“I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary… But don’t count on it.”  -J. Richard Hackman with Diane Cotu, Why Teams Don’t Work, HBR (article requires fee/subscription).

If you’ve ever been part of a truly effective team…a high performance team, you know the experience is memorable and potentially career altering.

For those who’ve lived and thrived on a high-performance team, the memory of what it was like to work with a motivated, caring, challenging (but respectful), accomplishment-focused group of individuals provides sustenance for the lonely, near-death experiences that characterize so many other team and project experiences in the workplace.

This Would Be Easy If it Weren’t For the People:

If you are in the unenviable role of pulling together a group to tackle a project, you’ve got more than a few obstacles to overcome, including:

  • People
  • The egos of people
  • Histories, biases and prior experiences of people
  • Politics (yep, people again.)
  • Communication challenges in working with…you guessed it, people.

Compounding the interpersonal and social challenges found in groups referenced above, groups struggle to learn how to make effective decisions, how resolve conflicts and how to be creative together.

At the end of the day, this group stuff would be really easy if it weren’t for the people.

The Basics Provide the Foundation, But Sometimes You Need a Little Help from Your Friends:

Even if you get everything right up front with a new team…a clear and compelling reason for being, clear roles, group-generated team values, proper organizational support and so forth, you will still run head-on into the human factors referenced above. Every time.

Sometimes you just need help to get beyond the noise created by throwing a group of people together and expecting them to become productive at a high level.  A number of years ago in my role as a software company executive, our team and Board agreed that we would invest  to completely redevelop the firm’s core software.  This Bet-the-Company project called for adoption of new approaches and new technologies and after sputtering along for a period, we recognized the need for help.

This strategic initiative would have died on the ash-heap of failed software development projects if it weren’t for the help of some great people at the firm, Construx , who helped us rethink not only our development approach, but, how we worked together to cut through all of the issues described above.

The true value in the approach provided by Construx was not so much the consulting…it was great, but the cultural transformation that resulted in how teams and people worked together.  And while not every project merits (or can afford) high-powered consultants, can you truly afford to allow your teams to sputter and struggle along, seriously endangering the health of your business?

If getting work done in groups and via teams is important in your firm, perhaps it’s time to get some help in rethinking how these entities work together.

A Timely and Relevant Editorial Comment:

As an aside, one of my unofficial observations on team performance inside organizations is that over time and based on a series of poor experiences, managers and leaders begin to accept suboptimal outcomes from project teams as the norm.  Team members are very aware of the group’s performance problems, but for many reasons, too few people feel empowered to take on the problems and drive change.

Strengthening Team Potential and Performance Beyond the Building Blocks:

Great groups and high-performance teams find a way to be creative together, to fight and then move forward together and to make many more right than bad decisions together. They move quickly across the gap spanned by starting up and breaking the ice on one side to achieving trust on the other side.  For some groups, this span is simply never bridged.

Whether you draw upon great outside advisors and coaches to help your teams improve, or, you leverage your best internal talent (good formal and informal leaders) to observe and coach your teams on the difference makers, just do something.  Don’t accept consistently poor performance, when high performance may just be a short distance away.

Recognize that new groups don’t naturally know how to work together…don’t know how to fight together and they don’t know how to make decisions together.  In many cases, they don’t really know how to talk with each other on the tough performance topics.  It’s not that you don’t have smart people in your organization and in these groups, it’s more about how difficult it is to do this right together.

Teach your teams great practices in creativity and problem solving and hold them accountable to applying those practices and tools.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ll echo Hackman’s quote at the opening of the post: the potential for extraordinary with teams is always there…just don’t count on it.  Improve your chances of success with group efforts by teaching your teams to work together.  A little effort will go a long way towards strengthening your organization.