It was about 5 minutes into the walk that I realized I had screwed up.
The 9 people that choose to spend their days working with me walked a few steps behind in 10 degree weather to plans that I hadn’t yet divulged. They work tirelessly day in and day out battling against the clock tackling ridiculously complex problems. How to scale hundreds of machine learning experiments across thousands of servers? How to explain our value-add to healthcare decision makers without getting lost in the sea of “big data” hype? How to build data science in a box while making sure it isn’t a black box? In short, how to change the way healthcare uses its data.
The Cyft holiday getaway was supposed to be a chance for this new team to forget about the daily grind. My plan was a walk to dinner in Kendall Square then off to Trapology, an escape room on the other side of town. Meetings pushed one another giving us a late start toward the festivities. Now we could add “rushed” to the evening’s agenda.
To summarize my poor judgement, my “thank you” was to bring them out into the freezing cold, have them eat a rushed meal against a deadline, then lock them in close quarters working together to solve more riddles. All just in time to secure 2016 Executive of the Year.
Dinner didn’t feel all that rushed but we were t-minus 20 to the start of the next event. Now it was my turn to bring the party down by revealing that they were being dragged to Tremont to be locked in a room with one another. No one objected. They were polite if nothing else.
The 10 of us were split into teams of 5, locked into two different rooms, and told to find a way to communicate, reconnect, solve the puzzles, and escape the room. This team wasn’t complaining about the walk, the rushed meal, the overcrowded Uber rides over.
“Only 17% of teams escape” we were told. That was it. It was on.
Without spoken consensus everyone paired up and attacked a puzzle. Pam, our in-house Medicaid expert and Carter our COO battled a giant ramen noodle machine while engineers crawled through narrow passage ways to unlock puzzles on the ceilings and fired through cook books to decipher codes. The movement was frenetic and the teams changed up often. Robbed of their precious Slack, someone was always running from room to room to communicate the latest findings in hopes to connect more dots. Finally, Robin diligently announced that it was now, with just 5 minutes left, time to dance for the final clue. And with 1:59 on the clock Silvino somehow figured out how to get a painting to drop the final clue into place, unlocking the door, and freeing a victorious Team Cyft – each member of which was laughing and exchanging war stories before the human minotaurs could debrief us properly.
This weekend I reflected on how well it went – despite my apparent efforts to ensure that it didn’t. That’s when I realized I have seen this before.
There is a formula for the projects that I’ve been a part of that achieved great things. What they all had in common was a team of people that thrive on pressure, work as a team, take pride in solving problems, and have a genuinely good time with one another. It was this way when just a few of us decided we could build the world’s largest genomic science project at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Again, years later, this was the nature of a small team at Ariadne Labs that headed off to India to change the way babies are delivered.
These are teams that swarm – selflessly, relentlessly without thought of boundary, hierarchy, or anything that doesn’t bring them closer to the goal. It’s an “us versus them” mentality with ‘them’ being anyone that’s in the way of progress. If you’ve ever been part of such a team you know exactly what I’m talking about. It is a rare thing and an unbelievable experience.
To be sure, it takes time to learn the character of a team. And the tenure of most members of this team is still measured in months. Still, I can’t help but feel like someone just gave me a sneak peak at what 2017 has in store. And I couldn’t be more excited.