News & Views

Three Habits of a Successful Team - The Art of Dividing Tasks

6 March 2019

Author: Silja Kanerva

The Art of Dividing Tasks

One of the basic philosophies in our teamwork was the clear division of tasks and responsibilities. Sounds simple and self-evident, but often is not. The core idea was that each and every task was divided among the team members so that each task, whether on land or on the water, was assigned to a certain team member.

We were committed to respecting the task division to an extreme extent; when a mistake was about to happen, no one was allowed to correct, remind or cover for the other person’s responsibility. Therefore mistakes, even foreseeable ones, were allowed to happen. The downside of this system was obviously that in the beginning of our project, many mistakes did happen and those mistakes cost us matches and even regattas. The upside, however, was far more diverse and helped us reach the Olympic podium. To share the joy, I am going to go through the lessons that were learnt in the next few chapters.

Random or system failure?

Recognising the weak points in the team structure, system, or task division is crucial in developing teamwork. When on a tight schedule and in a tough competition, you cannot afford to make the same mistake twice, at least not for the same reasons.

In the case of random mistakes, our Olympic team adopted the habit of calling out “My bad!” to let the others know that one is aware of what happened, knows how to fix it, and is able to perform better next time. The consequences of the tiny expression were huge. Firstly, other team members could rest assured that there was no major problem in the chosen system or task division. Secondly, it saved time and energy for the whole team – we all know that it is not easy to start a conversation of giving critical feedback. A “My bad!” did not mean “I’m sorry”. Human error is a part of teamwork, and it is inevitable when exiting one’s comfort zone, so there is no need to apologise for it. Nonetheless, responsibility should be owned.

Often, however, mistakes were not random but rather signs of a faulty system. A team member was perhaps not aware of her responsibilities, responsibilities were not assigned to the most suitable or available individual, or tasks were not divided evenly. Therefore, the division of tasks had to be adjusted and readjusted to achieve the smoothest possible teamwork. The next time things do not go according to plan in your work team, instead of overlooking or finding blame, I warmly recommend you to analyse why the mistake happened and to test if clarifying the task division makes a difference.

Promoting personal progress

If every team member has a clear set of personal tasks to perfect, it is a lot easier to recognise personal development over time. By comparison, if the tasks and circumstances change constantly, an individual will not develop as fast or feel confident in performing the tasks. Our London team started with a clear-cut set of tasks, which we practiced until we mastered them and were able to take on further responsibilities. A team can go a long way if all team members develop their skills systematically and are constantly able to add on responsibilities. For us it meant that our team performed more reliably on the standard tasks, was able to adapt to varying conditions faster, and maintained a broader view on the race at hand than our competitors. Besides, who would not enjoy realizing they are better today than they were yesterday?

Time to rest

An unapparent benefit of a clear task division was that it created time off for each team member, saved our batteries, and kept the team running for longer. Often, especially at busy times, it is appreciated that all team members work as hard as they can, with whatever they can to help the team. I dare to disagree. The hotter the battle, the more important it is that the team relies on their practiced roles, so that everyone performs the tasks they are the best at and recharge their batteries once their own responsibilities are covered. Changes and surprises are sometimes out of our control, but new tasks should be allocated in addition to the old ones, without letting them turn over the entire system.

This was extremely hard to remember when leaving a team member for example to fix gear late at night, but possible because we trusted that the task division was both well and fairly planned. The next day someone else might have to put in a long shift and a well-timed rest was often the best thing one could do to benefit the team. Naturally, if certain team members are constantly overloaded and end up working more than others, the division should be readjusted. Task division is often mistaken for a static rule that needs to be obeyed. I believe, on the contrary, that it is a tool that should be respected but also adjusted as needed along with changing tasks, requirements, and the development of the team.

Generating trust among team members

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, a clear task division generates trust within the team. Many studies support our experience that trust is one of the primary building blocks of a good and strong team spirit. If all team members are trusted to their bit independently, no one wastes energy or good spirits into fearing the reactions of others. Excess control, badly timed correcting, and, even worse, performing others’ tasks is unnecessary and gnaw away mutual trust.

To be able to trust a clearly defined division of tasks, each team member, including the team leader, needs to commit to the following facts: 1) my tasks will not get done unless I do them myself, 2) our team needs my best performance in order to succeed, and 3) every team member is equally committed. A team that trusts each other on an everyday basis is more likely to trust each other when situations get heated, and we know they will eventually whether in professional sports or in business life.  I believe mutual trust was one of our biggest strengths as a team. Thanks to our clear and somewhat uncompromising task division, we learned to trust each other and maintained our performance and our spirit through tough times.

Stay tuned for more about continuous development and building a solid team spirit in the upcoming blog posts!

Silja Kanerva was a professional athlete in Olympic sailing, winning the World Championships and Olympic bronze in match racing in 2012.