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Six steps to team enlightenment


Do you believe in the adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’? Andrew Leigh warns that a team’s reluctance for ‘development’ may be a sign that all is not as it should be, and suggests six steps on the road to team enlightment.

If you lead a team, you almost certainly know it makes sense to work at developing its effectiveness. But what happens when things seem to be going well and in effect the team says to you: “Hey, we’re doing just great, we’re too busy for all this development stuff, just let us get on with the job?” It can be mighty tempting to leave well alone. After all, a team that seems to be firing on all cylinders surely does not need to divert its precious energy into navel gazing exercises?

Traditional team meetings can indeed be boring, frustrating and dysfunctional. For example, there may be any number of sound reasons why team members might sensibly want to avoid the experience. These might include adversarial behaviour, lack of respect for differences or an unwillingness to face conflict. The objections may be that such meetings lack rigor and discipline, an inattention to detail and process and so on.

"It can be mighty tempting to leave well alone. After all, a team that seems to be firing on all cylinders surely does not need to divert its precious energy into navel gazing exercises?"

Team development makes sense on highly practical grounds. It allows the team to

  • Assess current levels of performance
  • Identify any barriers to excellent delivery
  • Highlight where they can become more than the sum of their parts
  • Devise strategies for problem solving
  • Anticipate difficulties and avoid them

Whatever the objections you may still be missing something important about what is going on within the team. For example, one or more team members may not in fact be not functioning well and being carried by the rest of the group. By not allowing this situation to surface and be talked about, the problem can simply fester until it erupts in a sudden squall of previously unexpressed frustration and resentment.

"Faced with resistance to ongoing team development it is almost certainly time to grit your teeth and make it happen...... development is non-negotiable."

Your team may also contain one or more strong characters who temperamentally hate the idea of development sessions, with its forced intimacy and exchange of views and feelings about how things are going. Faced with resistance to ongoing team development it is almost certainly time to grit your teeth and make it happen. One message to the team could be that investing in time to review how people in the team relate to each other, in exploring the group’s effectiveness, and identifying changes that would improve individual or group performance is what team work is all about. In other words, development is non-negotiable.

Another message is that not having regular development sessions is rather like a sports team only turning up on match-days and expecting to perform without having done any training sessions. They wouldn’t dream of it. They know the value of planning and practising together in order to improve performance. It’s a way of life.

Step one

The first step along the way in the non-negotiable team development process is an assessment—a straightforward joint effort to decide 'How are we doing?' Obviously ,if you just ask such a question directly you risk hearing anodyne responses such as “great, terrific, we’re doing fine” and so on. You need to go deeper and there are numerous useful tools and techniques to help you do that.

The most obvious method for going deeper is a team profile where each member completes a questionnaire. This can provide an overall view on the group’s effectiveness and be a starting point for a conversation about performance. For example, why do one or more team members rate the team’s objectives as unclear, or why do certain people feel less committed to the team’s success than others?

Profiles though can prove time consuming or cumbersome to create and actually generate more data than you can ever hope to use. You can also get there rapidly by team members answering say half a dozen key questions about how they see the team right now.

Step two

The second step in the non-negotiable team development process is a review of team procedures. What, for example, is getting in the way of the team performing even better? What behaviours by individual team members contribute to team performance and which ones are seen by the team as unhelpful or negative?

Step three

The third step to the non-negotiable team development process is regularity. It is not enough to have these sessions once or twice a year. They need to become part of how the team functions and no arguments! This means you may need to be highly creative in making the time spent together enjoyable and productive. For example, you can’t keep doing the same communication exercises every time and expect people to find it stimulating and worthwhile.

Step four

The fourth step along the way is to consider using an outside facilitator some of the time. This not only adds variety, but also a fresh perspective, an external challenger who can sometimes see things the rest of the team and its leader are missing. T

Step five

he fifth step is: make it personal. Individual team members need a safe place in which to tell each other uncomfortable messages and also hear them, without the message being distorted by a fear of upsetting each other. The more intensive the team activity the more likely there will be times when members irritate or upset each other: “you didn’t do what you said you’d do,” “you drive me mad with your constant criticism,” “I wish you would stop chattering to your friends on the phone when we’re trying to work.” Team development sessions provide an invaluable opportunity for such frustrations to be aired and dealt with.

Step six

The final step towards non-negotiable team development is follow through. This means making sure that agreed changes happen and that there is a proper report back on progress. Resistance to team development is itself a signal that something may be awry, what Jim Collins in How the Mighty Fall calls the erosion of healthy team dynamics. There may already be a marked decline in the quality and amount of dialogue and debate. For example, you may notice a shift towards consensus or dictatorial behaviour rather than a process of argument and disagreement, followed by unified commitment to execute decisions.

Five warning signs suggesting a need for team development:
  1. Most people in the team say we’re too busy
  2. Regular team meetings are boring, unproductive and too frequent
  3. There is no identifiable safe space in which individual team members can raise issues about other people’s performance
  4. There is minimal amount and quality of dialogue and debate about team performance
  5. The team leader feels reluctant or fearful of insisting on time spent on team development

Andrew Leigh is a director of Maynard Leigh Associates, a Fellow of the CIPD, and joint author with Michael Maynard of Leading Your Team


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