When it comes to helping their organisations develop people-based competitive advantage, what do most HR executives prioritise?

A quick glance at a random selection of HR Directors’ agendas suggests it might be leadership, culture, engagement, talent or, increasingly, wellbeing – all worthy considerations, but hardly overlooked.

In contrast, developing teams earns not so much as a footnote in most HR strategies, despite many compelling reasons for its prioritisation, including (but not limited to) the following:

1) Teams are the primary unit of production – on average we spend about 54% of our time working in them and probably much more contributing towards them (source: Oxford Review Special Report on High-Performance Teams 2019)

2) They’re perfectly suited to resolving complex, urgent, and unprecedented problems that require learning at speed and sustained commitment – a summary of many organisations’ current  challenges (source: Oxford Review Special Report on High-Performance Teams 2019)

3) They fulfil fundamental social needs for connection and belonging which underpins individuals’ engagement and contribution (source: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)

As Kenneth H. Blanchard once memorably quipped, ‘None of us is as smart as all of us’ – although he might have added that in today’s rapidly changing, increasingly complex, highly specialised world, ‘None of us is smart enough to do very much without all of us.’  

So, why don’t we prioritise developing teams more?

It’s possible many of us still negatively associate it with running around together outdoors (usually when it’s cold and wet) and completing relatively pointless tasks (build a raft, cross a river, transport some eggs or something similar in the process) or being encouraged to share uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that many would prefer remained private. At worst, such events evoke dread, at best they might be considered harmless fun. Few genuinely anticipate any significant and sustained benefits to the team’s effectiveness (for which some development professionals have a lot to answer for).

Now, some executives might simply consider team building to be an integral component of leadership. However, curricula typically focus on developing leaders’ attributes and not usually on gaining any practical understanding of how to develop the teams on which their performance ultimately depends.

Most importantly, there’s an inherent, cultural bias (at least in most organisations) towards individual accountability which is rigorously reinforced through individual performance objectives, development interventions and rewards – all of which goes some way to explaining the low prioritisation of team building.   

But if it’s important to develop teams, how do we do it effectively?

Recent authors have thrown more light on the discipline. Two texts are particularly interesting and potentially particularly important.

Katzenbach and Smith (The Wisdom of Teams, HBS School Press) emphasised the causal relationship between the team’s performance requirements on its effectiveness. A demanding performance challenge creates great teams, not team-building exercises, or leaders with particular profiles – ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ after all. A shared purpose – effectively the team’s expression of their performance challenge – is fundamental to team building, as is working together to determine a common approach to collaboratively fulfilling it. This understanding, borne of their extensive observations of teams in many different organisations, also enabled the authors to conclude that not all groups need to become teams (consider a company executive operating primarily through its respective functional departments and producing little or nothing collectively), and not all teams need to be high performing (only those with the most demanding performance challenges require the level of investment that this inevitably requires) – a clear departure from the misguided convention that all groups benefit from developing closer and more interdependent working. 

Whereas Katzenbach and Smith focused principally on organisational team-building disciplines, Amy Edmundson (The Fearless Organization, Wiley) emphasised cultural and behavioural aspects by linking the development of innovation for competitive advantage to psychological safety and accountability. In short, she argued that high levels of psychological safety and mutual accountability enable and motivate teams to increase the intellectual friction they experience when working together (something diversity alone can’t provide) and that this fosters better innovation.

Together, these texts provide the basis for a fundamentally different, more effective approach to building teams.

What does this mean for team development?

The implications of the findings I’ve referred to here are that team building interventions should be systematic, research-based and focused on tangibly improving their performance (not just improving general feelings or relationships between members).

They should enable leaders and their teams to determine together a compelling, shared purpose and an effective, collaborative approach to its fulfilment – because this is what differentiates ‘real teams’ from ‘pseudo teams’ (groups aspiring to become a ‘real team’ but lacking any common purpose and/or collaborative approach to its fulfilment). High levels of psychological safety and mutual accountability should be developed through the process (as opposed, for example, from charging through the countryside with their team in tow).

The process centres on some fundamental questions for leaders and their teams designed to help them determine their focus and function. Development professionals can valuably assist such interventions, but only if they understand the principles that underpin this approach (otherwise you might be better off asking them to help you build a raft to transport eggs across a river, so to speak).

Why not consider these now for your team?  

1) Do the performance demands made on our group require us to produce something tangible together that exceeds the sum of our individual parts? (YES = you have the potential to become a ‘real team’ and, if the performance required is particularly demanding, a ‘high-performance team’)

2) For what purpose does our team exist and how will we measure our success? (ANSWER = your common purpose & performance goals)

3) How will we work collaboratively to fulfil this purpose and achieve our goals? (ANSWER = your approach for determining, planning, executing, and evaluating your work together)

4) How comfortable are we being and expressing ourselves in this group? (ANSWER = team’s current levels of psychological safety)

5) To what extent do we expressly hold ourselves and each other accountable for both our actions and results? (ANSWERS = team’s current levels of mutual accountability)

If you want to know more about how to develop teams or team leadership in your organisation, drop us a line at info@co-creation.group.