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"Solidify the scaffolding but not the end product" and trust that "if you create the right process, the individuals will develop"[1]

Crews are not teams. As Dave Snowden has noted, "Crew structures give authority to roles, rather than individuals and also create creative command tensions between those roles."[2] This makes crews more like assemblages as the coherence is given in the connectivity between roles than in the personal relationships.

Recourse to crews has a long tradition in everything from fire services to the flying of aircraft, and in military arrangements. The application to organisational design builds on associated principles around scaffolding interactions such that individuals will develop and systems will change.

In 2021, developing and deploying crews was listed as an effective method for crisis management in the Field guide to managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis.


"In a crew there is always a pilot, but who is the pilot at any time can change. If you look at operating theatres in hospitals you see something similar. The professions also largely develop core concepts such as trust by collective practice over time rather than exhortations and mission/purpose statements."[3]

Crews exist wherever coherence in interactions is patterned by a habituated focus on connectivity between roles: where ways of collaborating emerge from a focus on linkages between what is taken to be the "part to be played" by individuals wearing one or many hats. Because of this, day-in, day-out operation as a crew is not premised upon anyone's sense of personal identity. This allows crews to figure in Anthro-complexity as a counterpoint to the modern corporate team, which is commonly modeled in the literature as a progression of "forming, storming, norming, and performing" and which remains so central to recent fixations of corporate coaching.[4]

As we see in everyday examples such as a flight crew, a fire crew or lifeboat crew, those trained in specific roles, are expected to be so well versed in established practice (including in how roles are inhabited and in how crew members are expected to interact) that someone from another crew could be substituted into the crew in a seamless transition. Unlike in a team, the bond of trust is rooted in commitment to shared practices and what's held in common through norms established in training and apprenticeship experiences.

The Theory

"I’ve always had people around me whose strengths complement my weaknesses. That process is formalised in crews where people are trained in role and role expectation. As a result, the crew has more cognitive capacity than the sum of the individuals who make it up. Crews can also delegate authority without loss of status and are better at sharing failure (it was the role, not the person) than teams. In leadership, the idea is defacto practiced but still maintains the cult of the individual at the top."[5]

Within crews, the behaviour of those taking on roles and interactions between those taking on roles is governed by established practice. The level of established practice held in common by the crews themselves will determine the extent to which individuals occupying specific roles may be switched around without adverse impact on the ability of the crew to perform effectively.

The established practice may reflect any combination of governing and enabling constraints, and any balance between explicit (drilled) procedure and the common, tacit knowledge which ensures crews have a common approach. Strategies may need to be in place in order to avoid drift or divergence in ways of operating, but also to pick up on opportunities to develop what is to be counted as acceptable practice, and perhaps to dissolve/reformulate the crew structure.

Rituals may also play a key role within established practice. For example, taking on a role in a busy kitchen or an operating theatre may involve becoming accustomed to changing clothes and scrubbing up. In other contexts, operating procedures might require apprentices to become habituated to giving briefings and working through checklists (e.g.

Wieck and Sutcliffe (2001) explore the types of trust that exist within forest fighting teams and the crew of aircraft carriers as measured by their ability to share failure. This is an important aspect which enables crews to learn and to be effective.

Ethical considerations

"Ritual is a key part of a crew as well, allow clear liminality between who I am and what the role represents which is important."[6]

Although crews predate any contemporary ethical concerns around the coaching of teams, arguments for crews have recently been made on the basis that manipulating roles is more ethical than manipulating identities.[7] On the flip side, the way crews focus on impersonal roles foregrounds questions around the nature of recognition within crews.[8]

Common misunderstandings

The Praxis

In practice, we might need to take active steps to counter any natural "drift" from operating as a crew to operating as a team . In familiar networks, individuals have a habit of exploring different ways of behaving, trust tends to become based on more than just common grounding in established practices, and relationships tend to end up going well beyond what's envisaged in any impersonal codification of interchangeable roles.

Establishing Crews

Establishing Crews typically starts with steps to scaffold interactions through defined roles. We might choose to use Belbin Types as enabling constraints in establishing a crew. This would give the following points of coherence: Co-ordinator; Shaper; Plant; Monitor Evaluator; Team Worker; Resource Investigator; Completer Finisher

If working from a blank slate, workflow to create a Crew-structure for a Project might entail the following stages:

  1. Develop (and keep reviewing) a Contraints Map (including governing constraints & enabling constraints);
  2. Identify (and keep reviewing) roles, cluster and group the roles & highlight role-specific constraints;
  3. Catalyse apprenticeships within roles with appropriate developmental experiences;
  4. Amplify/dampen trends to support progression to more senior roles;

Note: developmental experiences for crews should ideally happen in safe-to-fail environments and must build a base of common understanding which is reflected in a gradual consolidation of established practice that is supported by what is held in common as tacit knowledge.

In order for crews to work effectively, this MUST extend to all crews, otherwise procedural norms will begin to vary and crew members will cease to be interchangeable.

Note: If the crew needs to perform in a higher pressure situation, consideration should be given to ways of simulating that environment in a safe-to-fail manner.

Sustaining Crew Systems and Countering Drift

Traditionally, some have sought to sustain crews by formally establishing a training regime somewhere on a spectrum stretching from an apprenticeship model to a taught course .

We have seen some exploration of this in the software development community also as part of the move from project to product and long-lived teams. These start to have crew like characteristics and as such the the importance of how you sustain and change the groups has been a consideration. This is something explored in Dynamic Reteaming: The Art and Wisdom of Changing Teams.

Examples of Crews

The Field guide to managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis provides a number of examples of crews that may be applicable in a modern organisational context:

  • The probing crew - exploring novel concepts with a view of creating proposals and prototypes
  • The wrecking crew - intended to war game decisions, looking for both intended and unintended consequences
  • The journaling crew - support ritualisation of journal keeping in time of crisis
  • The continuity crew - take over day to day running in a time of crisis
  • The data analytics crew - can activate and synthesise weak signal detection
  • The healing crew - help carry our employees on what may be difficult journeys

Supporting artefacts

Any training material, posters and like with links to where they can be acquired


Link to other articles on this wiki if they are relevant


A series of articles on how teams failed in a recent ship collision -

An audio recording of a US Navy vessel in collision with merchant vessel, showing the breakdown in crew interactions and shared understanding

Decision-making framework from Civil Aviation

  • Managing the Unexpected, K.E. Wieck and K.M. Sutcliffe. 2001

Study and Book Chapter related to crew formation and, in particular, airline crews

  • First Encounters of the Close Kind: The Formation Process of Airline Flight Crews (Ginnett, R 1987) (related to the airline crew formation case)
  • Crews as Groups: Their Formation and their Leadership (Ginnett, R 2010)

Blog posts

Related concepts

Link with commentary

  • Coherence
  • Entangled trios can overlap with crew formation – crews can be formed through the entangled trios method
  • Heuristics for providing constraints around the functioning of crews and for helping define roles and supporting individuals staying in their defined roles
  • Human sensor networks
  • Ritual is central to entry into crew roles
  • Social network stimulation – stimulate the formation of informal networks
  • Dynamic Reteaming: The Art and Wisdom of Changing Teams, Heidi Helfand. 2019


Link to case articles here or third party material