A Dozen Team-Building Tips Inspired By The Dirty Dozen


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Stop complaining about how difficult it is to encourage well-mannered, highly educated, civilized professionals to work together. Instead, consider how difficult it would be to transform twelve convicted felons, with an affinity for violence and no desire to work together, into a cohesive, effective team.

That is exactly what Major Reisman is forced to do in E.M. Nathanson’s World War II novel and subsequent film entitled, The Dirty Dozen. The steps Major Reisman takes to create this unlikely team are enlightening to entrepreneurs seeking to unite far more willing teammates.

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Just Fiction You Say? Think Again

A commando unit dubbed the Filthy Thirteen is cited as the inspiration for the fictional The Dirty Dozen. The Filthy Thirteen was part of an elite Army commando unit which was selected and trained to destroy targets behind enemy lines. They were assigned to destroy a bridge behind enemy lines during the Normandy Invasion of Europe in June 1944, a mission that cost most of these men their lives.

These real-life iconoclasts were not prisoners, but many of them did incur various military infractions including drunkenness and disorderly conduct. They took pride in their slovenly appearance and bragged that they only bathed once a week and never cleaned their uniforms. Given that the casualty rate for groups operating behind enemy lines was as high as 90%, the officers generally turned the other way with respect to such infractions. The price these men were willing to pay with their lives more than offset their minor indiscretions.

Dirty Team-Building

Ostensibly, the plot focuses on the team’s mission to destroy a high-level German compound, which is miles behind enemy lines. The mission coincides with D-Day, the Allies’ invasion of France, and is intended to cause confusion within the German high command. However, only a relatively small portion of the plot details the actual execution of the mission. As such, The Dirty Dozen is not so much a World War II venture novel as it is a primer describing how to transform a group of recalcitrant individuals, who have no desire to work together, into a unified, effective team.

The classic phases of team-building, Forming, Storming and Norming were first identified by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. All present within the formation of the Dirty Dozen (DD).

Stage One: Forming

1.  Drafting The Team

Major Reisman takes great care to interview each potential member of the team in order to understand their attitudes and aptitudes. He learns that the criminal charges filed against several of the prisoners are unjustified, which provides further insight into these soldiers’ characters.  The interviews also help him assess whether or not each prisoner has an appropriate personality to become a productive member of a close-knit team.

Lesson: Look beyond the superficial facts on a resume and attempt to determine who each applicant really is, not just what they have done. Just like Major Reisman, entrepreneurs are often forced to hire people with “unconventional” backgrounds during a venture’s nascent phases.

2.  Success Means Everyone Succeeds

At the outset of the team-building process, Major Reisman establishes the following rule: If one person fails, the entire team fails. If anyone drops out of the program, everyone will be returned to prison to face their sentencing.

Colonel Breed, Major Reisman’s antagonist, represents the antithesis of this “collective good” culture. He routinely places his personal success above that of his fellow teammates.

Lesson: Foster this sense of shared success by rewarding employees who go out of their way to help their peers, especially when their personal success is not furthered by providing such assistance.

3.  Common Task

Major Reisman requires the DD to build their barracks in the training camp. The faster they complete the camp, the sooner they have a roof over their heads. Despite their antipathy for each other, they are initially brought together by their shared desire to not sleep in the rain.

Lesson: Unite your team around goals that are in everyone’s best interest. Ideally, select tasks which foster collaboration, rather than assignments that can be readily broken into components that can be performed individually.

4.  Common Enemies

When the DD are first brought together, each member feels that everyone is their enemy, including the other DD members.

The DD’s first common enemy is Major Reisman. They eventually befriend him and work together against a new common enemy, Colonel Breed. After they “defeat” Colonel Breed, the DD’s common enemy becomes the German Army.

Lesson: Just as a sports team is motivated to train harder when facing a bitter rival, you can inspire your venture to bond around their common loathing of a competitor.

Stage Two: Storming

5.  Allow Leaders To Emerge

Major Reisman wisely does not establish an explicit hierarchy within the DD. He allows the team’s leaders to emerge organically. For instance, during the group’s first meeting, a southern bigot insults the lone African American prisoner. A fight ensues. Rather than breaking it up, Major Reisman exits and instructs the military police who are guarding the room to allow the prisoners to “work out their differences.”

Lesson: It is obviously not appropriate in every instance to remove hierarchy from your teams and allow them to fight among themselves. However, in some instances, it is wise to permit employees to self-select their leaders. This allows new leaders to emerge, who you otherwise may not have identified.

6.  Team Identity

The first sign that the DD is Forming into a team is when they collectively rebel against being forced to shave in cold water. They declare, in unison, their refusal to bathe or shave until they are given warm water. This revolt results in their “Dirty Dozen” moniker. Rather than angering Major Reisman, he is pleased that the previous unaffiliated individuals are united in their defiance.

Lesson: Allow your teams to form their own identity, even down to the name they choose for their team. A name that reflects a shared inside joke, can be a powerful source of group identity.

Stage Three: Norming

7.  Us vs. Them

The DD’s mission is considered a fool’s errand by the senior military leaders who devise the assignment. Although they expect the DD to create a viable diversion, they do not expect any of the members to survive. In many ways, this sentiment echoes the manner in which most reasonable people view startups. Often, the only people who believe that a venture will not fail are the members of the venture. A fatalistic team, with a defeatist attitude, has little chance of success. The DD’s naivety and unwillingness to acknowledge the risks inherent in their mission keep the team focused on winning.

Lesson: Relish your team’s underdog status. If properly managed, an “us versus the world” attitude can effectively motivate and coalesce your team around the goal of “proving the world wrong.”

8.  Backfill

Each team member is cross-trained to perform one or more of his fellow teammates’ roles. This is an effective hedge against contingencies and gives the Major greater flexibility to deploy his team in a dynamic fashion, as events dictate. This proves to be sound strategy once the team initiates its attack on the German headquarters.

Lesson: Not only is cross-training a prudent management approach, it also engenders a greater sense of appreciation for the other team members’ roles. It is easier to appreciate the role that others play in an overall mission if you are required to master the assignment yourself. Tasks that are appear simple when viewed as a bystander, become more difficult, when they are carried out as a participant.

At one of my ventures, my salespeople routinely complained about the perceived inadequacies of our accounts receivable department. They were concerned with how quickly we collected the cash generated by their sales, as I did not pay sales commissions until the cash was received from the customer. To address their concern, I anointed the sales team “collection officers” and gave them the responsibility for collecting past-due accounts. They suddenly gained a new appreciation for accounting and stopped complaining, once they realized that our accounting department was actually doing a credible job.

9.  Mission Understood By All

Every member of the DD internalized the entire plan, not just the portion for which they were responsible.

Lesson: Ensure that everyone in your organization understands the company’s overall mission, including those tasks for which they are not directly responsible.

Stage Four: Performing

10.  Winning Is The Tie That Binds

Nothing brings a team together like winning.

Before initiating the mission, Major Reisman allows his men to compete in a war games exercise. Their tactics are unconventional and result in a victory that surprises everyone except the Major and the DD.

By allowing his team to taste victory before setting off on their mission, the Major provided them with a safe environment to test their skills and work together as a cohesive unit. This victory played a significant role in the evolution of the DD from a collection of individual, perennial losers into a united, winning team.

Lesson: Encourage your team to relish “small wins” along their way to a “big win.”

11.  Unity Through Diversity

The DD were ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, especially for 1940s America. The group included an African American, a Russian, an Hispanic, an American Indian, an Italian, an Irishman, a Pole, a Southern religious zealot and a few minor characters of unspecified Western European decent. Such individuals would not even greet each other on the street, let alone work together as peers of their own volition.

Their ability to draw upon a variety of backgrounds and experiences contributes to the team’s ability to effectively carry out their mission, which requires a high level of improvisation and creativity.

Lesson: Create cross-functional task forces to avoid the development of an “us vs. them” mentality that can arise at even the healthiest organizations. Placing salespeople, engineers and accountants on the same team will foster cross-departmental cooperation and informal communication channels, which will likely continue long after the team accomplishes its tasks.

Forcing teams with diverse knowledge to work together will be a potentially painful but enriching experience. A diverse team is more difficult to manage, but will often generate enhanced outcomes from which your entire organization will benefit.

12.  Failure Is Not An Option

Rather than working within the traditional conventions of warfare, the nature of the DD’s tactics caused them to be classified as “spies and saboteurs.” Donning German uniforms to infiltrate the German headquarters changed their status from soldiers protected by the Geneva Convention to spies who do not enjoy human rights protections. Instead of being captured as prisoners of war and treated relatively humanely, saboteurs were summarily executed upon capture. Given the cost of failure (death), the DD did whatever it took to win.

Lesson: Hire employees that do not consider failure to be a viable option.

If Major Reisman can effectively motivate a group of malcontent, antisocial loners to unite into a cohesive unit, then you can certainly do the same with educated, civil, largely nonviolent entrepreneurs. Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I’ll never tweet about roller derby matches or that killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff.

Image : Frank McCarthy, via flickr

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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