What do jet engines and work teams have in common? If either generate too much heat, they will self-destruct. Aeronautical engineers found a surprising way to adapt their engines so they could handle more heat and operate at higher capacities. Today we’ll look at three ways to apply their approach to leadership, and boost our own team performance.
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Loss of Structural Integrity
Next time you fly, consider this little tidbit: the heat generated inside a jet engine is hot enough to melt the blades of the turbine that makes it run.
So how does that work?
I came across this fact in a book I recently read, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (affiliate link). Author Simon Winchester shares that the first jet engine turbine blades were made from steel. That was OK for a start, but it limited performance. The higher the temperature in the combustion chamber, the more powerful your engine can be. Steel loses its structural integrity at temperatures higher than 500 degrees Celsius, so the first engines weren’t very powerful.
To improve their capacity, engineers developed alloys of nickel and chromium, which held their strength through 1,400 degrees Celsius. As a result, engines could operate at far higher temperatures and develop greater thrust.
But by the 1970s they had advanced to the point where they could no longer make alloys that could withstand the heat they wanted to produce. What to do?
An Unexpected Solution
To get past this sticking point, a team of engineers at Rolls-Royce came up with the idea of protecting the blades with a cushion of…wait for it… air.
They made the turbine blades with hollow channels inside, and then drilled a complex pattern of tiny holes in the surface. With this arrangement, they could introduce cooler air into the interior of the blades. As it exited the holes the air would form a protective thermal layer, shielding the blade from the heat of the combustion.
With this breakthrough, jet engines could continue to grow in power and efficiency. Currently they can operate at temperatures approaching 2000 degrees Celsius, 600 degrees above the melting point of their turbine blades.
What does this have to do with leadership? Thinking of the turbine blades as our teammates and the combustion chamber as all that happens from day to day on our teams, a few thoughts come to mind:
Boosting Team Performance
1. Develop the strongest alloys. This is like Jim Collins’ idea about getting ‘the right people on the bus’ from his book Good to Great. The higher the quality of the components, the greater the engine’s potential. If we have a say in the hiring process, any time devoted to finding the most capable and compatible teammates is time well spent.
Often, though, we inherit whatever turbine blades happen to be under the cowling. Even so, if we pop the hood and see nothing but steel, we are not fated to sputter slowly along. We can turn them into stronger alloys though training, experience, coaching, and developmental delegation. We may have to accept what we’re given, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
2. Try ‘less.’ So often when a problem crops up, we try to solve it by adding something – more rules, an additional step in the process, another meeting. It is amazing how quickly organizations can bog themselves down with this approach – all too often, the solution for problems in a bureaucracy is more bureaucracy.
Instead, we can take a cue from the engineers at Rolls-Royce: try taking something away. They didn’t add to the blades; they removed some of the material that was already there. As challenges arise on our teams, a good question is to ask “what can we remove that’s in the way?”
3. Buffer the heat. All heat is not bad. There has to be some level of combustion for the engine to function. The thing is for us is to control it. Sometimes we want to turn the heat up, like excitement over a big event, or firmness when discipline flags. There’s even call for a little anger when teammates are disrespectful with each other, or there’s an ethical breach.
Other times we need to turn the heat down. When the pressure is on, if we allow our emotions to lead us into hasty decisions, we risk unexpected outcomes we may later regret. Cool deliberation followed by determined action is the key to success here.
And sometimes, like the air over the turbine blades, we need to act as a heat shield. That might mean underwriting honest mistakes our teammates make, or protecting them from the boss. When things go well, we should pass along the credit to the deserving; when they don’t, we absorb the blame.
Team Performance – The Takeaway
In order to propel themselves forward, jet engines produce heat, but too much heat will destroy the engine itself. Like the engineers at Rolls-Royce, our job is to control the heat to get the most out of our own engines.
That means improving the capability of the componentry through development, removing obstacles, and controlling the temperature inside the combustion chamber.
Like engineers, leaders pay close attention to the operating temperatures of their engines. Adjusting conditions to get the right setting is a sure path to boosting team performance.