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  • APOLLO TEAMS – If the nose cone fits, wear it!


    • ‘Apollo Syndrome’ – the term used by Dr R. Meredith Belbin in 1981 to describe the symptoms of teams of ‘high flyers’ that failed to perform to the high standards expected of them during simulated company management business situations designed to examine why management teams succeed or fail. (1)

    • Greek and Roman God of prophesy and the sun, the epitome of perfect manhood – a ‘high flyer’ if ever there was one!

    • The name given to the US spacecraft in the race to the moon. Apollo 11 with Armstrong, Aldren and Collins succeeded on July 20, 1969. Tragically Apollo 9 caught fire resulting in the deaths of three astronauts.

    Belbin’s research carried out at the Administrative Staff Colleges at Henley in the United Kingdom and at Mount Eliza in Victoria broadly revealed the following:

    • The main feature of successful (i.e. non-Apollo) teams was their strength in those personal qualities and abilities associated with the key team-roles, together with a diversity of talent and personality making up the rest of the team. Even teams with something less than the ideal distribution of talents could compensate for shortcomings by recognising a latent weakness and deciding to do something about it.

    • Conversely, the Apollo teams, comprised of members who were all very creative and/or clever, consistently produced the worst performance. Members spent a large part of their time engaged in abortive debate, trying to persuade the other members of the team to adopt their own particular, well-stated point of view. No one seemed to convert another or be converted. On the other hand, each seemed to have a flair for spotting the weak points of the other’s argument. There was, not surprisingly, no coherence in the decisions that the team reached - or was forced to reach - and several pressing and necessary jobs were totally neglected. The eventual failure of the ‘company’ in finishing last in the exercise was marked by mutual recriminations. Altogether the Apollo ‘company’ of supposed super-talent proved an astonishing disappointment.

    • Apollo ‘companies’ usually ran true to type - difficult to manage, prone to destructive debate and in difficulties with decision-making. Members of these ‘companies’ acted along lines that they favoured personally without taking account of what fellow ‘company’ members were doing. This at least circumvented the blockages caused by collective indecision, but uncoordinated action is only slightly better than taking no action at all. What one member did was undermined, usually unintentionally, by the actions of another. The lack of coherent teamwork nullified the gains of individual effort or brilliance.

    Research by Douglas McGregor in the early1960s (2), more recent findings by researchers such as Daniel Goleman (3), and our practical experiences, all support the thrust of Belbin’s conclusions.

    It would seem that the presence of many highly intelligent and creative people in executive positions may well complicate the leadership, teambuilding, and management processes, especially where there is a need for decisions to be arrived at and implemented in relatively short time frames. Given the problems in governance and management experienced recently in Australia and the USA at Board and Executive Team levels, perhaps a review of how ‘high-flying’ Boards and Executive Management Teams are structured and members are selected and led would be timely.

    What is the situation in your organisation? If no problems, then fine. If the Apollo Syndrome nose cone fits and you are wearing its consequences, then it’s time to take action to ensure you have well balanced teams at all levels and they are led by fair, firm and emotionally mature leaders who are not afraid to lead the necessary change.

    Peter McDougall June 2004

    1. Belbin, R. Meredith, Management Teams - Why They Succeed or Fail, Heinemann, London, 1981.

    2. McGregor, Douglas, The Human Side of Enterprise, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1960.

    3. Goleman, Daniel, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 1998.