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ClearWorth on Teams

We pride ourselves in ClearWorth on thinking somewhat differently about teams and team development and daring to suggest that much team development is a waste of time. energy and money. Not because it’s not fun or there aren’t things to be learned, but because it’s being applied to the wrong type of crowd.

The other fundamental difference for us about team development is that it focusses almost entirely on what’s going on inside the team. In reality in the commercial world a team, indeed an organisation’s success is more in the hands of the outside world than the internal workings of the team. If your sponsors, customers, clients, shareholders, stakeholders or society itself doesn’t support what you’re doing then you’re finished – no matter how much you’ve been on team development events and learned to catch each other falling out of trees or formed squares while blindfolded.

Teams and Working Groups

Teams are the basic unit of production in organisation – or rather groups of people are. So when is a group not a team? This is an important distinction because the type of collection of people will determine such things as what kind of leadership is required, how people will behave and how much such things as trust and interdependence are important or optional. Now saying that trust is optional seems heresy to many people when talking about teams. We’ve realised that people are so wedded to the “team is good” notion that they get quite upset when it is suggested that their group is not a team. Katzenbach and Smith certainly upset a lot of corporate teams when they suggested that many collections of people with the label “team” were not teams at all. They cited boards of directors and sales teams as prime examples of “non-team”.

The Definition of Team

Katzenbach and Smith - The Wisdom of Teams (1993)

“…a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they are mutually accountable."

Now this raises some issues straight away. What’s small? Quite a lot of research has struggled with this question over the last 150 years. Maximilian Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer born in 1861 discovered that the more people who pulled on a rope, the less effort each individual contributed. Ringelmann analysed people alone and in groups as they pulled on a rope. Ringelmann then measured the pull force. As he added more and more people to the rope, he discovered that the total force generated by the group rose, but the average force exerted by each group member declined, thereby discrediting the theory that a group team effort results in increased effort. Ringelmann attributed this to what was then called “social loafing” — a condition where a group or team tends to “hide” the lack of individual effort.

Now given that most teams in organisations are dealing with more complex issues than pulling on a rope this may not be that useful. However, he suggested 5 or 6 as the optimum number and few researchers go above 12 (the size of most, but not all, sports teams). It seems that, once numbers go too much above that it is difficult to do real team behaviours and thus sub-teams are formed – either by deliberate design or by natural evolution.

This size dimension was one of the prime reasons Katzenbach and Smith - Wisdom of Teams -suggested many sales teams were not teams at all. Groups of 50 or more people were called a team on paper but actually they were a collection of lone contributors who happened to work in the same geographical location. It could be argued that they had a common purpose or performance goal but, in reality, even that was often on an individual basis and often they were in competition with each other for top performing sales person – hardly conducive to what we might call teamwork. There was no need for interdependence, in fact, the opposite was most often the norm – to be a successful salesperson you rarely share your best leads or tactics with your colleagues if your performance bonus depends on winning the number one spot.

Complementary skills are more important in more complex tasks. In Ringelmann’s experiment they all had to be rope-pullers and pull when told – no creativity, no variety of skills, outlooks, thinking and personality. In a specialist team who only do one job you probably need them all to do the same thing and thus all have the same skill or competency set. However, not many tasks are that one-dimensional. A rowing eight have different roles to play even though they are essentially all just rowing in the same direction at the same time.

But complementary skills alone don’t make a team. A symphony orchestra is not a team. Why? Well, too big to start with, but also their work does not have the quality of interdependence that defines a real team. The woodwind and brass are, in reality, not that bothered what the string section is up to because (a) they can’t actually hear them most of the time, and (b) they perform based on their scores (which don’t show the other instruments so they don’t know when or what they are meant to be playing) and they follow the conductor’s cues, rather than taking the lead from fellow musicians.

In musical terms, a string quartet is much more like a team. No conductor but there is typically a lead violinist – however the lead tends to be passed around and the pace, volume and dynamics are determined by all the musicians together rather than by the conductor’s baton and decision making.

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Inside and Outside the Team

We think teams have to focus on the outside world as much if not more than their internal workings. Intelligent conversations are those that follow logic, structure and a theme which evolves and expands to help learning. The most intelligent conversations for teams should be structured around six areas of focus.

Teams need to know how to work together and have conversations which help the process of understanding and optimising the knowledge, skills and attitudes available within the group. "Six Conversations for Team Success" is a framework to help teams structure their conversations so that the most important and relevant topics are addressed. But for these conversations to fulfil their potential, teams must learn some of the skills and disciplines which make conversations intelligent and their outputs valuable.

The "Six Conversations for Team Success" topics are about both the vital external relationships and the internal processes which together help the team thrive in today's turbulent markets and economies: -

  1. Success Criteria - The value judgments the customers and stakeholders use when investing time, energy and money in the team's work and products.
  2. Stakeholder Management - The practices that engage the outside world in the team's work, successes and challenges so that they feel part of the action.
  3. Delivering on Promises - The reputation and record the team has for fulfilling expectations of them, their work and their outputs
  4. Structure and Organisation - The way that the team is organised and the processes it uses to reliably and easily perform its work and deliver its products.
  5. Working for Each Other - The interdependence which ensures that team members support each other in delivering value.
  6. Continuous Learning - The need for change and updates to knowledge, skills and attitudes to meet new challenges and opportunities.

Intelligent conversations for teams are vital to survival in difficult times. The tragically fatal response to such difficult times can actually be a stronger focus on what the team is doing (just do more with less) and much less attention to how things are working and the relationships which are key to remaining viable. Recognising the importance of external, as well as internal, relationships is vital to success.

Clearworth Case Studies

Medal – Pfizer Senior Manager Development
Early adoption of blended and elearning into a senior management development programme, with accreditation. The Medal Programme The Challenge: A Senior Management Development Programme, using an action learning approach with inbuilt motivation to carry on learning and applying the learning at work. The topics to be covered were similar to those on many other senior […]
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Making the Most of Your Potential in Teams and Groups – Using Myers Briggs
By understanding oneself and our motivations we can be more deliberate in the behaviours and approaches we choose. Sharing a language to discuss this is extremely helpful, especially for people who are not professional managers but promoted into those roles. When we understand others and their motivations, we can be more deliberate in the way we […]
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Medal – EDF
A senior management development programme incorporating action learning and mentoring programmes to challenge and develop leadership qualities. The Challenge The client needed to develop senior managers across the organisation into a leadership role. The programme was to cover the usual elements of a senior managment programme using an action learning approach and also a challenge […]
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Getting More of What You Want
A highly interactive online and workshop experience designed for an established team to consider and develop their communication styles, to enhance working relationships. The Challenge: The client wanted a highly interactive workshop which encouraged people to think about their working relationships and had them consider how to develop more confidence and competence in influencing. With […]
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Senior Manager Development – blended leadership development
Innovating the blended leadership development approach for senior managers across a technical publishing organisation, featuring a 10-week online classroom experience and forum spanning 5 leadership modules, followed up with a 3-day face to face workshop. The Challenge With budget constraints the client was struggling to find a way to provide the skills and competence their managers and team […]
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Management Education and Development through Action Learning (MEDAL)
An action learning programme (ALQ) for senior managers, combining interactive management workshops with ‘virtual’ group research project and individual questions. The Challenge: The client was looking to develop 18 participants into a leadership role; all were currently in middle-manager roles in a publishing and information services company with 3-5 years’ experience but little direct management […]
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