No one is an island

Teams and how to build a great one

By Dina D'Avirro Varacalli

No one is an island

A team isn’t just a bunch of people working on the same project. If people are just executing on their own tasks and simply reporting their results to the others, that’s a group. A real team is when people work together, relying on each other’s expertise, with shared responsibility for their end-result.

True Teams = Terrific Tools. Teams aren’t always your best bet for getting the job done, sometimes a well-managed group is ideal. Teams are best suited when intense creativity or fast learning is essential. Teams are also great when buy-in from several people is required or various specialties are needed.

If there is no I in TEAM, what is there? For a team to come together, it needs to have a purpose and a well-defined goal. It also needs a compelling problem, something time sensitive and interesting to work on. Good teams incorporate people with various skill sets that become interdependent. Teams should have their own performance measures, tailored to their challenge. Most importantly, each member must share – the team must have distributed leadership and shared responsibility.

Sugar, spice and everything nice, … and the right people, optimal size, and boundaries, … that’s what good teams are made of. Great teams don’t just appear. Lots of consideration, planning and time go into forming an ideal team.

Obviously, the right people need to be chosen. But a team of superstars doesn’t automatically translates to a super team. People should be chosen for their skills, commitment to the team and ability to work with the other team members. It’s not good people who make ideal teams, it’s the right people.

Teams shouldn’t be too small or too big, they need to be juuust right. Increasing the size of the team also increases costs and complexity, so increased size doesn’t help and can even hinder. Larger teams need more procedures and oversight which is exactly what we want to avoid with teams. Large teams often break into smaller teams which causes misalignment. The offshoots can waste their efforts or even impede each other. Keep teams small enough to function and large enough to get the job done.

A team’s purpose or goal should be narrowly defined and their boundaries identified. A narrowly defined can obviate what tasks members should tackle. A team with boundaries leads to knowing what they can do and what they should not attempt. For example, if the customer asks for a new feature, the team should know if they have the authority to promise the customer a solution and/or the autonomy to spend their resources developing that feature.

You have to learn to walk, before you learn to run. Like everything else in life, teams develop over time to become a cohesive, effective unit. Remember learning team sports in elementary school – same thing, different decade. Bruce Tuckerman in 1965 explained the four stages of team development: forming, storming, norming and performing.

The forming stage is when members meet, learn about their challenges and agree on the goals. Like grabbing a green piney and sizing up who you’re playing with.

There’s a storm a brewin’: in the storming stage the team sorts itself out and members gain each other’s trust. Opinions get stated which can lead to conflict. “Johnny, you should be goalie.” “No way, that’s too boring, Julie can do it.” “I’ve been playing since I was 5! I’m the strongest kicker we have, I’m a forward.” Disagreements need to be resolved so the storm can pass. Tolerance, acceptance of differences and patience are must haves.

In norming, members start to share responsibility and become invested in the success of the team. Members begin to accept and trust each other and can work through conflict. “The other team always runs down the middle.” “If Johnny and Mike can get the ball and pass to me, I can run up the wing.” “Good idea Julie, let’s try that.” The challenge during this stage is to not entrench in conflict avoidance and not express ideas for fear of sparking a new storm.

Performing is when the team has really gelled. Members are competent, autonomous and decisive. The team can work without supervision and conflicts are resolved amongst the members. Team green takes the field without a huddle beforehand, just high fives. They go on to dominate and win the class cup. If only I knew this when I was 10!

As circumstances change, like new members join or established members leave, even champion teams may revert to earlier stages. Each stage will be worked through again as the new dynamics are worked out.

Self-organized teams are successful teams. Defining goals, getting the right people and giving teams boundaries, are key to setting up good teams. Spending time moving all your pieces into position, means an easier checkmate later.

Well-developed teams have a great potential to become autonomous. Autonomy leads to significantly greater productivity. Click here for our article on autonomy as a key motivational factor in productivity. Allowing a team autonomy (choosing when they work, how they work, with whom they work and even what they work on) gives them the freedom to do what they do best – be successful.

Building a successful team isn’t easy. It requires lots of set-up, time and patience. But once it gets going, a great team will yield outstanding results.