I once read an article about the leader of a terrorist faction in Africa who was at peace talks on a boat with his enemy. The boat sank, and the two men were cast into the water together. Over the next two days, they had to cooperate and work together to survive until help came. During that time, they ended up becoming friends—or at least, not enemies—and upon rescue, a treaty was quickly signed. I’m not sure if the story is true, but I thought about it a lot. Would an assessment or a team-building activity have provided the impetus for them to become a team? Probably not. Instead, it was the difficult and meaningful work of survival that allowed them to become a team.
If you want teamwork, then give the team work. It’s a phrase I love and have used for years. I love it because it perfectly captures the essence of how teams form and function. Wade through the confusion of team effectiveness characteristics, assessments, and models and you finally get to the whole point—teams do work together, and it is through the effort of doing that work that effective teams become teams.
Earlier in my career I often had organizations ask me to do team building and team training. The usual course of events for such activities goes something like this. There’s possibly an assessment like the DiSC or MBTI to get people to think about differences and how they can work better together. There is usually some kind of off-site event or retreat to talk about teamwork and the characteristics of good teams. There may be role-playing or some other activity to practice working together or to build trust. The goal, of course, is to create a team. Or at least create the conditions whereby an effective team might form.
There is some utility in many of these activities. However, I am not sure anyone can provide good evidence that doing any of these this correlates to the ultimate success, or failure, of the team. In other words, would the team have operated any differently if we hadn’t done the team building? In the end it usually seems like a reasonable thing to do . . . and what harm could come by doing it? But I am not sure there is any quantitative evidence that doing so will result in better team performance. In fact, I have seen some anecdotal evidence that such activity can diminish the effectiveness of teams.
In my experience, teams form and become effective by doing work together. Without the work, there is no team. We often spend too much time thinking about the team and not enough time working as a team. In that light, team building and team training often become an exercise in navel-gazing. We can talk about the team all day long, but in the end, it is the work that energizes the team. It is the work that binds the team. It is the work that provides the team with its reason for being. And it is success in the execution of that work that makes the team great.
In fact, the work and the success are inseparable. Without success, it is hard to say that the team was great. Without success, it is hard to say that the team engaged in successful team work. Operational success, then, defines the success of the team. And successful teams are, almost by definition, happy teams, as I’ll discuss in the conclusion of this post. What I am advocating is that instead of spending lots of time and money on team-building activities, let the work the team needs to accomplish be the team-building activity.
The main driver of team building, beyond the work, is the team leader’s ability to create the conditions for the team to be successful. Select competent team members, focus the team on a measurable goal, manage the flow of the work, ensure equity in work distribution, reward valuable behaviors and punish toxic behaviors, leverage the team’s individual strengths, and mitigate its weaknesses. When these leadership activities are done correctly, teams tend to flourish. When done ineffectively, teams tend to founder. Given this reality, I am even more inclined to diminish the power of team-building activities to substantively influence the outcomes of the team. A team with poor leadership will probably fail, no matter how much team building you do.
A focused objective is also a precursor for the ability of the team to be successful. This has been studied ad nauseum and is so obvious as to be barely worth reiterating. But apparently it needs to be reiterated. Teams without clear objectives are not teams. They are groups of people doing stuff. That is different from a team. And to be clear, the objective must be tangible. It must have a discreet beginning, middle, and end. It must produce something valuable and useful.
There have been lots of books and articles written about the attributes and components of successful teams. I see far too much time and energy being spent on teaming, team building, and generally obsessing about “the team” and not enough recognition that the team is truly created by successfully doing the work. A better use of time will be to simply ensure that the team has a measurable and meaningful objective, competent leadership, and competent members. And then go to work. If you want teamwork, then give the team work.