I've talked about the fact that everyone needs to contribute for the success of the team and that everyone should have a well-defined backup who knows how to fulfill the tasks should someone be out or unavailable. But what if the unexpected happens? Do we stick by our roles? At first, yes. The first thing to do is to try and work the way everyone understands and is familiar with. However, sometimes that's not possible. There's a saying in the military that "no plan survives first contact." If you've not heard that saying, think about it for a minute and you'll understand why we say that. What is true in battle is true in life, too. There are times when we should step out of our role. Let me give you an example.
This goes back to my Air Force days as well. Every US military base tries to have a place where the American flag is displayed and typically it is raised around sunrise and lowered around sunset along with appropriate honors (the times are fixed, but this gives you an idea of when they occur). At The Citadel, lowering the flag happened at evening formation, before everyone went to dinner. Having come from a background where raising and lowering the flag was a daily observation, it was instilled in me the importance of following the ceremonies properly to show respect for the flag because it represents our nation. Fast forward to when I was a first lieutenant and my unit had the detail to observe the ceremonies for the base flag, what we call Flag Detail.
It was a windy day. It was especially windy that evening as two airmen and I went to lower the flag, fold it properly, and present it to the Headquarters (HQ) staff for safe keeping until the morning. As the officer assigned to the detail, I was to give the commands as well as render a salute that is held while the flag is being lowered and detached from the flag pole. I did just that as the flag was lowered but as it came closer to the ground, the wind picked up tremendously. There is a rule that the American Flag isn't to touch the ground. A flag that does so is supposed to be burned so that a soiled American flag is not retained. As the wind blew harder and started swirling, it became apparent that the flag might just touch the ground as the wind caught it, despite the best efforts of my airmen. And here's where I broke with my role.
I dropped my salute and marched to the center of the flag and grasped it securely to ensure it did not touch the ground. The three of us together were able to keep the flag under control. However, we faced the fact that it was too windy to attempt to fold the flag out in the open. Normally what happens is the head of the detail waits at attention until the flag is properly folded. He or she then receives the flag, holding it on his or her chest with crossed arms. Then the flag is marched and presented to whoever should receive it. In our case, it would be the HQ staff. However, with the weather conditions that wasn't doable. We could attempt it, but we would likely do greater dishonor to the flag if it broke from our grasp as we were trying to fold it. Instead we ensured it was secure against my chest with no chance of going anywhere and I did an about face and marched with my detail back to the HQ staff. They received the flag, took it inside, where it was properly folded.
That day required us to break our assigned roles for the good of the mission: to honor the American flag properly. We could have stuck by the ceremony to the bitter end, but that would have likely meant the mission failed. As the commander of the detail I made the decision to break from our assigned roles when the mission was in doubt. Now this may seem like a simple thing, but for the US military, honoring the flag is of great importance. We honor our nation and we honor our comrades who in its defense have fallen or returned home with permanent injury. The ceremony isn't something we take lightly, but it's not as important as the flag we're honoring.
And that gives insight as to when we should break from our roles on teams. We shouldn't break from them because we want to or because we think we can do things better. Imagine if everyone broke from their roles on a given team because each person thought they could do it better. There would be chaos and likely the team would fail. The appropriate time to consider breaking from a role is when the project or the task's success is in doubt and the breaking away from the assigned role will have a better chance of ensuring success. However, even if we want to do that, we need to make sure the rest of the team understands and the team lead approves. Otherwise, you're back to chaos and likely things will still fail. In the example I gave, I was the commander of the detail so I had the ability to make that decision. But as I did so, I made sure my airmen knew what I was doing so we could all adjust together to the change in plans to ensure a successful completion of the mission before us. Communications is crucial in any situation where the roles have to change.
And to make sure it is clearly stated, the approval for you to break away from your role needs to come from the team lead (if he or she is available). As folks see that a project or task's success is in doubt, if they care about what they are doing, they will likely be thinking of ways to save things. And it's entirely possible multiple people will come up with ideas to help. The team lead is the central point to receive all this input and determine the course of action. Maybe he or she will ask you to step out of your role, but to do it in a slightly different way because another team member will be covering a contigency you didn't consider. Or maybe another team member flat out has a better plan than yours but it means you need to continue in your role. That's why the team lead is the team lead, to receive everyone's ideas and to set the plan. Otherwise, chaos reigns. Chaos typically means failure. And that's the opposite of what we want if we want a successful team.