Building an effective team
Wright, N. (2015), 'Building an Effective Team', Training Magazine Europe, Q3, July, pp26-27.
I’m going to share some ideas that can help create inspiring and effective teams. These are teams that generate high levels of energy and engagement and achieve great results. I will focus primarily on team meetings because these are the points at which greatest synergy and tension can occur. People are in the room together, whether physically or virtually, and it’s how to make the best of that encounter so that something magic happens inside and outside of the room.
I will pay particular attention to four dimensions: vision, content, methods and relationships. I will explain each dimension in turn and include illustrative questions to help guide team conversations. I would encourage you to think about how you could apply these principles in your own team. If I describe something that you believe, for whatever reason, wouldn’t work in your team, ask yourself what it would take to make it work or what would work instead.
‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What do our plans point towards?’, ‘What do we need to align around?’, ‘What are we like at our best?’ Many teams assume they are working towards the same vision or goals without having articulated what’s important to them or what success would look like. The best visions are ‘convincing to the mind and compelling to the heart’. Keep it short and sweet.
Whereas vision tends to describe a mid-to-long term aspiration, the same principle can be applied to a team meeting or to specific items on an agenda, e.g. ‘Why this, why now?’, ‘What is the goal of this meeting?’, ‘Where do we want to get to by the end of it?’, ‘What is the purpose of this agenda item?’, ‘If we were to succeed in this, what would a great outcome look and feel like?’, ‘By the end of this meeting, what would convince you this was time well spent?’
‘What should we focus our attention on?’, ‘Before we dive into the agenda, what issues stand out to us as most important?’, ‘What must we avoid being distracted by?’ Many teams wade through long agendas without having considered first which issues are most pressing or critical. Pause at the start of each meeting to take a breath, step back from the agenda and reflect for a moment with the team: ‘Of all the things we could discuss today, which stand out to us as highest priority?’
Before addressing an agenda item, it is also worthwhile asking first what questions it raises. For instance, in a leadership meeting: ‘What leadership issues does this raise for us?’, ‘What is the strategic significance of this issue?’ You could also ask, e.g. ‘Who or what is driving this issue?’, ‘Which aspects of this should we focus on?’, ‘What do we already know about this?’, ‘How clear are we about what is negotiable?’ This creates focus and parameters and avoids wasting time.
‘How shall we do this?’, ‘What way of approaching this would work well for us?’, ‘What would be the most creative, energising and effective way we could tackle this issue together?’ This dimension is that most neglected in teams. Most teams follow habitual routines and some feel trapped by formal meetings protocols. In light of this, breaking the mould demands curiosity and courage. It calls for a willingness to disrupt established patterns of behaviour and to experiment with alternatives.
Try asking, e.g. ‘How would we like to do this?’, ‘When and where would it be best to do this?’, ‘What would make it fun and stimulating and get the best result?’ I actively encourage team members to speak up if they feel bored, distracted or disengaged, e.g. ‘I’m starting to feel tired – could we take a 5 minute break?’, ‘I’m feeling confused – could someone help me to understand this?’, ‘I don’t really know much about this topic – could someone fill me in on the background?’
‘What do we each contribute to the vision?’, ‘What is the special gift/talent/experience that each of us offers?’, ‘What are the inter-dependencies between our roles?’, ‘What do we need from each other to do our best?’, ‘What relationships outside of this team do we need to manage well?’, ‘What would help us know and understand each other so that we can work well together?’, ‘How can we get the best from the differences between us?’, ‘What will we do when tensions or conflicts arise?’
Many teams take part in teambuilding activities to address this dimension, often aimed at getting to know each other better in order to perform well. Some teams also look at what attitudes and skills people need to work well in teams, e.g. emotional intelligence, influencing and negotiating, handling difference and conflict. These skills are recruit-able and trainable so always make sure you consider essential team-working qualities in your recruitment and development plans.
Invite your team to take part in a role play. Encourage them to imagine a conversation in a pub or cafe at the end of one of your meetings. Imagine vividly that it was an absolutely fantastic meeting – the best they have ever taken part in. Now invite them to speak together as if they are looking back on that meeting, e.g. ‘I loved how we…’, ‘I found it really helpful when…’, ‘The thing that inspired me most was…’ Then run the meeting in such a way that ensures it’s the team’s lived experience.
In working with many different teams over the years, I have found it important and valuable to: (a) treat any team as a human system made up of real people with wonderful complexities and potential and (b) empower team members to play a proactive role in co-creating and sustaining it. Attention to vision, content, methods and relationships can provide a helpful stimulus for inspiring and effective team culture and a good basis for review as the team moves forward.