Team working: consulting teams for better team work
15 Feb 201710min read
Recently we have been stepping back and reviewing how we work together at Team – we have grown from around 50 people when I joined the company four years ago to double that now and that is getting into the realm where everyone does not necessarily know everyone else in the company and that can change the dynamic of team working. As part of the process, I facilitated several lunch time sessions to talk about how we work well together in teams and where we could do better. A lot of the output was just what you would expect, but there were some interesting nuggets.
As part of this process I have discovered that there is no shortage of advice and opinions on how to achieve good team working. Looking at the plethora of published theories on how to build a successful team, many offer rules to operate by. Generally, the number of rules suggested varies between five and twelve. However, they all boil down to the same basics: know and agree what you are trying to achieve, and trust and respect one another. That seems easy… if only we all knew what we were trying to achieve and we all trusted one another.
If the areas of trust, respect and the final goal can be properly addressed, the rest of the puzzle comes together more easily. We found that communication is the key in these areas. It is the glue that holds everything together in a team, and when everyone trusts and respects each other and knows what they are trying to achieve, communication comes more naturally.
A moving target
Applying the rules becomes more difficult when working in the real world. In an ideal world there would be a clearly defined objective and a reasonable length of time to complete the project. Our work rarely comes to us with anything that clear-cut, and one of the values we can bring to a project is to make sense of complex and competing requirements and ‘challenging’ timescales.
Project teams and their objectives usually evolve over time, with members based on availability as much as suitability, and there is never enough time. This is when having a more formal approach to what makes a good team is particularly useful. With moving targets and moving resources, it is worthwhile stepping back on a regular basis and reviewing how the team is working and what can be done to improve it. Nothing is ever going to be perfect but recognising and addressing issues before it is too late can keep a long, complex project on track.
A nice problem to have
As is suggested by its name, Team Consulting values team work and there is a strong focus on working together. The company from the top down supports and re-enforces these values through its actions and approach to projects, so there are a lot of trusting and respectful people around. This also feeds through into the recruitment process and potential recruits are assessed on their team-working attributes.
So, with all of us with a shared predisposition it should lead to lots of good team working, and it generally does; but one of the common ‘rules’ of team working is that a bit of conflict and challenging debate is just as important as support and agreement.
Having a good disagreement
This should be one of the rules that flow from trusting and respecting one another. If that is the case everyone should feel comfortable challenging others in the team and not feel threatened if they are challenged – but we know people can be reticent.
Another rule of team working is to praise good work, but the same reticence can prevent that. It can feel presumptive to suggest your opinion is wanted, even when it is positive – somehow we need to encourage all feedback and make both praise and critiques commonplace and the norm.
When is a group of people a team?
More often than not a team is dysfunctional because it does not realise it is a team. You cannot apply the rules if you do not know they need applying.
Some teams are obvious – in our line of work, the project team is paramount, and our whole company is also clearly a team. However, we often get pulled into other tasks and activities, some of which would benefit from a proactive team approach. It is easy to be overly casual about a short-term task involving a few people.
There can be an assumption that everyone knows what is needed and noone wants too much distraction from the more ‘important’ projects. These smaller tasks, however, can be the foundation of much more significant work later on and getting them right is crucial.
Spending a little bit of time upfront agreeing the team structure and objectives can result in a better job and also get the job done quicker in the long run. Sometimes teams pop in and out of existence before there is a chance to recognise them and these can be the most fun and interesting.
Splitting into groups in training sessions or getting a team together for a sporting event allows people to take up roles in the team that may be different to their day job and can produce some great outcomes.
Team runs a ‘Great Egg Race’ every year and the dynamics of the 5–6 person teams would make a great study on its own. It would be interesting to see what correlation there was between results and team behaviour, and also to assess the objectives of each team, winning the challenge set may be trumped in some teams by producing the most stylish design or having fun.
“It would be interesting to see what correlation there was between results and team behaviour”
There is little that is more satisfying than working in a well-organised, well-led team with clear objectives and great team dynamics. It gets more complicated when there are numerous teams with conflicting requirements, and more complicated still when some of those teams are less than perfect. This, however, is the reality for most people and we have to deal with it.
It is tempting to focus on the work that is the most dominant at the time or the best organised and so easiest to complete, but optimising input across a range of commitments is a key team-working skill. It is also easy to pursue the activities which are more enjoyable or interesting. Doing the one difficult, tedious task on a project that is not your personal top priority to allow the rest of the team to move on is the trait of a true team worker, and one to be valued.
The perfect team member
Which brings us on to what the perfect team member looks like, and looking around the people I have worked with, there is no such thing. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. That is what is so wonderful about a team, it is greater than the sum of its parts. Good team members come in all shapes and sizes.
One comment from a project manager was that all he wanted from his teams was to be reliable, to be proactive and think about the bigger picture, and to have a common feeling of responsibility. The level and style of communication and general team involvement could vary widely depending on personalities as long as the key elements were there.
Rules are there to be broken
For almost every rule, with the exception of the prime two – shared objectives and trust – there is a time when it should be broken. But this needs to be a conscious decision for a valid reason; otherwise it just becomes bad team working.
Confront difficult issues
There are times when confronting small problems just creates large problems. In negotiating there is a useful acronym, a BATNA, which stands for a Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, so that you know what your back up position is.
Something similar is useful when confronting difficult issues. Some issues will go away on their own if left alone – the skill is in knowing which is which. This is often true of personality clashes in a project. If you can get everyone focussed on the objectives and how to achieve them, the personalities will usually work themselves out. By making too big a deal about it early on, team members can be forced to make a stand and the conflict is crystallised.
Searching for conflict
Mining for conflict goes back to not being too nice but looking for disagreement so that everyone is fully bought into the decision-making process. It is good advice a lot of the time, but sometimes agreement, even if only skin deep, is worth grabbing while it is there.
I have been in a meeting when the same discussion point goes around and around and it is clear there will never be agreement. A decision needs to be made and the project must move on before team members become too entrenched in their positions.
Open and honest communication is obviously a good thing, but too much information can be distracting and sometimes knowledge is counterproductive or demotivating. Openness should be the default, but with a filter that allows team members to fulfil their roles most effectively.
I withheld significant information in one project which I knew would be demotivating. When one team member found out he was slightly put out that I had kept him in the dark, but when I suggested we should let the rest of the team know he disagreed and understood my motives.
Allow failure and have no blame culture
Sometimes a line needs to be drawn without a finger of blame. And sometimes a team is not the answer and one or more people can get on with a job better on their own – although I am struggling to think of an example; even this article has been a team effort!
Within Team we have found it is better for us, better for our clients and better for the project when we follow these simple rules for team work.