Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Building high performing and cohesive teams - an art or alchemy? #kmers


For the last two decades, I’ve been asking myself whether building a cohesive and high performing team is an art or the fruit of alchemy?

I’ve benefitted from the wisdom of highly-paid management consultant,  coaches and facilitators; poured over and absorbed both academic and business literature and exhausted the repertoire of team building games.

Sad as it may be, I am not sure I can honestly cite an example of how all of this body of knowledge, expertise and know-how actually contributed to form cohesive and high performing teams.

I define a cohesive and high performing team as a group of people from different backgrounds and walks of life coming together to achieve a common goal. A group of people who set to achieve their common goal by caring, respecting and trusting each other. A group of people who innovate and inspire. A group of people who distribute work based on their different expertise and self-manage themselves as they seem fit.

And yes, sometimes becoming a headache and challenge for the leader or the boss, as they end up setting their own norms and sticking to them.

I never thought I would be lucky enough to witness with my own two eyes the formation and maturation of cohesive and high performing teams. And guess what, I got lucky!

So how did this miracle happen? Was it art or alchemy? Here is the story:

20 inspiring and bright people were asked to share a seed of an innovative idea.  Almost immediately after doing so, they came together socially for a drink. This casual and relaxed gathering allowed them to get to know each other better, find out and learn about each other's interest and listen to each other’s ideas in an informal setting. 

This early social gathering was instrumental and contributed immensely to building mutual trust and respect. It was a great bonding experience.

Subsequently in a more formal setting, using speed geeking method, these 20 bright individuals started to explore similarities between and among their various proposals so that they could form teams.

In doing so, they negotiated, probed, challenged, sought clarification, curiously explored, dug further into each other’s ideas and shared the values that would guide their journey to realize their idea.

At the end of this process they formed eight groups with each group having at least three team members.

Their forming stage in many ways reflected the first stage of  Bruce Tuckman’s group formation framework which is described as “This is the initial stage when the group comes together and members begin to develop their relationship with one another and learn what is expected of them. This is the stage when team building begins and trust starts to develop. Group members will start establishing limits on acceptable behavior through experimentation. Other members’ reactions will determine if a behavior will be repeated. This is also the time when the tasks of the group and the members will be decided.”

Over the course of the next four months, I witnessed:
  • camaraderie among and between teams
  • the art of maintaining focus  
  • the teams building synergies, providing guidance to and learning from each other
  • gracious and respectful ways of pushing back when there was an attempt to persuade the teams to change course
  • the teams staying true to their values, ideas, cause and passion
  • apt ways of managing upwards
  • the delivery of high-quality products
  • different tactics and techniques to provide feedback
  • transformation, maturation and sophistication of presentations and pitches
  • seamless assignment of roles and responsibilities - one based on team member’s comparative advantage, experience, expertise and skill
I did not witness Tuckman’s second stage of group formation - namely storming which is characterized by conflicts and differences of opinion. Or let’s put it this way, there was never any external manifestation of storming. What I saw was the teams seamlessly moving from norming to performing - a stage where teams are focused on accomplishing the goal by fulfilling all the various tasks. In doing so, they learnt new skills and shared roles and responsibilities.

Watching the teams delivering their final products, presentations and pitches, I wondered how many of them will actually continue working together and how many would disengage to meet Tuckman’s transforming or termination stage.

It was a delightful experience to see the formation of these eight teams and how they:
  • worked together
  • overcame their uncertainties, insecurities and matured
  • stayed true to their values, ideas, passion
  • won competitions and awards
  • reached out to seek coaching and mentoring advice

So, what did I learn from this extraordinary experience? To start with, I saw what Morten T. Hansen had to say about collaboration in real life: “ for collaboration to happen leaders need to unify people and to do that they must craft a compelling unifying goal that makes people commit to a cause greater than their own individual goals.”

I learnt:
  • successful and high-performing teams are those who believe in and have a common interest
  • you cannot force people to work in a team, they either need to come together spontaneously or at least have the opportunity to find their best fit
  • the importance of an early social get together to get to know each other 
  • successful teams are those who stay true to their values, cause and passion
  • the fundamental principle of allowing teams to come up with how they wish to manage themselves and the infinite benefits of allowing the team to negotiate and figure out their team dynamics as opposed to instructing them what they should do and how they should behave
  • the art of pushing back gracefully and managing upwards
On a personal note, it was an honor to witness the seamless group dynamics - one based on mutual trust and respect. It was truly a privilege to have been able to celebrate the successes and accomplishments of these eight high-performing teams. And I sincerely hope to have an opportunity to replicate this successful model next time I am tasked to form a team.

I am sure these 20 bright people and eight high-performing teams will go from success to success. It was a pleasure and honor to learn and work with you all. THANK YOU.
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