How do you make a performing successful team within a business?

Does a team make itself into a team from the inside out or can you strategically build well performing team based on Belbin and Insights profile?

This is a question I’ve been pondering over recent days, how do teams form? When I was orginally employed by Newcastle University, I worked within a team of four interns. Individually, we were all very strong candidates and had huge strengths, but as a team, we just didn’t work. There was little commonality and due to our work patterns, we very rarely saw each other. It felt like we were just picked and pushed together and then expected to become a team. As katzenbach (2000) would have assesed us, we were merely a group of people within an organisation, firstly labelled a team and then expected to act like one.#

Consequently, the following year recruitment into our replacement roles, was changed. It was headed by a fantastic member of staff Marek, someone I have thoroughly enjoyed working with. I observed from the outside, the change from the candidates not being as individually strong, but there being a huge shift into team dynamics and learning. He selected not on the basis of the individual candidate but on the basis of how people communicated and worked together to complete a task within an assessment day. The second part of the recruitment was an interview which at the heart of it was reflecting on the task and the team dynamics. Consequently, whilst from the outside our replacement team, individually wasn’t as strong, as a unit they were and they worked much more cohesively together. Our team managed comparible achievements and our NU Apprentice Competition we developed and launched was fantastically successful but the performance came from a group of very strong individuals and not a collective team.

Within that team, I had my most difficulty. I was working alongside someone who was as equally a poor team player as me, at times. The two of us, both alpha females and ruthlessly ambitious, often let our competitive natures and inability to give up control, play out to the detriment of the team. This is the only occasion I can rebutt Bell (2003) and his argument that performance dependes on successful collective performance. In this instance, we managed to deliver just not as a functioning team.

As a recruiter, I asked Marek how he a team together. Especially one where the expection was of enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation. His response was  “we put a team together who we think will work well together and have complementary skills.” He goes went on to discuss that this is not only an individual assessment but a group assessment and that the practical aspect of the assessment day, enables him to see the roles candidates take, their communication, their ability to respect others and the teams performance. Which leads onto the idea that team formation is not so much about the individual but about the coming together of a unit.

I asked Marek what he felt were the key points of a successful team and how you can develop one within business…….

“But just off the top of my head, here are a few of my thoughts on teams and team learning:

  • ·         Communication –  in business almost everybody has to be able to communicate with others to achieve their objectives. Obviously the better your communication skills the more able you are: to get ‘buy in’ from other team members, avoid confusion etc
    ·         Being adaptable – at certain times people will have to take different roles in a team (whether this is done on a formal or informal basis). The better you are at adapting to different roles the better you will help your team to function effectively. For example in our team, people head up different projects, so for e.g.,  if everybody wanted to be a leader all the time, this would create conflict in the team, and other team duties wouldn’t be completed. Also, if you have a team of adaptable individuals you can react to situations that arise much more easily.
    ·         Working to each other’s strengths – in a good team, people will have complementary skills and abilities. Being able to work alongside each other will allow the team to gain full advantage of these skills
    ·         Motivating – being part of a good team can help motivate each other to push on to achieve greater things.
    ·         Being able to listen and take on other opinions – this is vitally important. At times, individuals will feel that they have the best idea and it’s much easier to complete a task by themselves than to get others involved. I’ve certainly felt this way in the past. However, to work effectively as a team you should encourage others to give their suggestions, as often people will have different ideas and solutions that could be much better. It’s also good to see the bigger picture and whilst a task might be easier to complete on an individual basis, it can damage the team if you do so. By involving the team, even if you all work on your solution, they will learn and develop their own skills, and crucially, they will feel that it’s part of a team effort and that keeps the sense of togetherness and team working going. “

In response to the above, I agree that this sounds like the ideal. But it makes it sound like a team is just an equation of key ingredients and that there is a set formula to enable a productive team. This outlook, I do not share. I don’t believe there is a recipe that spells out what a team should consist of, successfully functioning and performing teams create themselves and do what works for them.

 Katzenbach (2000:118) gives his definition of a team as a “small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Each part of this definition above, takes time to develop. The complementary skills requires awareness and learning from each other. The common purpose only develops once the team has buy in and the mutual accountability develops, conversely the common purpose stems for the achievement of performance goals. Team development is consequently, a very cyclical process. Such a common purpose doesn’t necessarily stem from performance goals and project briefs, real common purpose stems from the ethos of the team and a revolution within. It is a nod towards, “we want to be the best and complete this in the best way possible”.
Katzenback further expounds this by relating teams to “winning” which is suggestive of a competitive element. The teams I’ve worked best in, is when there has been a competitive element. Often I have began in a poorly performing team which stands in the shadows of teams that outperform. The process then becomes breaking down the team to analyse, rebuilding the team from within, recruiting into the team, building channels and processes that enhance productivity. This enables the team, communication and motivation through setting achieveable and measurable steps forward, engages the team into walking together in the same direction. Then some where along this process, the team bursts from any sort of restrictions it felt before and finally feels empowered.
Such a competitive element forces the team to analyse and ask itself the hard question; how is a team with similar resources and time, managing to achieve so much more than we are as a collective? Furthermore, what is being asked of us, isn’t impossible, there is an expectation we can do this and do this well. I’ve found initially within the process, the tendency is to blame others, to blame lack of resources, lack of funding, lack of man power, to blame anything but the team collective. I use the term “blame” loosely because within a team, blame can never be attributable to one person, which is what blame suggests. When I use blame in this case, I mean blaming the functioning of the team.
Katzenbach (2000: 118) , “the most successful teams shape their purposes in response to a demand or opportunity put in their path”. Successful businesses and indeed successful teams are shape shifters. They are able to respond to the changing market place and they haven’t conformed to rigid structures. They allocate resources on a need basis whilst considering the whole. This follows on from Marek’s point, that within a team people can take on a variety of roles at any one time. This is the eternal truth and success of any team. Hence I’m less likely to bow down to Belbins assumptions and labels, I also consider this is why I found the questions so difficult to answer. Each question and answer out of context or within a different context, I felt could have been applicable. When assessing all the Belbin roles, I felt frustrated in the fact, that I could say “I do them all”. I don’t embody them all at the same time but I respond fluidly to the team, meaning I take on a role when needed.
By assembling a group of individuals on the basis of labels all I can see is that you remain a group of individuals. Consequently, you can make a team more likely to become productive by assembling a certain type of people together, but “something” has to happen within to finally mould the team together into a unit. As Katzenback says himself “nobody but the team can make it happen”. (116) This was illustrated by one of the best professional partnerships, I’ve ever worked in. I worked with a fantastically brilliant businesswoman called Sophie. On the service, we couldn’t be more different and we are as equally as firey, ambitious and you wouldn’t think we’d be able to work alongside each other. However, bizarrely, in time we became a dynamo duo who brought out the best in each other. Our strengths were able to shine and the other was able to compensate for the others weakness. But this partnership didn’t happen overnight, it took a lot of hard work, compromise, getting to know each other and sharing a common purpose and respect for each other. But if we’d simply completed a Belbin questionnaire, on face value, you would not have put us in the same team, as two girls who want to fiercely lead.
So what transformational “something”, will take a team from one that discusses and delegates to one that has a team purpose above the task, discusses and does real collective work together which everyone feels mutually accountable? The difference between a team and a working group.
Katzenbach (2000) puts forwards several necessity elements that help this process…..
  • Collective and individually shared purpose above the task at hand.
  • Specific performance goals.
  • Clear communication and constructive conflict and challenging.
  • Strategic analyse of how the team can best achieve its objectives via using its people.
  • Feedback, recognition and rewards.
  • A compelling context with an established urgency.

I can witness the above happened within my duo working team including Sophie. However, what Sophie and I had from very early on, is that we both are thick skinned and invite feedback, There was an ethos of (often brutal) honesty but it was always contructive. We learnt from each other, from what we liked about each other, to what really annoyed us, to if we felt the other handled a situation badly, to our successes together. But instead of dropping negative bombshells, we supported each other and constantly looked for a path a head together.

Interestingly, Sophie’s manner and personality, the way she communicates can be very intimidating and of deteriment to the team. Her need to always communicate her feelings. This is something we worked on together for the benefit of our wider team, so she could still communicate but in a more motivating and constructive manner, without it coming across as emotional overloading. Where as my manner and personality, was not at fault. I’m a people person and when engaging with people, i can get people onside and my strong points lie in mediation. However, sometimes the things I practically do and my tendency to do things and then try and involve the team after the fact, sometimes without consultation, alienates team members. This is something Sophie helped me work on, understanding not only the need to be able to lead the team and be strategic but how to get the team behind you and involved.

All of these team lessons are vital, but their applicability within my current business team is very limited. The secret to our team is the ability to engage, enable and then empower. But this must come from within.

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The accident

There is nothing like reflecting on an emergency situation to consider the realities of who you are or how you react in a situation.

A young girl was knocked over last weekend, right outside my house. Literally outside my window. I heard the sound, the scream, the smash and then the cries. Instinctively, I took myself out into the pouring rain, with no clothes on (a part from an old jumper) and no shoes. I was running over to the girl and hysterical driver. The girl was out cold on the floor, blood everywhere, broken bike and huge gash behind her ear.

You had every sort of person there, people who were just watching, people who were in too much shock to contribute, people who were trying to contribute but freaking out, people who didn’t know what to do and those who took charge. Guess which one, I was?

For someone who is quite shy and introverted, it always shocks me, when I push my way to the front and help.

For me the situation slowed down, into a set of logical next steps…..an ambulance needed to be called, the girl needed to be attended to and spoken to….which I did with calm, reassuring tones, which was unlike some of the others around me who were “oh gosh, have you seen the blood?”and “have you seen her ear, that looks bad”. Immediately, I considered these rediculous unproductive statements, they were alarming the already hysterical driver and the girl on the floor, became more and more aggitated and confused. I went back and forth from saying to the girl, she would be fine and looking at the driver and reassuring her.

My next thought was her clothes were wripped and she was cold, also her modesty was out, so I ran to get a blanket to cover her…..no one else had considered or suggested this.

My next thought was all her laptop and everything was everywhere on the floor, so I ran into the house to get some bags and scooped up everything, so she could have it, otherwise it was going to get stood on, lost or driven on.

Inbetween all this I kept on being reassuring to the girl on the floor and to the driver, who both were extremely upset. Especially the young girl, once she came round.

My instinct in this situation was “i must do something” which then came about through practical steps. I would never be the person on the side lines or the person in panic. In fact, i can’t remember a time, when I’ve been in a crisis situation, similar, or at work, professionally or otherwise, when I’ve burst into panic.

I also am still completely at a loss, to why all the things i ended up doing at the scene, wasn’t obviously to everyone else. If I hadn’t been the one chatting to the floor, I would have gone and got a blanket regardless or picked up her things. To me this seemed obvious, rational, logical……..

When it was all over, there was discussion, I could over hear….”wow, I didn’t know what to do”…….”i just froze”. It made me reflect and consider, I approach most things in a non-emotional response. I don’t freak out and freeze, it is almost like everything shuts off and I just know what needs to be done and do it. It isn’t until afterwards, that I suddenly, think…how did that happen?

A similar situation, was when I was involved in a big Pitch to Eversheds, the global law firm. As a group, we had spent a long time working hard on this presentation and pitch. On the day, in front of the board, one of the girls froze through her bit and the other few didn’t recover. I’m terrified of public speaking and had avoided being part in the actual delivery. I found myself walking onto the stage from the side and taking over and delivering the rest. I didn’t feel anxious, or worried….I knew it needed to be done and just did it, otherwise we would have looked like idiots.

It made me realise, that professionally what may be obvious to me, might not be obvious to everyone else. It may need extra time or be pointed out. Also, I can’t expect my reaction to be the same as everyone elses, it isn’t right or wrong, it just comes naturally from instinct. Moreover, an increased understanding of why others react in ways that almost leave me shocked, instead of dismissing it, I need to seek to understand it. Surely a better awareness of others, is also part of my learning experience. Afterall knowing how people are going to reacted; forewarned is forearmed.

When Fair is Mediocre

Absolutely brilliant rebuttal of my thoughts in regards to sharing the leadership and project management within a team. I do stand firm, that in regards to team learning, people should be allowed experiment and experience different roles within a safe environment. This involves letting people take on roles, even though it might not be in the best interests of the output of the team in the short term. But the team learning and personal development gained, surely in the long term, outweighs this.

But on a day to day basis, regarding the actual functioning of a team and of a business team, I do think there needs to be a sense of leadership. Do I actually think in the long term, this will work effectiently, swapping leadership and having meetings be led by the whole group? No I do not…..but a team learning process, is not about, I told you so. It is about me trying new things and seeing what happens? For all I know, in this team, in this instance, it might work for us.

However, I concur with this blog writers thought, that our motivation to share the leadership, is not out of “effectiveness” or what is “best” for the team. It is about being “fair” which almost certainly at the moment, is contributing to our poor performances as a team. May be we are just all being too nice with each other? Or may be there is a fearsome power struggle between some dominant personalities, that giving leadership, is handing over power and elevating someone? Only time will tell……