Lost in France – How A Team Developed And Worked Under A Volcanic Ash Cloud

On our way back from a fantastic Holiday in Peru, Fiona and I were stranded in Madrid when British airspace was closed due to the volcanic ash cloud covering Northern Europe.

We met three fellow Brits in Madrid Airport and decided to travel back to England together.  The following five days was a classic illustration of team development and team roles and we thought it would be interesting to write it up.

Day One:

We arrived at Madrid Airport at 5am on Saturday 17th April.  We were told by Iberia Air that, if the airspace over the UK was opened immediately, we would still not be able to get on a flight until Wednesday.  We decided at that point that we didn’t want to stay in the airport until Wednesday and would make our way to Bilbao or Santander  (thinking that most people would be trying to get to Calais so these ports would probably be quieter).

We were researching options on the Internet when someone looked over our shoulder and asked if she could view the pages with us.  We discovered that the Ferry from Bilbao was full until Friday and that there was no ferry from Santander until Thursday.

We decided to have a coffee and think about the way forward. Glenn and Zoe were from London and had travelled from Mexico arriving at about the same time as us.  We then met Felicity who had been on the same flight as Glenn and Zoe.  Felicity had lost her luggage and decided to join us to travel home.

Over coffee we began to discuss our options and the situation rapidly began to feel like a Team Development exercise – the sort of activity we would set for our Delegates:

Your task is to get from Madrid to the UK.

There are no ferries from Bilbao or Santander.

The French trains are on strike, there are no hire cars in Spain – and when one becomes available it will cost 2,000 Euros.  There are no Hotel rooms available in Madrid and if you stay in the Airport, you will have to wait until at least Wednesday, but every hour the airspace is closed puts your possible departure time back.

Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development

BW Tuckman described 4 stages of development a team needs to go through before it becomes effective.  These are:

Forming (testing)

Storming (in-fighting)

Norming (getting organised)

Performing (mature rapport)

The amount of time a team spends in each of these stages will differ, and indeed some teams may get stuck in one of these and will never become effective.

Our initial conversation over coffee helped us to find out a bit about each other, and establish the team goal – get back to ‘Blighty’ as soon as possible, without spending a huge amount of money.  We went through the ‘forming’ stage very quickly and began to explore ways of reaching our goal.

On reflection, our ‘storming’ stage was also very quick – we had some debates about the best way away from Madrid with everyone initially thinking their idea was the best, but we soon moved from this stage as we realised the best way forward.  Communication was key to this development in the team and, again on reflection, we communicated really well right from the start.

We caught a coach from Madrid to San Sebastian and tried to find a way across the border into France.  We managed this on the world’s most crowded train, arriving in Hendaia as it began to get dark.

We got a taxi to Biarritz station to try and get a train to Paris only to find that there were no trains that night and may not be the following morning due to the strikes.

We decided to find a hotel and got a taxi to a local hotel which was full.  We asked the Receptionist if she knew of any hotels with rooms and she phoned one just up the road where we able to find 2 rooms for the night.

The restaurant was closed and the bar had no snacks so we had a few beers which, having not eaten since the inflight breakfast at 4am went down very well indeed.  We used the time and the beer to find out a lot more about each other including the fact that Zoe grew up in the same town as Fiona and me.

Day Two:

The following morning we returned to the station to find that all the trains to Paris were fully booked and, being Sunday, all the car hire offices were closed.

By this time we were moving rapidly through the norming stage and we decided to go to Bayonne.

We travelled by local bus to Bayonne which has a large station and, discovering that there was no way we could get to Paris that day, booked into a Formula 1 hotel and spent the afternoon wandering around the beautiful town and visiting a few bars.

We contacted friends in the UK who booked a hire car on line for us so were confident we could get to Roscoff by Monday afternoon.  We had booked a ferry by phone while we were at Madrid Airport and Brittanny Ferries were happy to move our booking from Sunday to Monday afternoon.

Day Three:

On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel and made our way to the Avis car hire office.  By this time, we were beginning to take on individual roles within the team.

Team Roles

A team role as defined by Dr Meredith Belbin is:

“A tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way.”

Meredith’s work at Henley Management College identified 9 clusters of behaviour – each of which is termed a team-role.  Each team-role has a combination of strengths and allowable weaknesses.

During a period of over nine years, Meredith Belbin and his team of researchers based at Henley Management College, England, studied the behaviour of managers from all over the world.  Managers taking part in the study were given a battery of psychometric tests and put into teams of varying composition, while they were engaged in a complex management exercise.  Their different core personality traits, intellectual styles and behaviours were assessed during the exercise.  As time progressed different clusters of behaviour were identified as underlying the success of the teams. These were named “Team Roles”.

These are:

Action-oriented roles Shaper, Implementer, and Completer Finisher
People-oriented roles Co-ordinator, Teamworker and Resource Investigator
Cerebral roles Plant, Monitor Evaluator and Specialist
Team Role Team-Role Contribution Allowable Weaknesses

Creative, imaginative, unorthodox. 

Solves difficult problems.

Ignores incidentals. Too 

pre-occupied with own thoughts to communicate effectively.



Extrovert, enthusiastic, communicative. 

Explores opportunities. Develops contacts.


Can lose interest once initial enthusiasm has passed.

Co-ordinator Mature, confident. Clarifies goals. 

Brings other people together to promote team discussions.

Can be seen as manipulative. 

Offloads personal work.

Shaper Challenging, dynamic, thrives on 


Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles.

Prone to provocation. 

Liable to offend others.



Serious minded, strategic and discerning. 

Sees all options.

Judges accurately.

Can lack drive and the ability to inspire 


Teamworker Co-operative, mild, perceptive and 


Listens, builds, averts friction.

Indecisive in crunch situations.
Implementer Disciplined, reliable, conservative in 


Has a capacity for taking practical steps and actions.

Somewhat inflexible. 

Slow to respond to new possibilities.



Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. 

Searches out errors and omissions.

Delivers on time.

Inclined to worry unduly. 

Reluctant to let others into own job.

Specialist Single-minded, self-starting, dedicated. 

Provides knowledge and skills in rare supply.

Contributes on only a limited front. 

Dwells on specialised personal interests.

It became obvious that the 5 of us were exhibiting specific team roles:

Fiona was a Plant, with lots of creative ideas, not all workable – including chartering a fishing boat and getting a taxi 1,000km to Roscoff. Fiona also had Coordinator as her second role.

Martin was a Coordinator, pulling together everyone’s ideas into structured plans and with Plant as his second role.

Felicity was a Resource Investigator which wasn’t necessarily her natural role, but her language skills and willingness to ask the locals for what we needed put her here, Felicity had Implementer as her second role.

Zoe was a Teamworker, keeping everyone’s morale up and making sure everyone was alright; with Implementer as her second role.

Glenn was a Monitor Evaluator, checking understanding and clarity of the plans while making sure we made informed choices within our budgets.  Glenn had Implementer as his second role.

When we arrived at the Avis car hire office, we found that, although we had booked a car on-line, there were none available apart from a Renault Twingo.

It was a good demonstration of how we had gelled as a team when it didn’t occur to any of us until later that two of us could have taken the Twingo, leaving the others to find an alternative.

At this point, looking at the huge queue of people outside the office, and having discovered from the station that we couldn’t get a train to Paris until Wednesday night, Fiona had the idea of booking a van – everyone was trying to book a car so there was a chance that van’s were easier to hire.

We had passed a Van Hire place on the walk to the hotel so we booked back into the hotel and tried to book a van.  We were told that we had to book online so off two of us went to the Internet Cafe to book one.  Felicity’s French was the best of the team so we booked a van in her name online for Tuesday as there were none available for Monday.

Having booked into the Hotel again we went off into Bayonne to find another bar and so Felicity could buy some clothes (remember she had lost her luggage on Saturday).

Day 4:

We checked out of the Hotel, picked up the Van and set off to drive 960km to Roscoff.

We only had seats for three people so two had to travel in the back – with no windows or lights.

It was interesting to see how quickly we were now making decisions and accepting ideas while still contributing to discussions and the ‘back of the van’ rota was decided really quickly.

Two of us shared the driving, three people shared the navigation and we all took turns in the dark of the van.

We were using Google Maps on my iphone to navigate and unfortunately the battery ran out about 15km from Les Nevens which is where we were due to drop the van off.  It was also about 10:30pm by the time we were getting there and we decided that we needed to find a hotel and try to find the garage to drop the van off in the morning.  We had already changed our ferry booking to Wednesday afternoon.

Stopping at a Kebab shop in Les Nevens, Felicity asked someone who told us of the only available hotel in the area.  We arrived there at 10:45pm and the fantastic hotel owners not only found us rooms but fed us with chicken in white wine (even though the restaurant was closed) and left the bar open long enough for us to get a couple of beers.

Day 5:

We drove to Roscoff, dropped Fiona, Glenn and Zoe off, drove to Les Nevens (about 40km, dropped the van off, took a taxi to Roscoff and caught the ferry to Plymouth on Wednesday afternoon.

Overall, we had a great experience and really enjoyed our time together.  We laughed a lot, overcame all kinds of problems and difficulties and didn’t get too stressed.  Each of us had times when we were struggling with the situation, but the rest of the team helped us through.

So what made us a team?

A team is a group of people with a common goal.

This definition is somewhat simplified though.  A group can have a common goal and not be a team.

A successful team must create a sense of purpose regularly reviewing the question “what are we trying to achieve – and how are we trying to achieve it?”  The team must also challenge existing ways of working and replace them with the most appropriate attitudes and methods.

This sense of purpose is often given in the form of a mission statement.

Our purpose was simply to get back to the UK in the quickest and cheapest way.

Secondly, a successful team has to do more than just work well together.  They have to produce results and, if the team is to make progress. Each team member must know what needs to be done and have a sense of belonging to the team.

We certainly had a sense of belonging as we demonstrated in our decision not to separate, and the fact that it didn’t occur to any of us until after we left the Avis office that three of us could have hired the Twingo, leaving the others to fend for themselves.

Finally, high performing teams create a climate where individuals are valued for the role they play within the teams, not just for the knowledge and skills that they bring to the team and this will enable them to become aware of their own identity

There is no doubt that we shared a sense of purpose, or that we continually stated that purpose and used it to inform our decisions.

We also had a clear identity – we started calling ourselves “nous sommes cinq” because this was the first phrase we uttered when we went into a hotel, restaurant, bus station, taxi rank or vehicle hire office.

We all felt a real sense of belonging to “nous somme cinq” as evidenced by the way we stuck together, even when it would have been easier if we split up.

Would we have been as successful if we hadn’t been as effective with our interpersonal and communication skills?  Probably not.

Although it wasn’t really until day 4 that we started to be aware of how we were working as a team, and how we had developed up to that point, we must have unconsciously been aware of the best ways to work together to achieve our outcome..

Fiona and I are experienced Trainers, coaches and Therapists, Zoe and Felicity are Teachers and Glenn works in Advertising so we all have good communication and influencing skills, but I think that what made us so effective was a very clear shared goal, a good sense of humour and a real ability to re-frame situations to get the most enjoyment out of the experience

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