Teams. . . Care and Feeding Required

Rowing team

When teams are new, they are as wide-eyed and enthusiastic as a young lion cub. But when they get older, watch out. . . they can bite. All too often, organizations birth a team to take on a particular project or to reorganize work generally without realizing that teams need constant care and feeding.

Many organizations support working in teams; however, calling a group of people working together a “team,” doesn’t make it so! Research indicates that 50 percent of so-called “teams” fail. Either members of the team don’t play well together or the team’s efforts are not aligned with what is best for the organization. Ineffective teams can bog the work process down, take an incredible amount of time to do what fewer people could do more efficiently, and can increase operating costs significantly. On the other hand, effective teams can bring about extraordinary improvements in the performance of the organization. 

First Things First: Why Form a Team?

Begin by asking the people who have been trying to make those processes work to come together in a new way. The group should be proficient in quickly redesigning processes that are tied directly to the requirements of their customers and aligned with the organization’s strategy. Forming a team in this way fosters loyalty to the customer and to the objectives of the larger institution vs. loyalty to the function or department, and allows for greater organizational flexibility.  

Most organization structures are already well-suited to a team approach. Teams are an extension of a naturally participative leadership style and organizational culture. Since teams live within the broader culture of the organization, that culture can determine whether a team lives or dies. In organizations where senior management not only supports teams, but also requires them, team success soars.

Luck Has Nothing to Do With It

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is assuming that just because people are working together in the same department, it doesn’t mean they will “work together as a team.” This is what’s called the "Good luck, Charlie" method. Now you're a team, good luck! Turning a group of people who work together into a real team, takes know-how and a lot of hard work. Luck rarely has much to do with it. 

Be clear on the kind of team you need.  There are many different varieties and uses of teams. Most of them fall into one of the following two categories: 

  • Project/Problem Solving Teams: usually cross-functional and composed of team members with expertise in a specific area 
  • Performance Teams: in-tact work groups structured around the work processes

Project/Problem Solving Teams are easier to implement and can have a dramatic impact on the initial implementation of a project, resolving a specific organizational issue. Unfortunately, once the initial excitement has worn off, it is difficult to maintain momentum for project/problem solving teams. Accountability is usually weak, demands of the "real work" pull at team members, and management support usually shifts to the more pressing issues of the day. 

Performance Teams, on the other hand, have more "staying power" since they focus on day to day performance. They have a much higher chance of becoming “the way we work here.” 

Leadership and Organizational Culture are Critical 

Transforming a group of people who work together into a team calls for a culture where managers value individual initiative, high levels of employee participation, and a willingness to challenge the "status quo." Make sure that new managers support teams and have a history of a highly participative management style, if not previous positive experience with building successful teams. Team members should be primed to learn and welcome training and have a "we can solve anything" attitude. Accountability is as important as results (i.e., what we do and how we do it is important). 

Teams Need Agreements for Working Together

One of the most important things a team can do is establish agreements for working together. Some sample agreements include: 
performing work with enthusiasm; 

  • willingly sharing time, resources and ideas with each other and other teams;
  • consulting together to achieve unity of thought and action; 
  • striving for continuous improvement in work and learning; 
  • working through problems and looking for “win-win” solutions; and 
  • being tough on problems, but easy on people.

Teams Can Work

When built for the right reasons with the right people, teams do work! Keep in mind that all teams struggle and building a team culture has its own maddening pace. Successful teams are productive. Their success is measured relative to the goals of the organization.  But they don’t magically happen—teams need care and feeding. 

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