We are constantly bombarded with stories of how important teams are in the workplace. How true is that? In the right circumstances and managed well, teams can deliver extraordinary results. In the wrong circumstances or with poor management they do little other than slow progress dramatically.
What is a team?
A team is a group of individuals working together to achieve a shared goal.
An effective team is a group of individuals working together to achieve a shared goal where the result achieved is appreciably better than could have been achieved without the team effort.
A group or a team?
It is important to understand the difference between a group and a team. The key differentiator of a team is that the individuals within it are dependent upon each other to get the result that they all want. If the members are not dependent upon each other then there is no team, just a group. And that's ok!
As an example (all too common), the manager of a group of sales people may well call them 'the sales team' or 'my sales team'. This term would be appropriate if they are dependent upon each other for their results. But in a sales situation, a bunch of sales people doing the same job (albeit on different sales territories) are unlikely to be reliant on each other to any significant extent, so are not a team! This typical overuse of the term 'team' underlines the challenges that we face in understanding when to have a team and how to make it effective.
On the other hand, a football or a rugby team could accurately be described as such. Each individual understands his or her contribution, but also understands that it is hard to win the game without the effective contribution of all concerned. They are reliant upon each other.
Six golden rules for effective teams
A number of characteristics can be found in effective teams:
1. Everyone is acutely clear on the mission. There is no ambiguity and the issue has been discussed until each member not only completely buys into it; but can repeat the mission clearly, accurately and without hesitation. Fail on this point and everything you do from here will likely be a waste of time.
2. The team members put the team goal above any other individual desired outcomes. Indeed, so 'brainwashed' are they on the team goal that they don't give a passing thought to any personal issues.
3. The team members are confident but respectful people. They are assertive in the true sense of the word (see the section on Assertion for more information). They know how to challenge without being aggressive, and they are comfortable when others challenge them.
4. The team members trust each other.
5. The team members are positive thinkers and doers. They look for solutions and don't waste time moaning or blaming each other.
6. The team is small. Invariably single figures. More on this below.
We said that the team should be small, ideally less than 10 people. This last point can create some debate. Think about an organisation employing many thousands of people, or perhaps a country at war. It is imperative that everyone buys into the vision and does their part (and more), but that is not the same as taking individual responsibility for the outcome of the whole. It could be argued that this is where engagement in the mission separates from individual responsibility for it. A 'shop floor' worker in a large company is hopefully fully engaged in the mission, but cannot reasonably be expected to take personal responsibility for the company results. The executive committee however (likely to be fewer than 10 people) must take individual responsibility for the results.
In the football team, the players must take individual responsibility for the outcome as a whole. O.K, a rugby union team is 15 people, more than our magic 10 - but even then there are sub teams - the pack or scrum for example.
The life cycle of a team
There is a specific sequence of events that marks out the life cycle of a team. This theory was proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965. Here is my interpretation of what he said.
This is when the team comes together, presumably to address what is perceived as the mission or objective.
This happens when the team members challenge each other. It could be on the mission itself (perhaps it is not clear); it could be on the suitability of certain team members; it could be on how things are being done; it could be that a team member is not contributing anything; it could be for a whole variety of reasons. But the 'storming' phase is when these issues are brought to the surface and it is critical that they are. The reason being that if these problems are allowed to simmer under the surface it is likely that the team members will become disaffected and the team will fail. There is a clear responsibility on the team leader to address these issues, make sure they are discussed thoroughly and for solutions to be put in place. It may be that changes in the composition of the team have to take place. So be it.
I often refer to a couple who decide to share their lives and move in together - a great example of a new team as they set up home! Do you think there might be a bit of 'storming' in those first weeks and months?
This happens when the team members work out how to get things done together and get them done well. You might describe it as moving from the arguing phase to the phase when they work out what to do, how to do it and when to do it, so that their team colleagues can give of their best. It an unselfish reckoning to ensure everyone can contribute to the best of their ability.
So in the home of our newly established couple, he learns to put the dirty socks in the laundry basket, she learns to put the lid back on the toothpaste!
This is the stage when the team is really doing what they set out to do. They are effective.
This step was added later by Tuckman to signify the point where the team disbands - presumably because the objective has been met or circumstances have changed.
Citation: Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.
'He once told me, Instead of scoring thirty goals a season, why don't you score twenty-five and help someone else to score fifteen? That way the team's ten goals better off.'
From the book 'The Damned Utd', by David Peace, Faber and Faber
It can reasonably be argued that the balance of abilities within workplace teams has a big impact on performance. Considerable work was done on this subject by Meredith Belbin at Henley Management College in the 1970s and beyond. He determined that the balance of the team was important to its success and identified nine separate roles. Overpopulate certain roles and miss others and it will be much harder to get the desired results. The roles he described are:
Stable and confident, co-ordinators have the ability to see the big picture and could make a good chairperson for the team. They are capable of spotting talent, keep everyone focused and delegate tasks.
Plants are creative, thinkers and generators of ideas. Their creativity makes it hard for them to follow processes and they may flit from one idea to the next.
Resource investigators enthusiastically pursue contacts and sources of information and materials. A resource investigator in an army platoon would be the one to slip away quietly and return later with food and drink for the unit!
A later addition to Belbin's team roles, the specialist is brilliant at one thing, but not much help with anything else.
The teamworker is the quiet diplomat who manages to keep everyone talking and working together without anyone really noticing - until they are no longer there and arguments set in. Their value may only become apparent when they are absent!
Monitor-evaluators exercise good judgement in a fair manner and are valuable in assessing options when others may struggle to come up with an objective opinion.
Implementors get things done, picking up ideas, turning them into action and bringing them to a conclusion.
Shapers are drivers who keep the team moving forward with pace. They need to win and will push the team to ensure that things are done. They keep going when others may be inclined to quit.
Completer-finishers are all about detail, making sure everything is done accurately. They will check carefully and are driven by perfection.
It may be difficult to populate your team with all of the roles that Belbin suggests, but we would be well advised to remember that his research proved that balance within the team was a key predictor of success. Fortunately Belbin also found that people were often capable of covering more than one role.
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Why teams fail
We looked above at six golden rules for effective teams. There is a cracking article which in my view is well worth a read. Titled 'Why teams don't work' it was written by Diane Coutu and published in the Harvard Business Review. it does a good job of debunking some of the myths around teams and is well worth a read. See the attached link.