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TEAMING: There’s Teaming & Then There’s Teaming – How To Get Teaming Into Everyday Work

Recently, I conducted some teambuilding sessions for groups of scientists who have been reorganized into new “platforms” that join together into a single department.  Within each platform are scientific “units,” responsible for different parts of the process of getting product out the door.

The training sessions are designed to build awareness and commitment toward functioning like a team, both within the unit, the platform and the department.  We use the definition of teams from the book, The Wisdom of Teams by Doug Smith and Jon Katzenbach:  “a small group of people with complementary skills and abilities, committed to a common goal and approach for which they hold each other accountable.”  We work on identifying the common goals that each team might have and discuss, utilizing B. W. Tuckman’s Team Development Wheel, how teams develop over time.  We place a lot of emphasis on the difference between a team (responsible to each other) and a group (responsible to a leader who decides), asking them at the end to decide which they what to be.  The resounding answer is usually:  we want to be a team.

Advance forward now three or four weeks and we see that very little has actually changed in the way people are working.  Teaming has become something special they do every once in a while, rather than being incorporated into the day-to-day work.  It’s important to realize that teaming won’t succeed if it isn’t embedded into our entire approach toward work.  We are so individualistic by nature that core behaviors associated with teaming must be practiced every day.  If they aren’t demonstrated and practiced, teaming will soon become the “flavor of the month.”

These scientists are very, very smart and very committed to functioning in teams. However, most of them are also introverted (by personality type) and eager to prove their own value and scientific competency (by graduate school training).  So it’s harder for them to be inclined to team-up.  In fact, relying on others could be viewed, in their minds, as a weakness, not a strength.   So, what can be done to help them succeed as teams despite their inclination to go-it-alone?  How do they change what they’re doing to make teaming work?  Let’s look at some critical things they and their leadership must do:

1. The leaders of the platforms/departments must first tackle this belief that doing work all alone makes a team member look strong and competent.  For example, recently a manager I was coaching put together an entire process for prioritizing work.  Ultimately, he will need buy-in to this process from all his colleagues.  However, so far he hasn’t spent any time gathering their ideas and including them in the design.  In his mind, he will show what he’s done, they will see how good it is, and immediately agree with his approach.  Trouble is:  that’s not how it usually works, is it?  People want to put their thumb print on things they must own, and he’s given them no opportunity to do that.

Leaders have many opportunities to promote collaboration and recognize those who use teamwork in their daily work.  Saying things like, “I like that you gathered the opinions of your co-workers and put them into your approach.”  “What a smart idea of yours to ask so-and-so for his thoughts as I know he did some thesis work in this area.”  “It was very generous of you to give (new person) an opportunity to participate in the presentation.”  The leader’s regular endorsement of a teaming approach is absolutely critical to changing beliefs.

2. Leaders must also check their own behavior. If leaders are always facilitating departmental meetings, speaking up first with an idea or approach, or making decisions outside the team with no communication, it doesn’t take much to see that teamwork really isn’t valued.  Teamwork is about shared leadership, open communication and joint problem-solving.  The first thing I usually tell leaders is to stop facilitating meetings in order to stop dominating discussion.  A leader who really wants teamwork will play the role of the coach:  on the sidelines, encouraging the team, guiding, asking important questions, but not carrying the ball.  As a leader, it might be worthwhile asking your staff, “Do I do any behaviors that appear to you to not support teamwork?”

3. Examine the work processes for all the possible “teaming” occasions within them. For example, in the initial phase of a project encourage brainstorming, group prioritization and agreeing to a common goal and approach.  During the planning phase, soliciting ideas from all stakeholders, doing an implication wheel to identify the impact/implication of each part of the plan and engaging the team in the construction of a working GANTT chart or Work Breakdown Plan for the deliverables will increase a sense of buy-in and collaboration.  During process implementation, team members might cross-train on roles and responsibilities, perform their daily huddle to adjust priorities, and meet regularly to communicate status and resolve issues.  Teamwork is also very relevant during the controlling functions of a process, as team members track their performance data, highlight areas for improvement, resolve conflicts in approach and recognize excellent work.

In quality there is a process called “gemba” where people stand and watch a process to see where improvements can be made.  What about scheduling a “teaming gemba” to watch the process for where teamwork can be embedded?

4. Teamwork is also about promoting a certain set of values: mutuality, community, togetherness, even forgiveness. Mutuality is the art of giving and receiving, learning to depend upon each other through reciprocal relationships, sharing responsibilities and helping each other.  It’s a particular way of thinking and acting.  It’s not being responsible for others, but rather being responsible to others.  On a team we think the best of others, rather than the worst.  We look for ways to serve others, rather than looking for what’s in it for me.  To promote these values, the leader and the team might hang posters around, create mouse pads, decorate coffee cups, and design screen savers that remind team members of these core values.  However, it’s not sufficient to talk values.  Recently a young person was sharing with me that the hotel she worked for this summer was stressing the importance of teamwork.  However, she and the other housekeepers were paid by the number of bedrooms they cleaned.  More rooms cleaned = greater pay.  As a consequence, no one was inclined to help anyone else out because his or her pay would suffer.  In this case, management talked one story, but put into place a system that destroyed the very thing they wanted to create.

It’s very important for managers and leaders to realize that training is an antecedent that sets the stage for new behavior to occur.  However, the behavior will only occur once or twice if there is no connection to day-to-day work and the consequences related to success on the job.  Teamwork must be made practical, real, and valued on the job.

I want to challenge you to conduct a “gemba” and listen and look for ways teamwork might be applied in the day-to-day activities of your unit, department or organization.  Then, talk about it and share your impressions and desires.  If you make it important, it will begin to happen.




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