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The black hole image: a true testament to teamwork 7 min read
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If you haven’t already heard, we earthlings have finally managed to digitally capture what was once believed to be impossible – a picture of a black hole 55 million light-years from earth, woah!

What’s surprising about this achievement was the seeming controversy around who deserved credit for capturing the mysterious phenomenon. While one scientist inadvertently became the face of the project, the misconception was immediately corrected. It quickly became apparent that this extraordinary result was actually produced through successful teamwork.

More often than not, success is attributed to one person as if they were working alone in a vacuum. Yet, it’s rarely ever the case. It’s easier to give credit to one over many because otherwise you have to decide to who else, and how many. Where does the acknowledgment end? The cleaners picking up after late nights at the office? In all seriousness though, why did this matter in the case of the black hole image? What can we learn from it?

Computer scientist Katie Bouman’s face was plastered all over the internet because she designed an algorithm that produced the image (and because she is a 20-something woman doing great things in science). She became a superstar overnight and when the news broke, few, if any, other mentions were made. Not even about the project’s team lead Shep Doeleman.

Almost more popular than the image itself was a picture of Bouman beaming with excitement in front of her computer. Instead of basking in all the praises for her work and giving half-hearted thank yous, she wrote the following in a public Facebook post to clarify any misunderstanding around where credit was due:

I’m so excited that we finally get to share what we have been working on for the past year! The image shown today is the…

Posted by Katie Bouman on Wednesday, April 10, 2019

It quickly became clear that Bouman and her teammates were celebrating this overwhelming success together. So much so that her public stance on the importance of teamwork also made headlines.

This extraordinary team was one of three working closely together on one particular aspect of this project. As a whole, the project involved approximately 200 people from 60 research institutions in more than 15 countries. That’s a lot of people in a lot of places!

Teamwork and coordination at that scale and complexity require serious effort on everyone’s part to make it work.

As we know, they didn’t just manage to make it work, they also blew people’s minds in what they managed to accomplish as a team.

What’s great about this success story is any factors that contributed to their teamwork can apply to any team, regardless of their industry, team size, or location. Yes, that means yours too!

While we can’t say for sure what specific factors contributed to their immensely successful teamwork, we have a pretty good idea.

If your team follows the following best practices, effective teamwork will ensue. And your team will do great things, together.

4 Tips for Your Team’s Astronomical Success:

1. Engage your team in the big picture

It took about 20 years of hard work and exceptional teamwork to produce the iconic image. Managing to keep everyone engaged in the project for that long is impressive, so how did they do it? By making an effort to involve everyone in the big picture.

What does that mean? Can you imagine if you’re working on one particular aspect of a project for an extended period of time (for let’s say… 20 years!) and you still don’t have the answers to: Why are we doing what we’re doing? What are we working towards, and for how long? Do my contributions even matter? Yikes…

If you’ve been left in the dark with unanswered questions, you know it’s not fun (and if you haven’t, you’re lucky!). That’s why it’s important for your team to not only to see the big picture but also engage with it and know the “why” behind what you’re doing. It helps maintain motivation, boosts happiness, and increase productivity – even if things change or in some cases, take forever.

2. Encourage open communication

Open communication can mean many different things so when it comes to the workplace, we’re specifically talking about giving your team members the space and opportunity to speak without being completely shut down, or worse, fearing repercussions. The key here is to make people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, opinions, and ideas. This doesn’t mean what’s shared must be implemented, but it does show those who share are heard – and that’s a big one!

There’s that famous Steve Jobs quote, “hire smart people, and let them tell you what to do,” – and we couldn’t agree more. Your teammates are your greatest assets. Let them tell you what they think by providing them with an open space for honest sharing. Your company will only be stronger for it, and you’ll be amazed at what comes from your team with this process.

3. Build trust through accountability

Trust is the cornerstone of teamwork. Without it, your team suffers, and so does the work. Trust in teams is built in many different ways, but accountability is a good place to start.

If we take a look back at the initial debates about who deserved credit for the image, we can see the impact of accountability on team trust. Twitter trolls started what seemed like psychological warfare promoting the work of astrophysicist Andrew Chael while trashing Bouman to push their own agendas (but we won’t get into that).

What trolls didn’t know was how strong trust and accountability was in this team. Everyone did their part to contribute to the overall effort with clear visibility into what each other was doing. Any time a team member spoke up, they mentioned exactly what the other was responsible for and how their work contributed to the project. Had it not been the case, it could have easily turned one teammate against the other – but it did quite the opposite.

In several consecutive Twitter posts, Chael shut down the trolls:

“… While I wrote much of the code for one of these pipelines, Katie was a huge contributor to the software; it would have never worked without her contributions and the work of many others… With a few others, Katie also developed the imaging framework that rigorously tested all three codes and shaped the entire paper…”

He also further praised Bouman for her contribution and team acknowledgment:

I’m thrilled Katie is getting recognition for her work… I’m also thrilled she’s pointing out that this was a team effort… Together, we all make each other’s work better…

4. Recognize and celebrate teamwork

Project lead Shep Doeleman expressed his admiration for the effective teamwork that took place throughout the project.

“I’m just proud of the team. I think of the team as the thing that was built here.”

It sent a really powerful message, acknowledging that building the team was the real success to be celebrated. When you recognize and celebrate teamwork separate from the project, it reinforces collaborative behaviors and makes people feel like their those efforts are worth it.

So the next time your team engages in great teamwork, recognize it, and celebrate it!

Now that you know what it takes to build a team that’s out of this world – what’s the black hole image success for your team?

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