Creating a Team of Work Horses

On July 3rd the “greatest outdoor show on earth” kicked off as it has for over 50 years. But it wasn’t a fireworks show. In fact it had nothing to do with the Fourth of July. It was the Calgary Stampede, a ten day rodeo show attracting over a million attendees.  At the same time, I’d been thinking a lot about how we so casually use the word “team” when describing our work groups. We refer to our coworkers as our team. Sometimes we refer to those under our span of control as “my team”. So with all this talk about teams, I wondered: “What’s the difference between a team and just a group of people?”

Webster defines a team as either a group of people who work together or two or more draft animals harnessed to the same vehicle or implement.  A group is defined as a number of people that are together or in the same place or who are connected by some shared activity or interest. As I thought about these I concluded that we have more groups than teams.

So what does the Calgary Stampede have to do with teamwork? The connection is not the countless staff and volunteers needed to pull off an event the size of the Stampede. No doubt it takes a lot of teamwork and coordination. But that’s not the team I’m thinking about. I’m referring to the pulling teams. The pairs of work horses that will compete to see which team can pull the greatest amount of weight over a given distance. It’s when we look at these teams that we can truly understand what real teamwork should look like.

Working teams of horses are much more than just a group in the same place. These animals are gentle giants; big, massive horses capable of getting a lot done on their own, but they seldom do. Whether on the farm or at the pulling track, they are usually in a team of two and sometimes more. As I thought about that I began to wonder, how much more can they accomplish working together rather than working alone?

The answer came from a friend of mine who used to live in Calgary and shared this story with me.  On one occasion when he was at the Stampede he attended the pulling competition. The competition for individual horses had just completed. The winning horse pulled nearly 3,000 pounds and the second place horse pulled 2,800 pounds. At the end of the competition they harnessed the two horses together and asked for the audience to guess how much they thought the two could pull together. The general consensus was that they’d pull the sum of the two or about 5,800 pounds. Some felt that the amount would be a little lower theorizing that harnessing them together would sap some of their energy as they might pull against one another a little. So they harnessed them up and sent them down the track. The result was beyond everyone’s expectations. Those two horses, when harnessed together pulled nearly three times the weight, almost 9,000 pounds! The crowd was stunned. How could that be done, especially since the two horses had never been together before?

My uncle Hans once had a team of Belgian work horses. Their names were Fred and Jed. Unlike the two horses at the Stampede, Fred and Jed were actually a team. Immediately after buying them, my uncle sent them to an Amish farm for nearly a year to teach them how to work together. They had to learn to set aside their nature to perform individually and become a team that performed as a single unit. They were transformed from a group of two individually top performing animals, into a team who’s capability would be much greater than the sum of the parts.

So what are a few lessons we can draw from these stories? How much weight could we pull if we followed the example of these gentle giants?

  1. We must be closely harnessed That’s more than being in the same place. It means we’re yoked together such that our energy will be multiplied when we pull in unison lead by a common purpose.
  2. We have to be trained to work as a team. Quite often, not enough time is spent teaching a talented group of people how to set aside their individual habits and harmonize as one true team.
  3. Together we win in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish individual performance. In fact, one working harder than the others can dissipate energy and send the team off course. A good team is balanced despite individual differences in strength and talent.

Do you have “groups” or “teams” in your organization? Real teams have a multiplying effect and can accomplish much more than the cumulative effort of a group. So, the next time you’re out and see a team of horses pulling together, remember the unique relationship they have and the enormous potential of true work teams.

If you’d like to discuss your team and how it might be able to pull a bigger load, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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