What Managers Can Learn about Teamwork from Discovery's "Dual Survival"

Last Updated May 26, 2011 9:38 AM EDT

Need some insights on how to foster collaboration between coworkers with clashing styles--say, the family values churchgoer and the vegan yoga enthusiast? One place to get some insights is Discovery Channel's fabulous survival reality series, Dual Survival.

I'd never recommend you adopt survival techniques from a popular television show, but you can learn about people under duress and what makes them effective. While I am no hardcore woodsman, my sons and I enjoy the outdoors, and on a recent fishing trip Gabriel and I were resting in our tiny upstate NY motel room when we caught our first look at Dual Survival. The show teams up (it was concepted this way) two bushcraft gurus with different cultures and styles: Cody Lundin, an off-the-grid "wilderness hippie," and Dave Canterbury, an ex-sniper, "military guy" survival specialist. Unusual for me, I fell in love with the show on the spot.

Lundin is founder of and teaches at the Aboriginal Survival Skills School in Arizona, that offers popular skills, adventure, and assorted programs. He is the author of two hugely successful survival books, When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes, and 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive. Lundin is driven by his passionate belief that learning wilderness and survival skills helps us better understand our world, our fragile place in it, and ourselves. He has not worn shoes in 20 years.

Canterbury joined the U.S. Army at age 17, eventually becoming a Special Reaction Team (SRT) instructor and sniper. He trained soldiers in the U.S., Central America and Korea in unarmed combat and close-quarter techniques. Canterbury eventually started his own survival curricula at the Pathfinder Training School in Ohio. Canterbury has posted over 300 survival instructional videos on the web, where they have been viewed by hundreds of thousands. He is also the author of The Pathfinder System: A Common Man's Survival Guide, a solid, useful survival handbook.

In watching a few episodes, I saw why the show is reaping huge ratings with men, and how it inspires ideas about collaborative problem solving. During testing, the producers were looking for chemistry and they found it with Dave and Cody. Most episodes are structured as scenarios, in fact--survival case studies. Dave and Cody are given wilderness situations that have claimed lives. One episode places them in the Everglades in a stalled air boat under the blazing Florida sun; another shows how two lost hunters (it happens) can survive in the ultra-harsh climate of Tierra del Fuego, just 500 miles from Antartica.

No one is pretending that Cody and Dave aren't getting out alive--the show's disclaimer is refreshingly honest. However, we do learn how experts with different backgrounds, competencies, and learning styles effectively cooperate toward a concrete goal with a deadline: get rescued within a few days. Here's what I've picked up on their collaborative practices:

  • Each accepts his own limitations and defers to his partner. Dave recognizes Cody's skills at making fires, and building shelters, while Cody defers to Dave's hunting prowess when food is needed. In setting up a survival campsite--a goal on the route to their objective--they divvy up big tasks according to strengths. When each guy can be the lead dog on a different task, the two personalities are given room to breathe. In an office team, consider giving your polarized personalities stand alone tasks playing to their strengths, so their edgier personalities don't interfere with subtler workings of the project.
  • They intimately know the other's risk appetite: Dave will assume more risk than Cody to reach a desired destination faster. In an episode shot on Montana's Great Plains during winter, Dave favors a riskier straight descent down a steep, icy, hazardous slope to reach the river valley while Cody prefers a slower, circuitous path. In another, Dave pushes Cody to take a short cut through a huge cave--and Cody agrees only after they talk through the costs and benefits of the alternatives. In a work team, colleagues with clashing styles need to learn who is more risk-averse. For example, in assigning deliverables, the more cautious team member can be given responsibility for a later phase of the project.
  • They use humor to ease tension when styles clash. Dave and Cody each draw on humor at tough moments when they get on each other's nerves. In one episode, Dave is disgusted by Cody's decision to drink water filtered through the socks he's been wearing. Dave is authentically taken aback, but laughs, "there's plenty enough water around I don't need to suck my socks."
  • They are both fiercely committed--"we are not quitters": While the narrative is artificial, Cody and Dave share a zeal and passion to finish the challenge. "Me and Cody," Canterbury said in their "Out of Africa" episode, "we're not quitters. We don't give up."
  • They're ready to turn for help if a particular task is going poorly. When one of the guys runs into trouble, and the goal is at stake, he asks for help. This is a higher order practice in work teams, particularly among polar opposites, but it's a key interpersonal skill.
  • Above all, both take personal responsibility for surviving, learning, and adapting during an emergency. One distinction about the show is how eager Cody and Dave are to learn more about their craft. In your workplace, focus on finding colleagues and direct reports who have the capability to learn on the job, self-teach, adapt and make adjustments--during this era of "creative destruction" in the economy and corporate life.
Now, tonight I've got a couple episodes on the DVR. Gotta go!
  • Herb Schaffner

    Herb Schaffner is the president of Schaffner Media Partners, which develops business book and media projects. He is the former Publisher of Business and Finance at McGraw-Hill Professional, and Senior Editor at HarperCollins/HarperBusiness. Books that Schaffner edited, developed, and supervised during his years in publishing won best book awards from The Economist, 800-CEO Read, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times/Goldman Sachs, Strategy+Business Magazine, and the Toronto Globe & Mail. He has acquired and edited dozens of bestselling books including Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Always On, Make or Break, Freedom from Oil, and many others. During his career Schaffner also worked as director of speechwriting and public affairs to a governor, as a communications director at two universities, and for the highly influential Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC. He also coauthored leading reference works on labor and the workforce.