Sunday, October 16, 2005

Breaking the Mould - Chapter 9

Chapter 9


Marche (Pronounced "Marsh"), on the trail in northern Canada this was the word which was translated as "Mush" and was used to drive the dog teams which were once the only source of power in the frozen North.

What was not translated was the original meaning of the word "Marche" which was the French imperative "Walk".

Not run, not hurry up or go faster, just walk.

There are in fact only three orders which the dog team understand,
"Stop", "Go", and "Take it easy".

In the company of several business colleagues, I was lucky enough to take a dog sledding tour in Canada with "Snowy Owl Tours" under the careful tutelage of Connie Arsenault.

Connie's father was a park ranger in Alberta.

She grew up in the wilderness in the company of independent natives, and an odd selection of geologists and naturalists.

She first developed her interest in dogs' speed racing over shorter distances, then she graduated to the longer distance Iditerod and Yukon Quest events.

Connie is also the co-founder of the Alberta International Sled Dog Classic and runs Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours with her husband Charles.
She said, "Dogs are so much like people that in fact I have learned more about people working with my dogs than anything I have done with people.

There are some surprising differences though.

Dogs are the most forgiving creatures I know, people are not!"

She began the tour by introducing our group to the dogs with an attention to detail born of a genuine respect and care for her teams, and explained how the teams worked.

All the dogs are attached to the sledge by one common line to which each individual is attached by a separate harness.

The direction of this line is the direction the sledge will take and each animal's effort can be gauged by his alignment to the direction of travel of the sledge.

Connie talked about the importance of selecting the correct dogs for each team.

Their position in the team being determined by their size, level of
courage and willingness to perform.

She explained how it all worked.

"When we are laying our dogs out in a team we have front to rear, lead dogs, point dogs, swing dogs and wheel dogs."

In an eight dog team of four pairs the first pair are the lead dogs.

They are not the strongest but they have the intelligence, focus, character and speed which allow the other dogs to follow.

If the lead dog does not lead, the team will not follow and the sledge will go nowhere.

Next are the point dogs, who are the apprentice lead dogs and are
usually yearlings.

At the back of the team are the wheel dogs.

These two are the powerhouse of the team, strong and undramatic, they take their direction, then putting their shoulders to the traces, they get the job done.

In the middle is the schoolyard, with the swing dogs.

This pair will usually consist of a young dog and an older dog, perhaps an old lead dog or a wheel dog who is getting on in years and has been replaced in his principal position by a younger more capable dog.

His usefulness is not over, strength is not the only commodity valued in this team.

The old dog in the schoolyard, or swing position now has the
job of bringing on the younger dog through his example and experience.

He in turn responds to and gains fresh energy from the enthusiasm of the younger dog.

These eight dogs will comfortably haul three people all day, or they will equally happily fight and play in the snow.
These eight individuals make up the team.

The driving is done exclusively by praise and recognition.

Praise for the team effort and for the individual.

Connie explained the significance of our position relative to the dog team.

She said that we were a part of the team but like the dogs, we still had to earn the right to be there.

Unless we were prepared to jump off the sledge and give the dogs a hand when they needed it, the dogs would lose respect and stop pulling.

That included helping out by pushing when going uphill and holding the sledge back so it didn't overrun the dogs going down hill.

Our job was not to tell the team what to do, they already knew that better than we did.

Our job was to provide the physical and verbal support the dogs needed to tell them that their efforts were appreciated.

She explained, "There are no passengers on a sledge."

Connie's reason for making this statement was because she cared for her teams and did not want them to be annoyed or upset through accidental mishandling or abuse.

There was a worried question from one of my colleagues. "What happens if we get it wrong?"

I could see the picture he had in his mind, him hanging on grimly while his baying team headed for the horizon at top speed, out of control.

Connie saw it too and had the answer perfectly.
She told us, "If you are in charge of a team and you get it wrong the team will cease to function.

That means they will stop pulling in the same direction and therefore be incapable of taking off towards any horizon.

They will let you know long before that all is not well.

All you have to do is watch for the signs that they will give you."

She said, "The first thing you have to understand is that these are working dogs.

Dogs who get so excited at the prospect of pulling that at the beginning of the day when they are fresh they will often go too fast and need to be controlled by the use of the brake."

"If you stick to the three instructions they know and understand "Stop," "Go," "Take it easy," and give them the support that they need then they will do their best for you."

"If you confuse them with unnecessary or contradictory orders, or shout at them, they will stop working as a team."

"They will take their weight off the harness while still keeping it taut to make it look as if they are working, or they will simply wander off line and start eating snow or fighting."

She said that the first sign of this in the team is when the dogs start to look over their shoulders at the driver.

Normally the lead dog is the first, he turns around while still pulling and in his eyes you can see what is in his mind.

He is saying, "Just let me know what you want and I will do it". or
"We are doing our best, why don't you get off and help instead of doing all that shouting?"

Unless you pay attention to these first signs, the breakdown of the team will follow.

Connie told a great story but we were impatient to board our sledges and set off up the trail behind our teams.

I was paired initially with a guide, who started the dogs and stopped them and told me when to jump on the brake.

The whole of the rest of the time she spent praising the team and the individuals.
At first I thought that she was making too much of this support and puzzled at the meticulous way she named and praised each of the dogs individually, encouraging them, then returning to give renewed praise for the whole team.

Initially it seemed like overkill and I could see no effect.

What that really meant was that the team just did what I expected a dog team to do.

They didn't make a fuss, they pulled together in the same direction and they kept their eyes to the front, except to occasionally acknowledge with a glance the guide's words of encouragement, as if the dogs knew that she also needed to know that her efforts were appreciated.

There was a lot of shouting and noise coming from the sledge behind.

They did not have a guide and my guide, Katherine, had to keep stopping to allow them to catch up.

Kath had her hands full trying to pour an equal amount of attention both on our team, and the team behind who were clearly not enjoying themselves at all and needed help.

It was then I realised that what she was doing was almost a physical thing.

She was not just being nice to the dogs.

She was providing the fuel that the teams needed to work.

Without the support that she was providing for her team, the team behind was falling apart.

The more the dogs ceased to function as a team the more their driver shouted and cajoled and directed.

That was exactly the behaviour which Connie said would stop the team from functioning, and she was right.

At the halfway point some of the group changed sledges and I found
myself with the team which had been behind for the journey out.

One of the drivers from the outward leg also stayed with that team.

We set off again for the return with a chorus of shouts and whistles all intended by my new driver to motivate and push the team to greater effort.

It was apparent that this confusing set of signals was not doing the job.

The dogs were turning around and looking at the driver, they weren't
pulling and the sledge was not moving.

More shouts were added and my driver launched into a litany of the
faults of the team and how it really was spoiling his day that he had such an awful team.

I remembered Connie's words and thought we should try something

I said to my driver, "Why don't we just save our breath and see
what the dogs will do on their own?"

He stopped shouting and gave up his position to me.

With a spoken "Hike up" (The modern version of "Mush") the dogs
pricked up their ears, faced the front and started pulling.

I didn't give another order to the dogs.

They knew where they were going.

We helped going up the hills by scooting or running alongside and we braked going down.

The rest of the time was spent providing the team with the fuel they
needed to do their jobs.

"Good job puppies, good puppies, well done Misty, good boy Laredo, well done Midnight, good girl Mexico, good boy Butch, well done Sundance, good girl Cinder, good dog Butte, good Boys! Good Girls!

And just once, I caught a kind of a backward glance from Laredo, who seemed to be saying, "See, now you've got it," and then he was back to his job of keeping up with the sledge in front and looking after the youngster at his shoulder.

The reason for explaining to us the dynamics of the team was not because Connie Arsenault had heard a theory about the principles of leadership and teamwork and was trying it for size.

The reason was that she raced dog teams, the same way they have been raced for three hundred years, and she knows that working with the team, not against them, was the only way to win.

Most people know intuitively how to make a team work.

The team needs respect, support and space to perform in.

If they do not have it they will cease to function as a team.

As a group of individuals they do not have the direction or cohesive power to make anything happen at all.

Connie's story is true and is a reinforcement of what I knew to be true in my work with teams of people.

In the dogs I saw some basic truths about behaviour that humans have been aware of for centuries.

I could see through the example of the dogs how the lessons applied to the modern team environment.

The analogy works and gives a graphic insight into what makes a team work, and strikingly, what stops it from working.

Connie showed me two important lessons that day.

To make a significant change in our effectiveness we don't always have to do anything extra.

All we have to do is to recognise what we are doing wrong, or what is not helping, then stop doing it.

If shouting at the team is not working, stop doing it.

The other lesson that Connie showed me with the dog teams was the effect that the driver had on the team.

The driver (or manager) is responsible for performance but not in the way that we traditionally think.

Telling the team what to do through unnecessary orders or shouting creates a very negative effect that is actually destructive.

What Connie showed us is that the driver creates the conditions under which the team works.

It is those conditions which govern the performance of the team.

I had seen the difference in performance in one team under two different drivers.

The only difference was the change in the conditions which the drivers had made for the team.

The first driver had cursed and blamed the team but, the real fault lay with the person who created the conditions for failure, the driver.

Failure is not the fault of the team, it is the fault of the driver who creates the conditions which cause them to fail.

Understanding this distinction and how to create the right conditions
which allow the team to perform is a key lesson for managers of the
human team.

I was humbled to discover the clarity of the example that Connie and her dog teams had set for us.

Peter A Hunter

and at


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