Astronaut in space

Teams to the Extreme

A recent issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science has a fantastic article from our own Ed Salas and his colleagues that expounds on the needs of teams for extreme missions such as space exploration. For me, this was a dreamy combination of some of my favorite topics: teamwork, space, extreme cases, and ideation.

Researchers from a variety of disciplines are currently working with NASA to prepare for human exploration of Mars in the next decades. Such exploration will take scientific discovery to new heights, providing unprecedented information about the geology, atmosphere, and potential for life on Mars, including previous life, current life, and perhaps even our own lives in the future. To make these unparalleled discoveries, however, astronauts will need to undertake a novel and unprecedented journey. Moreover, the mission to Mars will require a team of crew members who will have to endure and sustain team performance requirements never seen before. Multidisciplinary teams of scientists have begun to provide the needed steps to address this challenge.

My Take

I strongly recommend reading the full paper. Here are some of the key nuggets of insight I got from it.

The team needs to be set up strategically right from the beginning. Often, we think about the combination of task skills that are necessary for the set of activities that the team will have to complete. But for an extreme mission like space exploration, team cohesion is also critical. The paper recommends finding complementary team social preferences, living styles (no Odd Couple combinations allowed), collective orientation, and mutual backup abilities. This is particularly challenging when you have to select your team from the few astronauts available for the mission.

They also recommend a unique way of establishing norms for team dynamics. If you run the team through a variety of realistic simulations while measuring team cohesion variables, you can establish a set of baselines and use these during the space mission to identify problems as they are occurring. Interventions can be implemented immediately.

They suggest monitoring a combination of metrics to get both precision and validity. Their recommendations include biometrics, semantic analysis of text (from astronaut journals and emails), and communication patterns among the team members. Teams can be trained in countermeasures such as reflection debriefings for conflict resolution.

Your Turn

Have you been involved with an extreme team? Perhaps not as extreme as space exploration, but what about a mountain climbing expedition? A marathon relay race? A startup company? Each of these is extreme in different ways and will have different challenges to overcome. We can all benefit from the sharing of your experience.

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