Launching Project Teams
During the past 20 years Idea Champions has worked with a wide range of organizations who have called us in to help improve teamwork and collaboration. Usually, the catalyst for the intervention was a team in breakdown or experiencing some kind of dysfunction. Facing an ambitious challenge, the team was clearly not at the top of their game and the manager (or team leader) found themselves over their head, unable to provide the kind of process or leadership to help their team get back on track. Sometimes, the call for outside help was simply to provide a slight "chiropractic adjustment" to help the team function at a higher level or to help a group actually become a team.
Again and again we have been impressed with the dedication, focus, and competence of team members, no matter what their collaborative challenge was. Nevertheless, team members' specific skills and competencies did not always translate to smooth teamwork and consequently, their team struggled.
No matter what a team's mission or the profile of the individual players, all teams have a tendency to go through the same kinds of predictable growing pains. Again and again they manifest the same kinds of breakdowns: combating sub-cultures, cross-functional territoriality, inelegant communication, triangulation, infighting, blaming, unmediated conflicts, problems with "managing up," confusion over roles and responsibilities, and disconnects regarding vision, mission and values.
On one hand, these kinds of symptoms are par for the course in most organizations, part of the flora and fauna of teams forming, norming and storming. Indeed, much of what shows up to outside observers as dysfunction is not dysfunction at all, but simply the natural occurrence of a disparate group of people trying to find their collective sea legs in an effort to work together towards a common goal.
Still, it is our experience that it is a good use of time for organizations to consider ways of helping their teams become high performing as soon as possible in the process — especially when you consider the ambitious stretch goals given to most teams operating under severe time and resource constraints.
Towards this end, Idea Champions strongly believes that it would be fruitful for all organizations to reconsider the way they launch and support project teams. With just a little more effort and intentionality on the front end, it is highly likely that a higher percentage of teams will become high performing much sooner in the process. This, we believe, is especially important in an organizations where many people are simultaneously members of multiple teams.
What Is a "High Performing Team"?
There have been a number of studies done over the years in an attempt to understand what it takes to put together a highly functioning (often called "high performing") team. The study we find most compelling stems from the work done by Larson and LaFasto noted in their seminal book, Teamwork. According to these two gifted researchers, there are eight characteristics of a high performing team, each of which needs to be operational if a team is expected to achieve significant results: 1) A clear compelling goal or vision; 2) Standards of excellence (norms); 3) Competent members; 4) Unified commitment; 5) Climate of collaboration (i.e. trust, clear communication, listening etc.); 6) Results driven structure; 7) Principled leadership and; 8) External support and recognition.
When these characteristics are in place there is an excellent chance that a team will succeed. When one or more of these characteristics are not in place, there is a good chance the team will disappoint.
Curiously, many competent team members actually do not want to be on a team at all. Strong individuals, with a multiplicity of talents and responsibilities, they would actually prefer to be operating as a group or an association or a loosely defined federation of people working towards a common goal. (And in some cases, they don't even want to be part of a group, but would rather work alone.) One of the reasons for this resistance to teamwork, though rarely articulated, is the fact that it often takes an extraordinary effort to be a member of a high performing team. It takes time. It demands letting go of old habits. It requires a sublimation of ego in favor of the "greater good." It demands a kind of "process-oriented learning" that most analytical, task-driven, bottom-line oriented people dismiss as either warm and fuzzy or as something that will naturally happen over time. And last, but certainly not least, it requires someone willing to guide/coach/lead the team through the process — not something that most managers or team leaders have been trained to do. And while many business leaders have certainly learned from experience over the years, managing the nuances of team process is not necessarily their strong suit.
Our recommendation? That organizations consider taking selected project teams through a simple, off-site process designed to increase the likelihood of team success. These team off-sites would not be flavor of the month programs or touchy-feely kumbaya sessions, but vital, practical, educational, customizable working sessions designed to provide each team with the greatest chance of becoming high performing.
Some of the elements that are part of the fabric of these sessions include:
- Pre-session Needs Assessments: Phone interviews with a representative sampling of team members to get the input necessary to custom design the off-site. These interviews also serve the function of building rapport between team members and the facilitator, enabling the team to hit the ground running much more quickly when the session begins.
- Icebreaking/Networking: Provides the opportunity for team members to get to know each other as individuals, not just people with titles or representatives of a function. The more team mates can relate to each other as human beings (not just performers of tasks), the more likely it is they will be able to collaborate effectively during times of stress, breakdowns or crisis.
- Vision/Mission Clarification: It is our experience that members of project teams often have different interpretations of the vision of the project they are working on. However, unless the vision is compelling and clearly understood by all team members, the project will eventually break down. Sometimes, senior leadership is aware of the vision (or has even created it themselves), but has not successfully communicated it to the rank and file. And even when they have communicated it, it is not always true that team members have embraced the vision. They may be compliant, but not necessarily committed. This can become a big problem — one that will eventually erode team functioning. One thing a "Project Team Launch" can do is help each and every team member get clear on the vision — not just by accepting a vision they are required to inherit, but actually owning it by co-creating it with their team mates.
- Values: Teams need a process that enables team members to articulate what's really important to them not only as employees, but as human beings. What is it that gets them out of bed in the morning and wanting to come to work? What drives them? What qualities does the team hold sacred enough that will be enable individual members to ride the waves when things get crazy? Team values are often implied, but rarely articulated. It is the conscious articulation of team values that enables them to become operational, inspiring everyone on the team to a higher level of participation. And to ground all this business about values, we always complete the process by identifying people on the team willing to play the "champion" role for each value. In other words, by the end of the process, each team value will have someone who cares enough about it to make sure that particular value is lived by the team for the duration of the project.
- Standards of excellence: Simply put, these are norms and operating principles. Unless teammates make clear agreements with each other about how they will operate together, things get very diffuse, subject to mood, personality, and endlessly changing conditions. Usually, 45 minutes is enough for a team to settle on their standards, but once established these standards will serve them well for months, and sometimes years.
- Roles and Responsibilities: Who's doing what? Where does one role end and another begin? Do team members know what to expect from each other — and by when? All too often, newly formed teams have a very fuzzy notion of roles and responsibilities. This mushiness results in endless wheel spinning, duplicative efforts, lost opportunity, and erosion of trust — not exactly a formula for team success.
- Experiential (hands on) challenges: You can talk about teamwork all you want, but unless you experience it (and what subverts it), it's all just words. That's why we recommend that every "Team Launch" off-site have a healthy dose of experiential team challenges. These participatory activities give team members a chance to see how they collaborate — what supports it and what gets in the way. The hands on challenges help dissolve boundaries between individuals and sub-groups, as well as provide a real-time (and low-risk) experience that can be debriefed in many ways to spark insight, breakthrough and a higher order of team functioning. These hands-on team challenges also provide a common metaphor and language that team members can refer back to again and again long after the off-site is over.
- Changing mindset/ challenging limiting assumptions: Most members of a team enter into their roles with a wide range of old assumptions (about what's possible and what's not) — assumptions that tend to constrain not only the individual, but the team as a whole. These assumptions, often based on years of experience, have a pronounced tendency to keep a team "in the box. Idea Champions firmly believes that, in order for a team to be high performing, they need to be willing to challenge their individual and collective assumptions early in the game. There are a number of ways to accomplish this goal, the most effective ones involving hands on challenges that make very visible the stultifying impact of limiting assumptions on team functioning.
- Education: Few people like to sit in classes, but many people love to learn. One of the important takeaways of a "Team Launch" off-site is that team members get the opportunity to learn a lot about what it means to be a member of a high performing team without feeling like they are being lectured to. In our experience, very few team members understand what the criteria are for a high performing team. We find people very appreciative of being given the lay of the land in this regard so they have some more context about how to "hold" the team concept. A well-designed Project Launch team off-site "teaches in the cracks." People are having fun, getting insights, connecting on deeper levels with team mates AND learning about the very definable particulars of what it takes to really function as a high performing team.
- Brainstorming/ Creative Thinking: In our experience, we find that it is counter productive to get teams together for an off-site and focus too much on teamwork. People get self-conscious, defensive, and restless. That's why we recommend that every team off-site contain at least one, if not more, creative thinking modules — chances for teammates to put their heads together on a common challenge. Indeed, the act of collaborating on a common challenge often works wonders for teamwork — especially when innovative solutions are originated and champions emerge to carry the torch long after the offsite is over.
- Emergence of Champions: One of the ways to increase a team's performance is to find out what individual team members really care about and then to provide them with the opportunity to champion that particular initiative on the team. Traditionally, most team players expect the team leader to take responsibility for just about everything — but in a high performing team, this responsibility is shared. Not necessarily delegated, but shared. In other words, you want to create openings whereby individual team members will step forward to claim specific, extra responsibilities they want to take on — responsibilities they care so intimately about that they consider it a privilege, rather than an assignment. A really well-run Team Project Launch will reveal at least a few team members who will step forward and boldly accept responsibility for initiatives above and beyond the call of duty.
- Mediated Dialogue Between Team Leaders and Team Members: Invariably, a team off-site will reveal a variety of disconnects and disagreements between the Team Leaders and Team Members. Left unaddressed, these disconnects will linger like a low-grade virus, undermining the performance of the team. Everyone will learn to live with it, but no one will particularly like it. Yet rarely does anyone ever want to take on the challenge of dealing with this phenomenon. It is our considered opinion that these Team Leader/Team Member issues need to be aired out and resolved as early in the process as possible. Team members not accustomed to entering into this kind of dialogue are sometimes hesitant to engage, but skillful facilitation cuts through this hesitation, most often resulting in significantly more trust, alignment and communication between team leaders and their teams.
- Team Meetings: One of the biggest complaints we hear from our clients concerns the way meetings are run. For the most part, meetings are unbearably inefficient and ineffective. People show up late or not at all. Participants are unprepared. Facilitation is funky. Deep listening is rare. Sub-cultures rule the day. And there are way too many meetings. On and on it goes. One of the positive outcomes of a team offsite is the articulation of agreements about how meetings will be run in the future and what teams need to do differently in order to ensure this result.
- Follow Through: Because everyone these days is so time pressured, there is a tendency to treat team off-sites" as "nice to haves." Indeed, at each and every one of the team off-sites Idea Champions has facilitated, we have run headlong into the phenomenon of people dropping out at the last minute (often just not showing up) or else requesting early departure in order to fulfill a competing priority. But if an organization expects to create a culture conducive to the existence of high performing teams it needs to do everything it can to ensure that Team Off-Sites are not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is our recommendation that a team participate in a series of well-timed off-sites for the duration of their project. Certainly, the launch off-site is the most critical, but if it is not followed up by other, supportive sessions, you run the risk of the learnings and commitments fading over time. Indeed, these periodic off-sites become even more important as a team runs into the nitty gritty difficulties and rites of passage that even the healthiest of teams will encounter. Rather than waiting for crises to address these issues, we recommend that teams consider meeting off-site at regular intervals — to step back, think big, and further develop themselves into a high performing team.
- Team Leader Coaching: Idea Champions has been very impressed with the commitment, focus, and integrity of most project team leaders. However, it has come to our attention that team leaders, while skillful in specific domains, may not have particular expertise in leading a team. Given this, we recommend that organizations consider giving more specific attention to coaching and mentoring. There are at least two ways to do this — some of which may already be operational in your organization. The first way would be to ensure that each team leader receives sufficient coaching from their manager re: the art and science of leading teams. (This, of course, assumes that their manager is a skillful team leader and skillful coach in passing on their wisdom). The second approach would be to provide each team leader with an outside coach.