Thursday, October 04, 2007

Thoughts on Teams

All of this thinking about relationships has me wondering.... What makes a successful team? One that not only gets things done but also makes ALL participants richer and happier for the interaction?

The reason why I stress ALL participants - despite what many managers seem to think, some of us HATE working in teams. Yes - I know this comes across as anti-social. Take one's natural personality, add some bitter experiences (unecessary meetings, vague requirements, waiting for others, spending more time explaining than doing, watching others take undeserved credit, etc) and VOILA - a person who cringes when a manager-type says "I want you to work on this project with...."

I have been occasionally accused of "not being a team player." Interestingly, I never receive this comment outside of the corporate arena. So what is the difference? My recent successful forays into team play gave me some clues:

- A common goal. - My stagehand friends and I have talked about what makes most stage crews successful teams. The thing we all agreed on - stagehands work towards a concrete, common goal - the performance starts close to on-time and enough of the pieces work to keep the audience engaged. Everything HAS TO BE DONE by curtain. There are no "do overs" and little time slack. The requirements are not particularly nebulous. Of course, there are times when it is all put together with gaffers tape, bubble gum, string and prayers - but if the curtain goes up on-time and the audience doesn't notice the disaster occurring in the wings, it's been a success. I am aware that corporate environments are more fluid, but part of me suspects that the nebulous nature of a lot of corporate projects is more a result of indecision and politics than it is about the "nature of the beast".

- Perspective. - The teams I have enjoyed working on understand that there are very few life and death situations. Unless you are Soldiers, EMTs, Firefighters, members of a surgical team or that ilk - in the grand scheme of things, it ain't that important. The guys I bowl with - we understand that everyone looks like an awkward dweeb when they bowl. And it's a game where you fling a heavy ball down highly greased hardwood floors to knock things over. It's not worth getting the ego bent out of shape for.

I suspect when perpective gets skewed is when people are more focused on perceived potential rewards as a result of the activity than the activity itself. Promotions, money, recognition, etc. Don't want to downplay these things - it's important to a lot of people - but the focus on external rewards, in my experience, has been the cause of most unpleasantries among teams that are supposed to be working together.

- There's a reason for the project. - Teams that I don't mind working on are teams working towards a goal that enhances the experience of the team and/or others. The goal of the"bowling" and "bocce" project teams was to enhance relationships with each other and learn new skills. It doesn't harm anyone (except for MD, who we are afraid will break his ankle sometime this season with his bowling style, but that's a whole 'nother story....). The goal of the stage crews I worked with was to "help" the visiting artist and crew put on a successful show.

What bothers me about some of the teams I am told to work with in the corporate world is that there doesn't seem to be a real reason for the project. Or its a useful project with unnecessary hurdles thrown in for no apparent reason. I'm most disturbed by working on teams where the project itself is actively hurtful. Thankfully, I haven't been asked to do that often in my career (and haven't stayed very long in the organizations that asked.....)

- There is respect and trust between the team members. Managers think you can manufacture this instantaneously. I know that I am personally willing to give someone I don't know the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. But true respect is earned over time. Trust is built by shared experiences (and not of the "let's do team-building exercises" type).

There are people at work that, if I need something, they are right there and I trust that. Alternatively, there are people who have proven to me that I cannot trust them to do something or who I know will over-promise and under-deliver (if I have a pet peeve, this is it). Human nature. But my expectations of these individuals are built through multiple instances of working together. In the early going, I will ask but will also have a plan B ready just in case.....

(An aside on "team-building" - The most successful team-building exercises I've been involved are ones that seem least effective. The team can then bond over the ridiculous experience they just shared. "Team-building" exercises that seem successful in the classroom, however, are quickly forgotten and people revert to their old habits after 3 days of holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"....)

Remember - loners rather work alone. Speaking for myself - I would have rather full control over all of the pieces of the project than have to rely on someone else to get something done. (Maybe because I expect too much and have been disappointed too many times. I'm working with my shrink on that....) Nevertheless, a good team of people who respect each other's strengths can perform miracles and is an ultimately more satisfying experience.

1 comment:

Karyn Romeis said...

Is it a commonly used expression in the US to talk about holding hands and singing kumbaya?

During my recent cyberbullying experience, someone used that expression on me as part of a blistering tirade. While I understood what she was trying to say (and fully experienced the hurt she was trying to inflict), I didn't realise it was an existing idiom.