Have you ever experienced a situation in which, despite terrible planning and decision-making, a team rallies and accomplishes a daunting goal through valiant efforts, long hours, and/or sheer tenacity? Most of us have, and it’s all too often the case that this rallying becomes a new norm or expectation for a team. After all, if a team can rally and win in this way once, why can’t they do it all the time?
In their book Antipatterns: Managing Software Organizations and People, Neill, Laplante, and DeFranco call this pattern “Dunkirk Spirit,” after the courageous efforts of the English civilian sailors who rescued the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II. The BEF needed to be rescued because the Allied commanders had drastically underestimated the power of the Nazi forces.
There’s an odd paradox about Dunkirk Spirit episodes: on the one hand, they can be incredible rally points, and on the other, they can be unproductive and even damaging. In any high-performing team, you’re going to get occasional — perhaps even frequent — episodes of Dunkirk Spirit from different individuals or parts of a team, but because of its intensity, Dunkirk Spirit can’t be something that’s a regular or expected part of a team’s performance.
There are a few reasons that Dunkirk Spirit can’t be a regular team expectation:
- When your team is in a Dunkirk Spirit episode, all other projects and priorities fade away. Because the episode displaces other projects and priorities, you’ll need to make sure that those other projects and priorities are picked back up. What you don’t want is a cycle in which one episode creates another as the team rushes to put out some fire that started during the previous episode, only to have to turn around and do it again.
- The intensity of a Dunkirk Spirit episode is both exhilarating and taxing. The high of running full tilt often comes with a crash of having burned through all of your fuel.
- Dunkirk Spirit episodes set up a situation in which it’s easy to fail. All it takes to start a cascade is for one key player — especially the project leader — to go down hard. The heroism that is the signature of a Dunkirk Spirit episode is also what makes it such a fragile and tenuous pattern.
If Dunkirk Spirit is allowed to be an everyday thing, it can become pervasive in a company’s culture or an entire industry. One of my standing concerns with Startup World is that it burns through people so quickly because of the operating belief that Dunkirk Spirit is what’s required to be successful there — people’s lives, careers, and health be damned. Founders are particularly bad about assuming that everyone does or should have their founder’s mojo, or not seeing that what they’re asking people to do is channel Dunkirk Spirit all the time.
7 Ways to Prevent Dunkirk Spirit from Burning Out Your Team
So, how do you prevent regular — and potentially destructive and counterproductive — appearances of Dunkirk Spirit?
- Make better plans. Most of the time, Dunkirk Spirit is required because of poor or nonexistent planning. Without a plan, you can’t convert a goal into the methods of achieving it, and without knowing the methods of achieving that goal, your team can’t make sure the right people are available at the right time. The catalyst for Dunkirk Spirit is the recognition that the only way a goal will be accomplished is through the nearly superhuman efforts of a few people in an extremely short amount of time, and this is the only way precisely because people and support weren’t brought into the process earlier.
- Communicate partial plans earlier. In 4 Ways to Be An Effective Leader, I shared the 4/5ths rule, which states that your team should have 4/5ths of the time available to complete the project, giving the leader 1/5th of the time to make the plan and communicate project parameters. What gets so many leaders stuck is that they want to share a complete plan first, rather than initiating movement earlier. In the Army, we called these partial plans WARNOs (short for Warning Orders); they communicated the basics of a plan and got people moving earlier, giving the planning team time to make the full plan. Just knowing that something is coming down the pike and who’s going to be part of the team allows people to start preliminary preparations. The more people you bring in earlier, the more you can tap into the collective power of your team to help avoid making Dunkirk Spirit a requirement for success.
- Focus on fewer projects that matter most. While item #1 above is about making better plans for specific projects, it turns out that carrying too many projects in the first place often leads to a Dunkirk Spirit episode. For instance, if you’re running seven mission-critical projects and one slips, you’ll likely need to rally around that one project to make sure it is successful. But after you rally around it, one of the other six projects might be behind or in danger of slipping, so then you rally around it. As I mentioned above, Dunkirk Spirit episodes will always displace something, but carrying too many projects at once is asking for a cycle of Dunkirk Spirit episodes that will deplete and demoralize your team.
- Bake some margin into your team allocations. In Work at 80% Capacity with 100% Focus, I addressed the confusion between capacity and focus — many people assume that you can’t be 100% focused without being at 100% capacity, but focus and capacity are two separate things. We know that any plan is going to be off by a certain degree, so baking margin into our plans allows us to accomplish our goals without Dunkirk Spirit.
- Get more frequent status updates and adjust your plans. Yes, there’s a potential for update overkill in any team, but Dunkirk Spirit is often required because a project went off the rails at some point and somebody didn’t speak up about it until a Dunkirk Spirit episode became the only way the team would meet the goal.
- Kick the creep. Many projects start with clear and simple goals, only to have them creep into confusing and unreachable targets. The supreme art of being a good leader is to keep people focused on what matters most while proactively ensuring that the straws of fluff, bright shiny objects, and personal pet projects don’t add up to an unbearable load.
- Do postmortems and apply the insights you gain from them. In the Army, we called these postmortems “AARs” (after-action reviews), and they’re a key tool in making sure that teams perform well. Your team’s going through a Dunkirk Spirit episode should be a cue that you need to do a postmortem to see what you could have done to prevent that episode from being needed. Usually this prevention requires making better plans.
Save Dunkirk Spirit for the Times You Need It or Can Plan for It
“There are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.” – Donald Rumsfeld
While Rumsfeld’s quote may sound funny, it carries a lot of insight that’s relevant to our discussion of Dunkirk Spirit, as it helps us see the two instances in which Dunkirk Spirit is appropriate.
The first instance is the known unknowns. For many teams, a known unknown is what they can actually do when they focus on a particularly challenging and motivating goal. Planning events that stretch your team’s capabilities and enable a bit of Dunkirk Spirit can be a great way to build team confidence, collaboration, and esprit de corps. If everyone knows that this is launch week, ship week, pitch week, or whatever week is relevant for your team AND you’ve tapped into what drives your team, these events can be a positive team challenge.
The second instance is the unknown unknowns, or those events that happen that just couldn’t be foreseen. Unexpected exits of key teammates, the appearance of a new technology or competitor, or changing political or social circumstances can often cause these shifts. In a situation where there’s still a chance for you to be successful but it’ll require some Dunkirk Spirit, it can create the same effect as the first instance, whether or not your team is successful.
In both of these cases, managerial oversight or incompetence isn’t the root cause of the need for Dunkirk Spirit, so team morale and performance can be improved by the appearance of Dunkirk Spirit. It still isn’t something that should be a regular occurrence, but these types of events create those highlight moments that your team will remember and talk about fondly, as opposed to grumbling about.
Dunkirk Spirit can build great teams. It can also burn them out and tear them apart. (Tweet this.)
Over to you: Is your team too reliant on Dunkirk Spirit to achieve its goals? Is there no room for the positive instances of Dunkirk Spirit? Which of the factors above do you need to address?