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Strive for more than just "teamwork" - Part 1 of 2

Strive for more than just

 Part 1 of 2: Attuning for extraordinary teamwork

There was an extraordinary team expedition-competition called the Eco-Challenge, sponsored by the Discovery Channel on TV. One year it was held in British Columbia (BC), Canada. Seventy teams of 5 people engaged in an “expedition race” over an 8-to-9-day period. The challenge was to hike over glaciers, mountain climb (rappel, etc.), raft, mountain bike, kayak, and swim. The teams train for a year, as much as 60 hours per week. All members of a team must finish together. In BC, only 14 out of 70 teams finished. The rest dropped out due to heat, hypothermia, exhaustion, or injury.

Interestingly, the highest finishing teams didn’t necessarily have the best athletes, but they did have the best friends. As one person put it, “Everyone has a breakdown during the journey, and the team carries that person. And every team has its moments when it is carried by some individual on the team.”  In BC, the 2 teams “racing” to finish 2nd shifted out of the competitive mode after 5 days. These teams realized they were on an expedition adventure, competing against the course, not each other. They began to help each other and decided to cross the finish line together. One person said, “It turned out to be three-quarters competition and one-quarter expedition together.”  The shift that had occurred among the 10 of them had clearly been an exhilarating experience.

Today, conventional wisdom says that innovative teams are led by the heroes of corporate folklore -- leaders who are bold and decisive. But beyond this conventional wisdom lies something that can revolutionize all our notions of teamwork: The depth and quality of our relationships determines our capacity for being innovative and for thinking and acting innovatively, especially in our daily work.

After all, as Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.” Innovation does not happen in isolation.

We’ve entered an era of relationship heroism, where people who are the most successful in creating the flexibility and spaciousness of authentic and caring relationships will be the most successful in exercising extraordinary teamwork.


For an orchestra to give a great performance, they need more than alignment – playing the same piece of music, at the same rhythm, with clear roles for the different instruments. If they don’t tune their instruments ahead of time, their music will sound awful, even if they start and finish the same piece together. In other words, their performance will be great only if they’ve also developed attunement (being in tune with each other) as well as alignment.

With work teams, attunement means understanding and respecting each person’s individual purpose and values, and developing relationships based on group values. Alignment means working collaboratively towards the same mission and vision. Both alignment and attunement are required for healthy, productive, values centered innovative teams.

While individuals may have particular strengths, it is equally important (or more) to emphasize both team attunement and alignment on teams by addressing 6 issues:

Attunement on:

  • Personal purpose and values
  • Interpersonal relations  

Alignment on:

  • Purpose and vision
  • Roles
  • Empowerment
  • Processes for working together

Use these key questions to both “attune” and “align” your team to be highly innovative!


Personal purpose and values

  • How can we support each person to live their life's purpose through work that is personally meaningful?
  • How can we operate in accord with the good character values each person cherishes?

Interpersonal relations

  • How can we establish "psychological well-being" on a team whereby caring, honesty, and trust make it safe for people to "be themselves" without fear of criticism or embarrassment??
  • How can we build more empathetic relationships with each other and our stakeholders?


Purpose and Vision

  • What purpose and impact do we strive to have that is bigger than our own self-interest?
  • How can we define each goal in a way that is personally meaningful to every team member?


  • What talent and strengths does each person bring to the team?
  • What do we expect and count on from each other in terms of our roles & responsibilities?


  • What decision-making authority do we have, individually and as a team?
  • How can we involve other stakeholders in our deliberations and final decision-making?


  • How do we make sure the best ideas rise to the top and are considered?
  • What guidelines can we agree on for communicating, sharing knowledge, generating ideas, resolving conflict, and making decisions?

Questions like these led the 2 Eco-Challenge teams to realign the purpose of their teams from pure competition against other teams to an expedition of competing against the course. They re-attuned themselves with the other team members to carry each other through the ups and downs of their expedition adventure.

And they crossed the finish line together in 2nd place, as 2 of the 14 teams to finish out of the 70 teams that started. That’s the power of alignment and attunement together, a power we can all learn and practice in our innovative teamwork.

Read Part 2: Which comes first: Team alignment or attunement?



William Miller's picture
About the author

William C. Miller, co-founder of Values Centered Innovation, is passionate about integrating emotional intelligence, human values, and mental discipline with our innate capabilities to be innovative.