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The Mystery of Teamwork


A number of years ago I got involved in a client engagement to assist in turning around the performance of a small team which provided service delivery to the public. The team had dismal performance statistics compared to all of its peer group and improvement was urgently required.

Soon after starting the work, the sponsor of the engagement let me know in no uncertain terms that the problem with the team was the members themselves. They were dysfunctional, anti-social, and beyond help, and what was really needed was a good housecleaning, but I was to form my own conclusions.

At first glance, the sponsor's assessment did appear to be on the money. The individuals did not get along, often inflicting silent treatment on each other over what to an outsider appeared to be petty differences. When I had them together in a room, it seemed there wasn't a single thing that they agreed on. After 4 days, I was ready to agree with the sponsor's assessment about the need to clean house. It was clear these people could not get along as a team.

But an odd thing happened at the end of the first week. In a meeting to discuss one very specific customer complaint about how a team member had handled a service application, it suddenly became clear to me that the reason the team member in question had been angry and grumpy with the customer and ultimately did not satisfy the request was because the team member didn't fully understand the process by which she was supposed to be working.

In pushing a little farther, it became evident that although everyone on the team had been trained, the processes they were following to deal with the same items were actually quite different. This meant that not only was service not being consistently delivered, conflict was being created among the team members. One team member would give information to a customer that would then be contradicted by another team member later in the process. Instead of dealing with the process differences, the team members became irritated with each other, and eventually disengaged.

I thought about this over the weekend and on Monday came in with some more questions. My concern was that if team didn't have a common understanding of process, would they clearly understand the role that each played on the team? The answer turned out to be no. They had some general ideas that were common, but there was quite a bit of difference in role understanding, which of course was fuelling the conflict among team members.

Inadvertently, I discovered a third element. As the role discussion (and the obvious lack of common understanding) became heated, one of the team members said to another "Do you even know what we're supposed to be doing here?" We discovered that among the 10 members of the team, there were 7 different versions of the team's goal or objective.

I immediately went out on a limb and speculated that this would also tend to have a negative impact on the group's ability to function as a team.

We then changed the approach to improving the performance of the team and started by developing a common definition of the team's goals and objectives. This wasn't created from scratch, but rather distilled from the organization's objectives. We worked through the process of service delivery until we had a common understanding of, and agreement on, what this was.

Next we talked through the roles and responsibilities on the team, getting on the same page about how was supposed to do what, how that fit within the process, and how that connected to the team's objectives.

Finally, we mapped out the various processes the team was to follow in delivering service, such that everyone had a consistent understanding of how they were supposed to work.

We did not spend any time trying to 'fix' the team members themselves.

In three weeks there was dramatic change. Performance measures that had been the worst in the organization suddenly became the best. The unpleasant, tense atmosphere in which the group formerly operated became genial and friendly. In short, the group began evidencing the behaviours of a well-functioning team.

There was one casualty in the process. One of the team members discovered he was not interested in changing, couldn't buy in to the common process or the role that he needed to play. He chose to take early retirement and although his experience was missed, it was clear that there was no way to benefit from it if he was not willing to operate within the environment required for a team to form.

This group was an eye-opening case study in the essentials of the environment required for a team to form. Although it seems like a bit of a simplification, no team can actually be a team without clearly defined and agreed to Goals, Roles and Process. Interestingly, the fourth element that we often use as the primary indicator of team functioning is relationships, or how well the team is getting along. Although it is not necessarily intuitive, it appears that the quality and effectiveness of our team relationships is driven by the clarity and agreement on the other three elements, not the other way around.