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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. One of the main advantages this confers is that a crew where people have been trained in their roles can snap into action a lot faster, without having to go through a team formation process, which would depend on relationships between individuals.

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 thanks to their ability to deploy rapidly.


"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 predefined 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.

Crews are one of the ways of navigating hierarchies – instead of trying to avoid their formation, which will simply enable the most powerful players to act in an uncontrolled manner, hierarchies are formalised and made easier to navigate through the recognition of boundaries and clarity in expectation. At the same time, hierarchies are kept in check through interconnection and the ability to attribute authority to the role rather than the person.

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.

Weick 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, but the most crucial part that book played in the genesis of this idea was the realisation of the distinctiveness of crews.

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

  • When using psychometric tests in crew formation, it is important to be aware that these do not reveal permanent characteristics, but tendencies that can evolve over time; they should be used as a tool and a stepping stone, not as a way to classify people permanently. This is the reason why the use of Myers Briggs is not recommended.
  • Although crews can be incredibly useful and important in a crisis, they cannot be created and mobilised at that time, given the investment that goes into their formation. Ideally, training in roles should be pre-loaded as an investment, which then makes them available to be deployed in a crisis. For more details, refer to Examples of Crews.

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

The Crews method has more and less complex variations. Crews (Heavy) refers to the full version of the method, with a Crews (Light) variation described below.

In Crews Heavy, we work with the organization to study and understand the naturally occurring roles, including potentially:

  1. using SenseMaker to capture stories about roles and functions on projects
  2. using more traditional consultancy techniques to analyse projects and
  3. workshops using other reflection and sense-making methods to elicit unspoken roles

This generates a set of data points about the naturally occurring roles within the organization, which we then work with client groups to cluster and group to define the boundaries, through 2-stage emergence.

The final stage is to more fully explore the roles and more specifically, the patterned interactions between roles. In some clients, this exploration (explication?) of roles is through improv theatre – actors (ideally professional) play the roles exactly as defined and we run multiple small plays, getting people from the organisation to give the actors situations and then observe how they play out the roles and modify it – creating a sort of experimental environment in which everyone’s understanding of the roles and their interactions is deepened.

Once the roles are defined, as people join the organization they are trained in these specific roles - never more than two. We also often ritualize the entry into a role by changing costume (eg putting on a uniform or scrubs) or going through some sort of process, repeated practice, or key phrase, because these act as cognitive triggers and allow people to transition from one state into a different one; from "Kate" to "surgeon".

These pre-defined roles and patterns allow for flexible adaptation and enable us to assemble crews across silos rapidly, pulling in the knowledge from different silos. Instead of creating a matrix organization which introduces massive inefficiency and cognitive load, crews offer a more flexible and adaptable way to rapidly assemble and connect people across silos, with a roadmap. This model has great potential in formalising the ideas of distributed and shared leadership, for example, where leadership resides in a crew and roles rather than a person, which makes an organisation less vulnerable to change and less dependent on a single individual.

Crews (Light) is a variation of the method that can be applied with less investment and time, at a smaller scale. This approach uses a psychometric-style test as a heuristic to identify primary and secondary characteristics of team members. Complementarity in those roles in very important, especially in cases where crews assume a leadership role.

For example, this method has been run with Belbin Team Roles (the original 8-chracteristic model) over an extended period to enable distributed leadership and rotational contributions. The reason that something like Belbin is recommended is that it is a test focusing on behaviour and team roles rather than a psychometric test focusing on personality types. Over time, people's roles and characteristics may evolve in response to gaps and needs in the crew and the capacities already present in them; a secondary characteristic, for example, could become a primary one if it is otherwise absent in the crew.

In Crews (Light) we:

  1. Identify which are people's primary and secondary natural roles
  2. Ritualize the entry into the roles and train for them and then
  3. Allocate that formal role to team members during defined time periods
  4. Repeat the process every few months and open the possibility for role-switching within the group

If working from a blank slate, a 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. In the context of the Field Guide, these could also be seen as specialised teams rather than proper crews, which means that they don't necessarily have to go through the full crew formation process in a crisis context but can still increase range and diversity of scanning:

  • 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

Method card material

This material will be extracted for the method cards

Possible symbols or illustrations

Front page description

Crews offer an alternative to traditional teams as a way of ritualizing and formalising interactions between predefined roles.

Back of card summary

A crew is defined by established roles for which members train beforehand. The expectations and interactions between roles are ritualised, meaning that crews can assemble without the common forming, norming, storming, and performing cycle of teams. Members occupy roles for a limited time and role rotation allows for flexibility as crews reform and adapt as required. Crews allow for distribution of power and sense-making in context, outside of the formal hierarchies and silos. To apply Crews, the ‘light’ method utilises pre-existing role frameworks, whereas the ‘Crew heavy’ approach does a deep sense-making dive to identify naturally occurring roles and boundaries within the organisation.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

Method Properties - Ratings

Represented by symbols - interpretation/voting scales are:

COST & RESOURCES: How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?

  1. Requires only common office equipment (eg paper and pens)
  2. Requires simple facilitation materials (special hexies, printouts, whiteboards etc)
  3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials
  4. Requires moderate investment in tools or software to apply
  5. Requires significant investment in software or other specialist tools

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?

  1. No complex facilitation experience is required
  2. Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space
  3. Should be mentored while developing complex facilitation skill
  4. Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical
  5. Advanced, requires deep knowledge of theory and experience

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?

  1. Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease
  2. Requires time commitment but overall, engaging and not difficult to achieve
  3. Mild uncertainty or discomfort, may need work to keep people engaged
  4. Indirect/ambiguous method, requires engagement through sustained levels of uncertainty
  5. Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach