There Is More to Teams than Cooperation
I have been in the work world for over thirty years. During this time, I’ve served in the military, and held administrative and teaching positions at universities. I’ve been employed in the public and private sectors in work ranging from intelligence analysis, to training, to organisation development. I worked in a coffee shop for a couple years while I completed my doctorate. Doing different things, with all kinds of people, I’ve been an individual contributor, a team member, and a manager.
In the course of these thirty years, I have been exposed to, or worked in or with, hundreds of teams. The majority of these teams were teams in name only. They call themselves a team. They describe themselves as cooperative and helpful. They “pull together” they say. They are generally in a unit doing a similar kind of work for a larger organisation, or supporting or consulting to another organisation entirely. They may be project teams assembled for a certain period of time to deliver a particular product or complete some other task.
Teams in name only seldom have much in the way of infrastructure, methodology, or shared purpose that really enables them to work effectively as a team or unites them with the spirit and drive to do so. The term “team mates”, in this case, is a misnomer, as others in the group are working toward their unique (and usually undeclared) agendas. Most are genuinely trying their hardest to do the best that they can. At best, however, they are working in parallel; at worst, they are working at cross-purposes, with all the likely problems this produces. Very little synergy, leverage, or integration are possible under these circumstances.
Despite the obvious difficulties with teams and teamwork, there seems to be a stubborn belief that teams can and should perform admirably, while fulfilling the social and other needs of individual team members of the team. As a result, we see all kinds of “team-building” initiatives. Many are of the “feel-good” type. Some are quite useful; others less so, depending on the objectives of the team training or team-building exercises. The biggest criticism of much of team building is that it doesn’t carry over to the workplace and teamwork behaviour.
Formal Approaches to Building Teams
I’ve had the good fortune to learn about two very different team-building approaches. The first was the Peritus model of Self-directed Teams, which provided a defined methodology and set of team roles, tools, and processes. The second was the “Wheel” model for High-performance Teams, the focus of this book. For several years I worked as part of a Peritus team, during which I elaborated and refined the methodology, and trained numerous teams. The Wheel model, while not prescribing methodology, roles, tools, or processes, seemed to offer a language and set of guidance that everyone could understand and adapt. After studying both, I was gratified to find that there was a great deal of similarity in the principles inherent (and explicit, in some cases) in the two models.
In the Peritus and the Wheel models there is good correspondence between the Nine Dimensions of the Wheel and features of the Peritus process. They both, for example, place strong emphasis on alignment and coordinated action. They both stress the acknowledgement and celebration of accomplishment. They both require definition and assumption of assignments and responsibility. The Wheel and Peritus models are united in their attention to individual and team growth and development, placing tools, methods, and ownership squarely on the team. Both offer techniques for team problem solving and converting breakdowns to breakthroughs, and for creative thinking and continuous improvement. Both are strongly performance-centric, providing tools, techniques, and training for goal setting, development of performance measures, and performance monitoring and feedback. Their differences, upon deeper exploration, are minimal.
Both models of teaming work because they are dramatically different from the way most teams work on a day-to-day basis. They basically change everything by providing a complete set of tools, techniques, and ways of working. (Of course any sound approach incorporates what works and is valued by participants, rather than risking alienation by them or earning rejection of the new.) In integrating new methods some things have to go. Some teams and some individuals, in particular, have trouble letting go of the way things were done in the past. Most difficult to change are embedded thought patterns (especially assumptions and beliefs) and routinised behaviours (for example, in response to problems or in dealing with certain situations).
In general, however, with sufficient training, coaching, and other support, most teams adopt new processes, roles, and tools and find, after some experience with them, that they can’t (or don’t want to) go back. You can tell when a team has integrated a new model relatively well when team members use a similar language to describe what they do, how they do it, and why. You’ll see them enforcing their own discipline and adhering to the use of new tools and practices. The transition from old to new can be accelerated by goaling, measuring, and rewarding the team for taking on this new operating model. You’d want to start with small and simple achievements and progress related to the new model, and gradually increase the goals and measures (stretch) to include more complex and sophisticated application and behaviours.
A Book for Practitioners
I write this book for the practitioner—the team trainer or builder who wants or needs a team-building approach that really makes a difference, an approach that provides a lasting and adaptable solution to the “teamwork problem”, or for whom the pursuit of extraordinary team performance has remained elusive. The practitioner might also be a Team Leader who is in a position to put a new method of working in place, and who wants more out of his or her team than it currently produces. A lot of the material covered throughout this book is applicable for any team. Teams might be interested in adopting the principles and practices included in the nine dimensions. Should this be you, I encourage you to try. The more we, as individuals, apply the principles and practices, the more fulfilling and lucrative our team experiences will be. My only advice, here, is that most teams benefit from having an external coach or facilitator to assist them in their development.
Building High-performance Teams: A Practitioner’s Guide may be of interest to anyone who has read widely in the team literature or attempted to implement one or another team-building approach and found them lacking. A lot of the literature on teams is inspiring, and creates much motivation. But articles and books often falter when it comes to saying what to do and how to do it. This is a “how-to” book, intended to bridge the gap between wanting to and able to.
Becoming a High-performance Team—a worthy goal—is as much a journey as it is a destination. The idea of continuous improvement can make achieving and sustaining high performance even more distant. The trip there can be long one, punctuated by good times and successes, and by difficulties and setbacks. It takes work and commitment to keep going, but can and should be fun as well. You’ll find the road too long and tough to travel if you don’t stop and celebrate along the way. You’ll need moments of reflection to learn from experience so far and recuperation to rekindle energy and spirit. An effective formal approach to team building must take these and other factors into consideration.
You’ll see that the High-performance Team Wheel consists essentially of eight segments, representing eight of the nine essential elements of high performance, surrounding a central hub, the ninth element. For good reason, at the centre of the wheel is the item Stands. Stands are deep commitments all members of the team make to an overarching goal or purpose. It doesn’t really matter what the Stand is, as long as all members of the team agree it is worthwhile; that is, more important than a host of other things to which the team could commit. It is this central, unifying commitment that provides the focus and drive required to fortify teams on their journey toward high performance and continuous improvement. May each of you be part of a team that is ready, willing, and able to take a Stand.
An Orientation to the book
This book presents a step-by-step approach to building high-performance teams. The book is written specifically for practitioners (that is team trainers and builders of teams). As such, certain skills and abilities of the practitioner are taken for granted. Planning for, conducting, and evaluating the effectiveness of a workshop, for example, sounds easy, but actually involves the accomplishment of numerous tasks and the demonstration of complex platform and facilitation skill, on top of familiarity with and belief in the substance, or core content of the training or workshop. To assist the practitioner, suggested formats for presentation and trainer’s tips accompany the core content of this book such as the High-performance Team Wheel and its nine components, which are covered in Chapters 3 and 4.
Building High-performance Teams: A Practitioner’s Guide can be a great value to individual team members and to Team Leaders interested in understanding more about team dynamics and enabling greater team effectiveness and performance. The material can also be of use to organisational leaders and program managers. Building High-performance Teams: A Practitioner’s Guide can help these leaders to weigh the value that going to a team structure might offer, appreciate implementation requirements, or simply help them understand why teams in their organisations are not fulfilling performance expectations.
Chapter 1 provides an overview on teams and team leadership. While focusing on self-managed or self-directing teams, this chapter explores elements of relevance to all teams. These elements include leadership and power, and the transition from traditional, hierarchical management to team-based, more egalitarian operations; consideration of why team approaches fail to deliver what they set out to; and enablement—the necessity of providing teams with tools, techniques, training, and authority to do the job. Chapter 1 also describes how the Team Leader’s role and behaviour change over time as team members become more confident and competent in operating as a team and fulfilling their mission.
Chapter 2, Initiating Team Training discusses the preliminary team-building activities with a new team, and presents an overview of the first several workshops of a workshop series introducing teams to notions of high performance and continuous improvement. While the workshop series is actually a continuous sequence, chapters are organised more around the content than the specific place in the sequence that a workshop might fall. Chapters 3 and 4, for example, cover the High-performance Team Wheel in great detail. In practice, the Wheel, itself, is introduced in the first or second workshop with a new team. It is used throughout the training program, with the facilitator returning to the Team Wheel to highlight or apply its particular aspects and to reinforce learning points.
Chapter 5 details the team problem-solving process incorporated into the training, including decision making and Action Planning. Chapter 6 explains development of the Team Charter. Chapter 7 discusses the development and use of the Team Skills and Knowledge Matrix and team and individual learning plans. In Chapter 8, Participative Team Goal Setting, the role of goals, their associated measures, and the process of setting them are explored.
Chapter 9 has been included to look specifically at Team Leaders. A lot of the information about effective teamwork is equally applicable to both team members and Team Leaders. Teams cannot achieve their full potential, however, if Team Leaders are not doing the things that promote and sustain high performance. For this reason, many Team Leaders require additional training and coaching to become fully effective. Finally, Chapter 10 summarises and ties together the main points in the text. Also provided in the concluding chapter is a brief treatment of the larger organisation or environment in which teams operate. Systemic considerations and cultivating an environment in which teams can thrive is as important to high performance as any internal aspect of teams, including training and coaching.
A Versatile and Proven Approach
The approach detailed in Building High-performance Teams: A Practitioner’s Guide was developed for and tested in organisations wanting to create cultures of high-performance and continuous improvement. The approach, then, as you will see, inherently provides tools, builds skills, and shapes thinking toward those ends. The methodology is also versatile and adaptable to teams of all types.
Tested with diverse teams and adapted over time, the team-building material and strategy included in the text are purposefully generic. The experienced practitioner should be able to take the approach more-or-less as described and apply it to any team in any organisation. Tools, components, and process are described as clearly and with as much detail as possible. Example responses from exercises and completed sections of various team-building tools, such as the Charter, are provided so that the practitioner develops a sense for what might be expected.
Some Cautionary Words
Before beginning, however, a couple of cautions are worthy of note. First, while the approach laid out in this book is somewhat general and based on real experience, no two teams are exactly alike. Flexibility in delivery and modification of the approach may be necessary. Second, while all teams can be expected to benefit from the material, training and coaching that comprise this approach, team performance will always be governed by many systemic factors outside of the team. The organisational systems and culture surrounding the team can limit or promote its performance. For this reason, organisations planning substantial team implementations require considerable study and some restructuring to create an environment in which teams will thrive (see especially Chapter 10).
A Long-Term Investment
Becoming a High-performance Team is a process comprising initial training, and continual or periodic training and coaching. Building High-performance Teams: A Practitioner’s Guide concerns primarily the first year in the “life” of a High-performance Team. We do not dwell on follow-on activities and support in subsequent years, but please remember that periodic “check ins” to refocus and revitalise are probably necessary, as are advanced training and assistance in solving increasingly complex team and organisational problems.
As a process, team members learn as they go, acquiring tools, skills, and practice that they will be able to use long after initial team-building and associated work with their facilitator are completed. The materials, content, and trainer’s tips included in this book are designed to support the learning and implementation process. Realistically, the body of knowledge and skills contained in Chapters 1 through 8 can easily take four-to-six months to cover, with training and workshop sessions occurring every two-to-three weeks.
The practitioner preparing to use or adapt this approach must ask him- or herself what the ultimate aims of the teambuilding initiative are. Perhaps culture change is too ambitious. Maybe “high performance” is too vague or distant. Defining and agreeing upon the desired outcomes is crucial, as these should shape the exercises and individual initiatives that make up the overall effort.
A Practical Orientation
That said, the most effective team-building endeavours in which I have been involved always incorporate the solving of real and current problems. Thus, teams derive the satisfaction from and achieve recognition for making progress at the same time they are learning to solve more difficult problems on their own. It would probably be difficult to facilitate teams through a process of problem identification and prioritisation, problem solving, decision making and Action Planning that could not fit within the overall aims of the team building. But they do need to fit.
Part of the logic of the approach described here is to help team members see where they fit in the larger organisation—how what they do contributes to the overall objectives. More often than not team-building initiatives begin with teams uncertain as to their role in the organisation. They don’t really know what is expected of them. They don’t know how to work effectively within (or change) the system. Because of the knowledge gained and the solutions designed and implemented, a team-building initiative can provide benefits to the organisation that transcend the specific value accorded to the individual team. Thus, team building can—and perhaps should—be viewed as organisational leverage for change, not merely a team-specific exercise.
I hope that you find this book very useful. You probably wouldn’t be reading it if you were not very interested in team building, either as a member of a team or a Team Leader, or as a trainer or educator, and in need of clear and helpful guidance. I have been building, using, and revising the tools, techniques, and templates included in this book for a number of years. I find the material helpful and continually refer back to it for a variety of reasons. For example, I’ve used the Straight Talk material with different groups on a number of occasions during the past six months. It’s been especially useful in revision of a Performance Management Program and related training on giving and receiving feedback. An executive at a local hospital is using the Team Charter materials at this moment as part of a process to build his leadership team, focus efforts, and improve alignment across business units. On-going research on self-managing teams in another government department is looking at, among other things, teams’ use of the Skills and Knowledge Matrix and Individual Development Plans and their contribution to team learning and individual development. The Guide for Coaches of High-performance Teams was recently adapted at another site as part of a Team Leader Development Program. So, the materials are handy, and, again, I hope you find them so. I’m confident that you will find information and guidance in this book just not available any where else.
I wish you much success and productive learning as you apply the principles and methods contained in Building High-performance Teams: A Practitioner’s Guide. I can be reached through Argos Press should you have implementation questions or problems you would like to discuss, or if you would like to provide feedback on the book or share your experiences in applying any of the tools and techniques included.