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Lessons from the Chilean Miner Rescue: A high performing team in action

Insight

13 October 2017

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Lessons from the Chilean Miner Rescue: A high performing team in action

Do you remember where you were 7 years ago today, on October 13th, 2010? Who were you with? What were you doing? You may recall witnessing the infamous rescue of 33 men from the San Jose gold mine in Chile. 

These men were buried alive 650 meters underground with only enough food to feed ten of them for two days. The idea of rescuing these individuals alive seemed impossible with estimates of their survival rate as low as 1 and 2 percent 1. As they were lifted to safety one-by-one and greeted by raptures of applause, people began to question. How, after 69 days underground and 40 unsuccessful drilling attempts, did these individuals see the light of day again?

This story is the perfect example of a high performing team in action. By exploring the details of the story further, there are a few key questions you can ask yourself to determine if you’re operating within a high performing team and how you might cope if faced with a crisis situation.

Team Process (what the team does):

During the first 24 hours of being trapped no helpful processes developed. The miners formed groups based on kinship, and individuals made attempts, all in vain, to get noticed by the outside by creating vibrations and lighting explosives. On day three the impact of their decisions became apparent and resulted in some changes:

  • A democratic process where each man had one vote was introduced for decision making
  • Through this process two men were chosen to guard the food and not provide more than a slither to individuals over a 12-hour period.
  • Permanent sleeping sites were formed.
  • The leaders of the rescue above the ground held two separate press conferences daily (one for the families, and one for the media). The meetings were kept separate to ensure that the separate concerns were addressed but consistent messages were conveyed to ensure that there was trust in the rescue efforts.

Question: How deliberate and aligned is the communication across your team?

Team Mind (how the team thinks):

Typically, in the Chilean mining industry at that time, if there was no sign of life for one week then the condolences would be sent to families and the search efforts abandoned. Knowing this, imagine the shock of the miners the first time they witnessed a drill breakthrough into the refuge, the area of the mine where they had congregated. At first, they shouted and screamed in the hope that they would be heard above ground. When this failed they tried hitting the drill with pots and pans but the vibrations would not reach the top. Through a process of action and reflection the group managed to acquire and share knowledge quickly. They eventually decided that the next time a drill entered the area, they would mark the end of the drill with red paint so that once extracted, those above ground would see a sign of life. They went on to attach a now famous note saying, "We are well, in the refuge, The 33."

Question: How does your team review performance and share knowledge with each other to aid decision making?

Team Emotion (how the team feels):

As the days passed, the miners began to share what awaited them on the outside. These conversations generated greater trust and rapport amongst the group. One was an ex footballer wanting to start a not for profit organisation, another was awaiting the birth of his child. Gomes, 63 and the oldest, shared his story of an 11-day journey aboard a Brazilian cargo ship surviving on rainwater. Twenty-five of the individuals lived very close to the mine and shared many stories in common. Through doing this they each felt a much deeper affiliation to the group, care for each other and their shared goal of survival. For example, the group identified one of them had respiratory issues and therefore ensured that they had somewhere less humid to sleep.

Question: When you think about your teammates how easy it to answer...what are they proud of? passionate about? doing this job for?

Team Psychological Edge (how resilient the team is):

The miners successfully maintained resilience in the face of intense pressure by resuming elements of normality such as using their lighting systems to simulate day and night. They created a list of tasks and chores and tried to distribute them based on expertise and enthusiasm for the task. For example, Yonni Barrios volunteered as medical advisor despite having no medical background and only a small amount of knowledge from his reading around the area.

Question: What are you doing to create an environment so your team can thrive on pressure?

Team Leadership (how the team leads):

Chile's President Piñera contacted the world’s greatest and most experienced individuals for supporting people in extreme confinement. NASA and the Chilean Navy's submarine fleet worked behind the scenes to pilot extraction methodologies. However, he successful drilling approach did not come from Nasa or the Navy, it came from Igor Proestakis, a 24-year-old field engineer who had made his way to the mine on his own. He was not invited based on his credentials but he felt that an American company's cluster hammer technology could cut through the hard rock quicker than other drills could. 

Igor shared his suggestion with two senior engineers that he happened to know through his family who thought it could work so immediately took him to see Andre Sougarret, the head of drilling. The magnitude of this decision was immense and it was made more complex by the fear of causing a third and fatal cave-in, if the drill was not delicate. Igor demonstrated leadership. He had belief in his ideas and the conviction to act on that belief. His belief was rewarded as the engineers provided Igor with a platform to voice his idea and Sougarret created an environment of psychological safety where it's safe to speak up, to suggest, to debate and disagree, regardless of your rank and without the fear of repercussions. Sougarret empowered his people to think for themselves and find solutions. Igor was then asked to implement his plan with a small drilling team, which was the first to reach the trapped miners. 

Question: How reliant is your team on your formal team leader... In what circumstances could ‘shared leadership’ be promoted within your team?

This is obviously an extreme example of a high performing team in action. You will likely never be stuck down a mine, but I’d bet that your team does face its own tough challenges on a regular basis. To ensure your team can thrive under pressure and deal effectively with anything thrown your way, discuss the questions I’ve posed here with your team. You’ll quickly uncover areas that you might need to work on so you can develop your own high performing team.

 1 https://hbr.org/2013/07/leadership-lessons-from-the-chilean-mine-rescue

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