Team Building

We often take it for granted in startups that a team will “emerge” when we get the right chemical combination, as if the primordial slime will simply make the right cocktail that will solve the problem, remove the pain point, build the better mousetrap.

A better approach would be — might be — to explore what it takes to develop an effective team and ask ourselves, “Are we doing anything even remotely like this?”

Understandably, there is a lot of emphasis on product, but is there enough on team?

There is a lot of research out there that suggests certain methodologies, but I think one of the best ways to approach the issue is along the lines of how the military forms, trains, evaluates, operates, and re-constitutes combat arms units.

How the military does it

I think it essentially mirrors many of the academic methodologies. To jump ahead, I am talking about team building processes like Drexler-Sibbet. Hold that thought.

First, allow me to say that most people in the Army who are involved with this are following a prescribed training methodology. They did not develop the methodology. They are unlikely to have spent a lot of time considering it. They may not intellectually embrace it. They may not really think about it (until they become a company commander) .They just follow the methodology.

The essential building block of the Army combat arms units is the company. In the combat engineers, a combat consists of 3-4 line platoons and a headquarters platoon. It is commanded by a Captain with a First Lieutenant as the Executive Officer and First or Second Lieutenant platoon leaders. There is an entire cadre of senior sergeants to actually run the unit.

[Officers command units. Sergeants run units. Revealed truth. It takes a lot of officers some time to understand this basic truth.]

These officers have likely issued forth from places like Virginia Military Institute, West Point (the VMI of the North), the Citadel, Norwich, Texas A & M or ROTC. They will all be engineers because this is, of course, the combat engineers.

[The US Army is divided between those lucky few who are combat engineers and those miserable jealous souls who wish they were combat engineers.]

The company will be 180-200 men with a full complement of NCOs (non-commissioned officers, sergeants) with the appropriate MOS (military occupational specialty) and training. Most of these men will have 5-20 years in the Army.

The first time I commanded a combat engineer company, I was 23 and woefully unprepared for the hang-on-by-your-fingernails desperate quality of the experience. I had a great First Sergeant and Platoon Sergeants, so I made it. Later, when I was ready, I operated like I was a Chinese feudal warlord which I was, for all intents and purposes.

Inexperienced Charlie Company CO, 2nd Cbt En Bn, 2nd Inf Div, Korea — North Korea in background. My Jeep that I loved.

Mission drives everything

From a Mission perspective the mission of the combat engineers is:

 1. Aid the mobility of the friendly forces;

 2. Impede the mobility of the enemy forces; and,

 3. Fight like infantry.

At the granular level, combat engineers build floating bridges to cross armor and infantry divisions to get at the enemy. They build roads, bridges, airfields, limited buildings; install minefields; build fortifications.

In a river crossing operation, first you seize the far shore in little rubber boats paddling through the smoke to get there. Then, you build rafts to cross the first few tanks to hold the far shore. Here is a tank being crossed. It took 75 minutes to build this raft.

On the flip side, the combat engineers destroy all the stuff they build using equipment and explosives. The combat engineers blow a lot of stuff up. Explosives are dangerous and fun. I was quite the explosives fan boy.

The combat engineers are often the best infantry battalion in a division because of the quality of their officers, the higher mental standards for their men, and the rigor of their training and mission.

The combat engineers are always given the mission of seizing the far shore in a river crossing operation. The combat engineers covered themselves in glory during the Battle of the Bulge as they fought rear guard operations blowing up bridges as the German armor approached.

Floating bridge finished in less than 3 hours ready to receive tanks, artillery, trucks to cross to continue the attack on the far shore. Notice we built a causeway out into the river to receive the bridge. This was a field expedient I learned that worked great.

Training of a combat engineer company

The training of a combat engineer unit begins at the individual soldier level. The overall process for the unit looks like this:

 1. Individual soldier skills such as marksmanship, shelter, hygiene, strength and rigor, individual equipment maintenance

 2. Fire team (3-5 men, two fire teams to a squad) skills; commanded by a buck sergeant

 3. Squad skills (two fire teams to a squad, 3-4 squads to a platoon); commanded by a staff sergeant

 4. Platoon skills (3-4 squads to a platoon, 3-4 platoons to a company); commanded by a platoon leader and a platoon sergeant (an E-7, sergeant first class)

 5. Company skills (3-4 line platoons, headquarters platoon, tons of equipment); commanded by a captain, assisted by a first lieutenant, run by a first sergeant (an E-8 with 20+ years) and supervising a motor pool, supply, training, mess hall

As you can see, as the training focus progresses, the team is able to do progressively more difficult and larger tasks. You literally follow this progression twice a year in your training program. Once a year, you get a big test from a higher headquarters. Woe to the company that fails it.

An example of this might be how a company trains up to attack an objective — the basic combat role of a combat engineer unit fighting as infantry in an infantry division. It is called: “The Company in the Attack.”

 1. Individual soldiers master their weapon, throwing grenades, and movement

 2. A fire team masters their crew served weapons (machine guns, recoilless rifles) and how they provide fire support to other fire teams who are moving as part of a fire-and-maneuver exercise.

 3. A squad masters fire-and-movement with its two fire teams, and how to do the same thing with the other squads in the same platoon. [One fire team lays down a base of fire while the other fire team scurries forward, goes to ground, and then they lay down a base of fire during which the other fire team maneuvers. This is the basic maneuver of the entire US Army. It starts with the fire teams in a squad.]

 4. Platoons master how to maneuver when out of direct eyesight of the company commander (using a radio), and how to fight its squads as they fire-and-maneuver toward an objective; they would also master the final assault wherein they would close with the objective and overrun it killing everyone in the process

 5. The company would master how it maneuvers its platoons while they are out of sight of each other and the company commander, how it uses its platoons (one of whom is likely held in reserve) to fire-and-maneuver toward an objective, close with the objective, sweep across the objective, kill the enemy, and set up a defensive position in anticipation of a counterattack

As you can see, the thread of fire-and-maneuver (the basic tactical approach essential to the attack) weaves through the exercise from the fire team upward.

If any level of the company fails, there is a chance the company attack will fail. The entire team has to show up and perform at a high operational level to succeed.

Two important elements:

 1. The training is built from the bottom up — individual skills to smaller team skills to larger team skills to company skills. It is progressive and each superior level builds on the mastery of the prior level.

 2. There is a progression of supervisory talent and experience. That buck sergeant might be in the Army for three years while the platoon sergeant might be in the Army for 20 years. Not only is the training progressive, the experience is also.

Civilian team building — Drexler-Sibbet

You will see the same progressive pattern in civilian team building though with a little different emphasis. Let’s take a look at the Drexler-Sibbet Team Performance Model. Click on the process flow chart to blow it up.

The big initial difference is that Drexler-Sibbet focuses on how teams “feel.” In the military approach, this feeling is driven by the confidence created by mastery. The military also has the benefit of a authority hierarchy that makes some of this irrelevant. The company commander doesn’t really care how anybody feels, but whether they make it to the high ground and seize the objective.

When you get down to step #4, Commitment, in Drexler-Sibbet, only then are you beginning to focus on assigned roles.

In the military, mastery is created by practice, practice, practice. In business much of what is practice is also done by performing, evaluating, debriefing, revising, and executing again. This is a classic feedback loop.

It is as important to debrief after a big win as it is after a big loss. Never forget this.

When you master Company in the Attack, you know it. When you take your annual test (and pass with a 100%), you know it.

In business, success may be the feedback that validates your approach, training, and execution.


If you have a desire to noodle this, here is a question for you — How is your company building its teams and how is it building from individual competence to mastery at the company level?

One trick is checklists — capturing process methodology with checklists. I used to love to create checklists for acquisitions, as an example. You have to read The Checklist Manifesto.

Take a look at this related, but slightly different approaches and see if and how it applies to your team building situation. It could make a huge difference in performance.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Be well. Be good to yourself.