of their abilities. The sweat drips off the huddled players and the shock on their faces is redder than their well-loved uniforms…and then the sounds of the fans singing the Liverpool F.C anthem “You’ll never walk alone” waft through the rafters……..

The story of Liverpool’s magnificent come back from the 0-3 deficit to equalize 3-3 in the second half and then to win 3-2 in a tense penalty shoot-out, is considered by many as the finest comebacks in sporting history. Team resilience at its very best.

Resilience is all about bouncing back when the chips are down and delivering against unsurmountable odds. And when you witness this in teams, whether in the sporting arena or the organizational one, it is as if one is witnessing sheer magic.

There has been much spoken and written about individual resilience, especially in the midst of this global pandemic. But in as much as a team is not just a summation of the individuals that constitute it, neither is team resilience achieved by simply making the individual members of the team resilient.

Team resilience is the capacity of a group of people to respond to change and disruption in a flexible and innovative manner. In the face of adversity, resilient teams maintain their work productivity while minimizing the emotional toll on their members”

But the question that arises is “How might we deliberately design a team to be resilient so that they respond with strength and composure when the chips are down?”

The answer, as I have found in my years of being a team coach, lies in the application of the 6 Conditions framework, which is based on the work of Dr. Richard Hackman and Dr. Ruth Wageman. In their investigation of the question “What makes a team effective?” they defined the three dimensions of effectiveness, as below:

  1. Task Output: The task output meets or exceeds the needs of the team’s client(s)
  2. Ongoing Competence: The team becomes an increasingly capable performing unit over time
  3. Team Member Satisfaction: Members’ personal learning and growth are fostered by their experiences in the team

If we consider team resilience to be a subset of overall team effectiveness, we can look at team resilience as an extension of the dimensions of team effectiveness.  We now have research from the Department of Psychology, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, that postulates Team Resilience as a Second-Order Emergent State, and we might therefore conceptualize Team Resilience along the dimensions of team effectiveness as:

  1. Task Output: A Resilient Team exhibits continued maintenance of performance despite external factors.
  2. Ongoing Competence: A Resilient Team is able to prevent and/or minimize errors in changing circumstances.
  3. Team Member Satisfaction: In a Resilient Team, members desire to remain as part of the team despite the external challenges

When examined through the lens of the 6 Conditions framework, one can design resilience into a team from the outset, by focusing on the 6 Conditions that contribute to the teams effectiveness, as under:

  1. Compelling Purpose: This is perhaps the most powerful resource to call upon when the chips are down for the team. Anchoring back into the team’s purpose, in its challenge, its clarity and consequentiality, is often the much-needed adrenalin shot a team needs to standing back up strong. Resilient teams will often huddle back into their common purpose and revisit their shared sense of  “why are we here?”  And, “what can we uniquely as a team deliver that no one else can?” Dr. Peter Hawkins, one of the foremost thinkers and practitioners of team coaching is fond of saying “The team doesn’t create the purpose, but the purpose creates the team.” And if I might take that one step further, anchoring back often to the purpose, and especially in moments of team crisis creates the resilient team.

And on that fateful 2005 summers day in Istanbul, the down but not out Liverpool F.C. team received its first adrenalin shot when they heard the crowd start to chant “You’ll never walk alone”… and as Goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek remembers “We did a circle and Steven Gerrard said, ‘Listen, guys. Do you hear that? They still believe in us. We have to give them something back.’ We didn’t think that we’d score the three goals, but we wanted to keep our level, the character. We wanted to give maybe one goal to give something back to the supporters.”

  1. Real Team: This essential team condition is the one that tends to crumble most easily when the entity called “the team” faces it’s moments of crisis, if adequate attention is not paid in setting up and designing the team in the first place. A team’s resilience shows up in tough times by the way they leverage their interdependence, stability and boundedness that have defined their interactions in normal operating times and knowing who does what best in varying conditions. And, this manifests as a sinewy strength when the team muscle is stretched in times of crisis.

As Dietmar Hamann, the influential Liverpool forward who was on the pitch the entire 90 minutes of the game recalls “…The reason for me coming on was to give Steven Gerrard the freedom to go a bit further forward because he was our biggest goal threat. Every time games got tight and got into a dog fight, there was no better team than us. I thought to myself, ‘If we get it back to 3-2, let’s see how they react.’ …. So, from going in at half-time to standing on the touchline 15 minutes later, my mindset had completely changed.”

  1. Right People: This is the third essential design condition that shows up in moments of crisis positively in terms of resilience if it has been given due consideration. The diversity of talents, perspectives and experiences is what enables the best of creativity and finding solutions when the moments of crisis hit. Alternatively a team without the apposite diversity and skills will find itself at a strong disadvantage when facing a crisis situation.

Whether one is a “Star Team” or a “Team of Stars” is what determines a team’s resilience when the chips are down. Needless to say, we would seek to design to be the former. A design focus on diversity of perspectives and the presence of essential skills enables the best of creativity and finding of solutions when the moments of crisis hit.

“You talk about game management, you talk about game intelligence, I think we had a few players in that team who had that in abundance. Jamie Carragher was one of them. He was a brilliant reader of the game and we just knew, without the manager having to say anything, what we had to do at which time.” As Dietemar recalls.

  1. Sound Structure: This enabling team condition refers to the appropriateness of the team size, and whether specific team task, norms and processes are in place that allow for a sound structure and smooth and effective team functioning. The presence of well-designed tasks, processes and norms ensure that when the chips are down the team is able to leverage these time-tested ways of working to engage, communicate and collaborate effectively as the circumstances of the crisis evolve. Having conditions for a sound team structure built in to the team by design give it significantly stronger chances of being resilient when the storms hit.

As Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez recalled of the key stage of that magical night in Turkey, “When it went to penalties, that was a result of luck and hard work because of the five penalty takers Milan had, we knew about four of them very well and where they usually shot. We’d been compiling information and statistics on them for some time. That once again came down to our methodical nature.”

  1. Supportive Context: The roots of a team’s resilience are grounded in the organizational conditions of material resources, training, relevant information and a balanced system of rewards and recognition. The absence of these can be most crippling and detrimental to team resilience when circumstances change from sunny to stormy for the team. And when crisis strikes, this can be one of the most difficult to fix. As far as team resilience goes therefore, engaging in a discussion on what we might need from the organization to be resilient under crisis is best conducted during times of normal operation. An organization that is able to provide its teams a supportive context has a significant chance of building team resilience.

“That was always one thing; we had a great spirit, we had great togetherness, and we knew when the chips were down, we could rely on ourselves, and we trusted each other. After beating two very good teams in the quarters [Juventus] and the semis [Chelsea], we were confident that we could give AC Milan a game, or even beat them.”

  1. Team Coaching: The availability, accessibility and the drills and engagement that the team experiences as a result of systematic and systemic team coaching helps build the much-needed muscles required for both agility and resilience when the chips are down. The value of coaching to a team in the sports arena is not in question, and as the speed and vicissitudes of the organizational game get more complex, team coaching, becomes as critical as in sport. The “drills” and “practices” that team coaching can bring to bear go a long way in helping the team tap into its resilience as a resource.

As Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, experienced in the run up to the save that won the game for them – team coaching can be that omnipresent ally on the side lines that gives you the confidence to make the right call “ When it came to the penalty shoot-out, I went straight to the goalkeeping coach, [José] Ochotoren.. Before that game, I watched something like 100 [AC Milan] penalties; from the previous Champions League final […] and many more. I said, ‘Ocho […] when I look at you, you raise your hand, left or right, I will provoke them to shoot to their favoured side.’

Team Resilience requires the team to deliberately work through and with the 6 Conditions  to emerge stronger and perhaps victorious as the Liverpool Football Club team did on that magical night in Istanbul.

On reflection and in conclusion, I am tempted to offer three points for consideration:

  1. There is no quick fix to team resilience – it’s not something to be fixed in the heat of a crisis.
  2. The 6 Conditions framework present a structured approach to pre-design resilience into a team.
  3. And, if you haven’t done so yet, now is a great time to start.

Postscript :

When I started work on this blog two weeks ago, I didn’t imagine that Liverpool Football Club would pull it off again. But that’s exactly what they pulled off last week. As I finish writing these words, Liverpool F.C, have been crowned English Premier League Champions for the 2019/20 season – after a 30-year hiatus. Team resilience shining through !