The Secret Sauce of Teamwork

March 30, 2012. By Heath Hill and Brett Thompson contributed to hbr.org
In some sense, barbecue has always been a competitive sport. You’ve probably experienced it this way yourself. Think back to the last backyard picnic you attended and how you stared down your grandmother before you took off like Barry Sanders—how both of you hurdled over picnic tables, through friends and family, to get your hands on that last juicy rib. What you might not know is that competition in barbecue has moved beyond the kind of chop block you applied to grandma. In recent years it has become a professional, high-stakes team sport.

Its 2:00 a.m. at the 2011 Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue and a cloud of aromatic smoke already hangs in the Tennessee night air. This “hollow” is home to Jack Daniels’ distillery and is as big a stage as the world of competitive barbecue offers. Eighty-nine championship teams from across the United States and eleven foreign countries are converging on Lynchburg for the season’s culminating competition. Each team arrives at “the Jack” with the dream of being declared grand champion of the sport’s most prestigious contest.

Our team is Pork Barrel BBQ, a name that honors our backgrounds in Washington D.C., and also graces the sauces we became entrepreneurs to sell. At this early hour we’re rubbing the sleep from our eyes and shaking the chill from our bodies, but we’re excited to light the fire in our Lang 84 smoker. Hearing the crackle of the freshly lit oak and hickory in its firebox for the first time on the hallowed grounds of Lynchburg is reward in itself for a season’s worth of hard work.

Our journey here began months earlier at a frigid spring contest and continued through the sweltering heat of the summer and crisp air of autumn. Like many of the 9,000-plus teams competing on the Kansas City Barbecue Society competition circuit, we cooked thousands of pounds of meat. Seventeen contests and countless practice sessions honed our skills.

Along the way, as we won and lost, and learned our strengths and weaknesses, we discovered something important: winning — whether on the barbecue circuit or on the grocery store shelves — isn’t as much about the sauce as you might think. A lone cook in a kitchen can come up with a delicious combination of flavors, but to win big, you need to excel at teamwork.

Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” For a team to come together, its members must share a common goal. This is often the main value a leader provides: being able to articulate a clear vision and principles for how the team will reach it. Our team has a motto: “Reward Lives in the House of Risk.” It reminds us that, as more teams compete on the competitive barbecue circuit, the level of competition only increases and those who play it safe often find themselves at the bottom of the standings. As entrepreneurs, too, we have to remember that calculated risks must be taken to improve our overall results, but that unproductive risk should be avoided where it can through preparation and planning.

Staying together is a matter of recognizing the different strengths people bring to the table, and how they complement each other to make up a whole capability. This really shows up in the most critical period in a competition, the short window of time at the end when a barbecue team must turn its finished products (chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket) over to the judges. At its best, it looks like chaos, but in the best teams, each member is carrying out his or her assigned role while also carefully calibrating with the others. It’s not just a matter of who’s watching the brisket and who’s minding the chicken. The right person also has to act as the team’s “closer.” The seemingly simple task of conveying a warm box of meat to the judges’ table is also a prime example of where preparation can allow a team to avoid unnecessary risk. Our closer walks from our cook site to the judging tent several dozen times prior to turn-in, strategizing the best way to navigate to the table through the crowd, timing the trip to the second, deciding just when to deliver our entry, and visualizing how she’ll present it.

Finally, a team has to get good at working together. After its members understand their roles and how best to exploit their strengths, they need to become very practiced at working in unison. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research showing that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become truly expert in a field. Certainly thousands of hours of trial and error have already informed our process. Usually it’s the errors that teach us most. From burnt ribs to undercooked pork shoulders, we identify and address our weaknesses in competition, and also learn to put more emphasis on our strengths.

Coming together, staying together, working together—if anything, these are the ingredients of a winning barbecue team’s “secret sauce.” By the end of this day, we’ll be saluting a team from Abington, Mass., that must have it: out of all the sport’s legends assembled in Lynchburg, they’ll be declared Grand Champions of this 23rd Annual Invitational. For us, placing our briskets and pork butts on the smoker rack in the middle of an October night, it’s enough to pause to soak in this moment. The success our team visualized for 2011 was only this: earning a spot to cook at the Jack!

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