The Theseus’ Paradox and Team Building

Time to go back in time to my days at Laurier University circa 1986, for a little Philosophy 101 debate!

Professor Rocky Jacobsen stared out at a room full of first year freshman (most of them hungover like yours truly after a Thursday night at the Turret!) and with the hope of generating a healthy discourse shared this question with the class.

“If a ship sails from port A to port B and has every piece of the ship replaced en route is it the same ship?”

This was all part of his introducing the ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’ Paradox.  We would learn that it is a thought experiment that raises the question of whether an object, which has had all of its components replaced, remains fundamentally the same object. 

Well, the classroom lit up and the healthy debate began.  Is it the same ship? Yes?  No?  Maybe so?  Why?  Professor Jacobsen played the role of traffic cop in the middle of a jammed roundabout as the back and forth took off.

Some built an argument around the physics and how no two items are exactly the same.  Some went with it has to be based on the fact that the ship was named and therefore retains its identity.

Back and forth the argument would go like a tennis match being played at warp speed.

I watched the energy rise from the periphery because I was both hungover and struck by the story but from a completely different angle.  A team building angle.

I imagined the ship’s captain calling his crew together to explain their mission.

Lads, we are going to set sail and before we hit land, I want us to replace every piece of this ship. Are you with me?”.

Wow, what type of pre-game speech did he have in his treasure chest to convince his crew to sign on for that adventure?  How prepared would he have to be when asked the inevitable what, when, where, who, why and how questions?

How did Theseus get his team to buy in?  There had to have been a history of trust, transparency, communication and collaboration for everyone to buy in.  There had to have been a record of success forged from previous challenging situations within the group.

When the captain declares that the entire ship needs to be replaced en route, is the response, “We can’t do that…I would rather drown in a tavern than at sea!” or is it “Okay, I understand the plan and I am prepared to adapt and step to plan B, C and D until we hit land. Whatever it takes.”.

Roles and expectations will change and trusting that everyone will strive to achieve a high degree of competency,no matter the role will be key. Becoming adaptable in the face of crisis will be a requirement.

I didn’t care if it was the same boat or not.  I cared about what it would take to keep the boat afloat and would I how I would have to trust everyone on the ship before I signed on. 

Which leads me to what I would do if I was the captain.

My leadership approach would rest upon 4 elements.

Contact is the first step in the process because it allows me to set the tone in terms of how the relationship will begin and what direction it will take. First impressions are everything. Getting off on the right foot is key.

Collaborate is the blending of the ingredients that will make up the strategic plan. Collaboration establishes the next best steps and signifies the direction everyone will take. Collaboration leads to consensus which is a pillar in team building.

Communicate is step number two because it is the theatre in which everyone’s thoughts, opinions, beliefs and goals can be shared. By communicating, everyone can get a real sense as to each other’s strengths.

Communications and collaboration will continue until the goal is reached. It may mean going back to the drawing board and working the problems. It may mean creating a plan B, C or D. Being married to a plan has been the achilles heel to so many teams. Being married to the goal and willing to work the plan is the key to any teams success.

The process is akin to sailing in the ocean. It’s never a straight sail from point A to point B. Variables (predictable and unpredictable) will come into play and force the crew to adjust. The goal never changes but the strategy is always a work in progress. With that, the ability to conquer is always possible.

Ken Evraire is an team building, leadership and team building consultant. As a former professional athlete, he has learned from great coaches and learned even more from the bad ones! He is presently producing a documentary on the Canadian 1996  4 x 100 Olympic Gold Medal relay team. 

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