Tue, Nov

Time for a team talk

Your people are one of your greatest resources. But do they work well together? Walter Hale looks into successful team building strategies and techniques.

One great difficulty about creating successful teams is that we are dealing with one of the most unpredictable forces in the universe: the mysterious interaction between human beings. So methods that are right in one context can be disastrous in another. To make matters worse, almost every aspect of a team can vary – how big it is, how long it exists for, the scale of the challenge being tackled, even the physical proximity of members – so the mystery is magnified. As a manager, once you accept this uncertainty, and look beyond such moronic simplicities as “There’s no ‘I’ in team”, you have a better chance of creating and running a team that achieves its purpose.

1 Be realistic

The first thing we all need to recognise about team work is that it is not the ultimate measure of worth – for an employee or for a business. As the American psychologist Richard Hackman, one of the 20th century’s greatest experts on teams in the workplace, put it once: “I have no question that a team can generate magic but don’t count on it.” Some staff just don’t work well in teams, but it doesn’t mean they can’t clinch a large order, improve workflow or think innovatively about the future of the business. And teams aren’t always the solution for every problem. The wrong kind of team - schooled in the belief that the process is all about harmony - may actually stifle creativity by indulging in groupthink and inadvertently enforcing a kind of corporate conformism.

2 Teach team aims

Make sure the team knows what it is supposed to accomplish. Sounds obvious but research suggests that too many teams aren’t really sure what their goal is. If members have different versions of the objective – or differing ideas as to the group’s priorities – success becomes that much more difficult. Too much literature about teamwork makes simplistic comparisons with great sporting teams but in one instance the analogies are relevant. Every member of the Mercedes F1 team, which helped Lewis Hamilton become world champion in 2014, knows what the objective is – and, almost as importantly, how they can help that goal be accomplished. Those conditions are not as easy replicated in business, where the goal may be less immediate and tangible, but the more concrete you can be about the team’s purpose the more likely you are to succeed.

3 Does the team know who’s on it?

When Real Madrid run out onto a football pitch, it’s fairly clear who is on the team. There are only 11 of them. Yet in many organisations, who is and isn’t on the team can be unclear – especially when they are confronting issues that straddle different departments. The occasional presence of ‘outsiders’ can mess up the team dynamic. The best teams learn together and grow into the roles that best serve the whole. That process can be disrupted if people drift in and out or members aren’t sure about their respective roles.

4 Teamwork is a process, not an event.

There’s a reason so many team-building events are regarded with fear and loathing by the very staff who are supposed to be inspired by them. They are often artificial, badly organised, potentially humiliating events. Yet even if they were brilliantly orchestrated, they would still fail because teamwork is a process, not a one off event. Just because Sharon from accounts has shared a kayak with Lisa from marketing in Cornwall weekend does not mean that when they return to the office on Monday they will instantly, magically, collaborate in all manner of new, inventive ways. The best teams keep growing and learning together – and when they stop doing so, it may be time to disband the team and start again.

5 Lead the team subtly

The consensus about leaders and how they contribute to a team’s success or failure has changed in the last 20 years. The ideal of a charismatic, team-enhancing leader has given away to, as Hackman put it, the belief that “the most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration is to create conditions that help members effectively manage themselves”. Once they have created those conditions, the leader’s greatest contribution is to launch the team and coach members in how to work together. Part of that coaching is enabling different kinds of leaders to grow within the team – that’s not going to happen if you have a micromanaging, credit-taking, egomaniac running the team.

6 Be wary of simplistic solutions

One media group decided the best way to become more creative and collaborative was to encourage hot-desking. That way, as different staff bumped into each other every day, they would interact in different ways and become more innovative. To achieve this goal, staff would have to clear their desks at the end of each day. The evidence that hot-desking stimulates innovation is hardly compelling but the company made things worse by exhorting their staff, in an incessant stream of emails, to get with the programme, and clear their working spaces or else … So what started out as an interesting, if unproven, idea to encourage collaboration quickly degenerated into yet another punitive edict from head office: clear your desk or we’ll clear it for you.

Research shows that there are far more serious barriers to collaboration than the way desks are assigned. As long ago as 1994, research by William Dyer found that most managers, while paying lip service to the importance of teambuilding, didn’t anything about it because they didn’t know what to do, couldn’t see the rewards, assumed it would take up a lot of time they couldn’t spare and, when it came down to it, they didn’t think their organisation really valued teams that much anyway.

7 Don’t be afraid of conflict

One of the difficulties teams face is that we have all been indoctrinated in the importance of being a team player – something we tend to assume means that we have to be enthusiastic, encouraging and on side. Yet Hackman’s research showed that conflict – properly managed and focused on the team’s objectives, rather than personalities – was more likely to generate creative solutions than consistent agreement.

8 Make the team meet

If people don’t trust the rest of the team, they will feel vulnerable and less committed. And face-to-face meetings at the start of a project are still the best way to help build this. Psychologists have long recognised the importance of non-verbal communication and these cues can cement a team. The fashion for virtual teams, facilitated by digital technology, left Hackman cold: “There was a fantasy that everyone would be swarming around on the internet, that the wisdom of crowds would automatically prevail, and that structureless groups would come up with new and profound things that face-to-face groups never could have generated, but nirvana never materialised. Virtual teams need the same basic conditions to be effective as face-to-face teams, if not more so.”

9 Let the team breathe

As Hackman’s study of the NASA space programme found, organisations have a tendency to “tell members that they have the authority to manage their tasks and are accountable for the results – but then specify procedures in such detail members have no way to exercise their authority.” In 1973, the crew of the Skylab 3 mission got so fed up with this, they effectively staged space’s first strike, by turning the radio to Mission Control off.

10 Only change the team when it is necessary

Every team runs out of steam. Sometimes this is a temporary prelude to a productive period. Sometimes it isn’t – and a smart leader will act accordingly. In an age where change has become a cult, we tend to assume that fresh new teams are more productive. The facts say otherwise. As Hackman put it, “Whether it is a basketball team or a strong quartet, teams that stay together longer together play better together.”

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