At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the American men's 4x100 relay team was a strong medal contender. During the four previous Games, the American men had medaled every time. The qualifying heats in 2008 — the first step on the road to gold — should have been a cakewalk.
On the third leg of the race, the U.S.A.'s Darvis Patton was running neck and neck with a runner from Trinidad and Tobago. Patton rounded the final turn, approaching anchorman Tyson Gay, who was picking up speed to match Patton. Patton extended the baton, Gay reached back, and the baton hit his palm.
Then, somehow, it fell. The team was disqualified. It was a humiliating early defeat. Stranger still, about a half-hour later, the U.S.A. women's team was disqualified too — for a baton drop at the same point in the race. (Freaked out by the trend, the U.S.A.'s rhythmic gymnasts kept an extra-tight grip on their ribbons.)
Team U.S.A.'s track coach, Bubba Thornton, told the media his runners had practiced baton passes "a million times." But not with their Olympic teammates. Some reporters noted that Patton and Gay's practice together had been minimal.
Thornton's apparent overconfidence was understandable. If you have four world-class experienced runners on your team, shouldn't that be enough? Unfortunately, no, it isn't. The baton pass cannot be taken for granted — not on the track and not in your organization.
We tend to underestimate the amount of effort needed to coordinate with other people. In one academic experiment, a team of students was asked to build a giant Lego man as quickly as possible. To save time, the team members split up their work. One person would craft an arm, another would build the torso, and so forth. (At least one person, of course, was charged with tweeting compulsively about what the others were doing.)
Often, the parts were carefully designed, yet they didn't quite fit together properly, like a Lego Heidi Montag. The problem was that nobody was paying attention to the integration. The researchers found that the teams were consistently better at specializing than they were at coordinating.
Organizations make this mistake constantly: We prize individual brilliance over the ability to work together as a team. And unfortunately, that can lead to dropped batons, as JetBlue infamously discovered back in February 2007.
You remember the fiasco. Snowstorms had paralyzed New York airports, and rather than cancel flights en masse, JetBlue loaded up its planes, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came, and some passengers were trapped on planes for hours. If you've ever felt the temperature rise on a plane after an hour's delay on the tarmac, imagine what it was like after 10 hours. These planes were cauldrons of rage — one stray act of flatulence away from bloodshed.
JetBlue did its best to survive the wave of hatred — its CEO apologized repeatedly and the company issued a Customer Bill of Rights, offering cash payments for delays and cancellations. But the executives realized that these efforts wouldn't eliminate the underlying problems, which were rather unyielding: The weather is unpredictable; New York airports are overcrowded; passengers expect on-time performance anyway. If JetBlue didn't fix its operations — learning to respond to emergencies with more speed and agility — another fiasco was likely.
JetBlue's executives knew that a top-down solution by a team of executives would fail. "The challenges are on the front line," says Bonny Simi, JetBlue's director of customer experience and analysis. In October 2008, Simi and her colleagues gathered a cross-section of players — crew schedulers, system operators, dispatchers, reservation agents, and others — to determine how the company handled "irregular operations," such as severe weather.
Individual members of the group knew the issues in their departments, and "if we brought enough of them together," Simi says, "we would have the whole puzzle there, and they could help us solve it."
Where do you start? If you ask individuals what's wrong with their jobs, you'll get pet peeves, but those gripes may not address the big integration issues. But if you ask people directly how to fix a big problem like irregular operations, it's like asking people how to fix federal bureaucracy. The topic is too complex and maddeningly interrelated; it fuzzes the brain.
Rather than talk abstractly, Simi decided to simulate an emergency. As the centerpiece of the first irregular operations retreat, Simi announced to the group: "Tomorrow, there's going to be a thunderstorm at JFK such that we're going to have to cancel 40 flights." The group then had to map out their response to the crisis.
As they rehearsed what they would do, step by step, they began to spot problems in their current process. For instance, in severe-weather situations, protocol dictates that the manager on duty, the Captain Kirk of JetBlue operations, should distribute to the staff what's known as a "precancel list," which identifies the flights that have been targeted for cancellation. There were five different people who rotated through the Kirk role, and they each sent out the precancel list in a different format. This variability created a small but real risk. It was similar to slight differences among five runners' extension of the baton.
In total, the group identified more than 1,000 process flaws, small and large. Over the next few weeks, the group successively filtered and prioritized the list down to a core set of 85 problems to address. Most of them were small individually, but together, they dramatically increased the risk of a dropped baton. JetBlue's irregular-operations strike force spent nine months in intense and sometimes emotional sessions, working together to stamp out the problems.
The effort paid off. In the summer of 2009, JetBlue had its best-ever on-time summer. Year over year, JetBlue's refunds decreased by $9 million. Best of all, the efforts dramatically improved JetBlue's "recovery time" from major events such as storms. (JetBlue considers itself recovered from an irregular-operations event when 98.5% of scheduled flights are a go.) The group shaved recovery time by 40% — from two-and-a-half days to one-and-a-half days.
Ironically, JetBlue's can-do culture contributed to its original problem. "The can-do spirit meant we would power through irregular operations and 'get 'er done,' " says Jenny Dervin, the airline's corporate communications director, "but we didn't value processes as being heroic." The company's heroes had been individuals — but now they share the medal stand with processes. (Here's hoping that the next American relay team, too, extends some glory from the runner to the handoff.)
The relay team with the fastest sprinters doesn't always win, and the business with the most talented employees doesn't either. Coordination is the unsung hero of successful teams, and it's time to start singing.
Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.