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Monday, November 18, 2013

Guest Post: A Recipe for Teams

By Peter de Jager

Groups of people are most effective at completing large complicated tasks, when they’re co-operating smoothly with very little interpersonal conflict.  This is nothing more than an observation. When this happens we recognize it is a somewhat unique occurrence. So… we give it a name – we call it a ‘Team’.

When we move onto our next large complicated task, and there’s no shortage of these – we remember our last success and try to replicate the it. We remember the Teamwork and set out to re- create that same sense of co-operative team spirit. The problem is that we really don’t have an accurate understanding of why/how a group of people gel into this thing we call a ‘team’. We know it’s desirable, we know it seems to generate positive results, but we don’t really know why it happens.

Consider for a moment the inherent complexity of how people interact. If there are only six people in a group, there are 15 possible one-to-one interactions. Add one more person to the group, and the number of interactions jumps to 21 interactions. (Think of clinking wine glasses when you make a toast around the dinner table) For the sake of simplicity? I’m ignoring the many ways in which people can form cliques and how that adds to the number and types of interactions.
The simple truth is that a manager does not have the time to oversee each and every interaction within a group, anymore than a farmer can attend to each individual ear of corn in a cornfield. What a farmer does, and what we as managers must learn to do, is create an environment that is ‘friendly’ to teams and which supports their growth.

The other thing a farmer knows, and managers must embrace - Is that the ears of corn, the team members in this analogy, are going to do what comes naturally. We cannot ‘force’ people to work well together… The moment we start to use force, we almost guarantee the group will never blossom into a team.

So? Before we put on our boots and head to the fields, can we define what it is we’re going to try and re-create? What exactly is a team? A working definition is comprised of three parts. The first component is a well defined goal/objective. The second is group of people who believe that the goal is worthy of their efforts.  And the third part is a shared understanding of the roles of each individual as they work towards that goal.

That sounds simple enough – hopefully not so simple as to be useless – just simple enough to keep in mind as a starting point as we work towards our goal of creating a team.

The first part is easy enough. Defining the goal, and then communicating that definition doesn’t require any special powers. Just some good analytical skills, and the ability to communicate. Surely these are abilities well within the reach of most managers. One down, two to go.

The next piece is a little bit more difficult. Getting people to see that the goal is worthy of their efforts isn't achieved by snapping our fingers and expecting people to immediately accept our exhortations that the goal is worthy. It requires a touch of leadership ability, and an understanding of how people respond to Change. There’s nothing too difficult here, but this does require some effort on the part of the Team Leader, it doesn't just happen. Two down, one left.

Lastly we have to have everyone on the team understand two distinct things. First? How their role will contribute to the success of the team. And just as important? How the roles of everyone else will contribute to that success. How do we do this? Simple. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. All done. Well… not quite – something’s missing.
All of this is all very fine. These three components provide a good structure on which to build a team, but to be perfectly honest? There’s something missing here, and it has to do with the complexity mentioned earlier. People interact with each other, and the ‘spirit’ of a ‘team’ is encapsulated in those interactions. Given that these interactions outnumber the Manager’s ability to monitor and/or affect on an individual basis… how can a Manager affect this aspect of Team formation?

Part of the answer lies in the simple reality that people are social animals. Left to our own devices, we naturally choose to get to know each other. The more we know each other, the more we’re likely to trust each other – assuming of course that we’re trustworthy – and for the most part we are. Working together isn’t an unnatural act. We might not help a complete stranger – but most of us seem to choose to do so, but we will almost certainly help anyone with whom we have more than a passing relationship.

So? How can we capitalize on the almost hardwired aspects of human nature to create the teams required by our organizations? Just as the Farmer lets ears of corn do what ears of corn do… we should create environments/opportunities where people can do what people tend to naturally do.

If you want to see this happen… and reap some organizational benefit from human nature? Here’s a simple recipe for team building  Invite people together for an informal evening. Don’t provide food. Sooner or later – someone’s going to get hungry – that’s what humans do. Don’t order in… instead suggest that they cook a meal. Don’t have supplies on hand. A team will form that will head out for supplies (this used to be called ‘hunting’)… when they return, a team will form to cook the meal, another will form to set the table. Before your eyes a team is forming. It’s what people do.

© 2013, Peter de Jager. Peter is convinced we make things more difficult than they need to be. The answers are in front of us. He’s a Keynote Speaker, Writer and Consultant. Visit to listen some live presentations.

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