Teamwork: Change People or…Change the People

Strong teamwork provides a unique competitive advantage, but what changes are necessary to take full advantage of it? Why do traditional management systems of hierarchy or matrix management systems occasionally falter?

Original article: Vedomosti

Strong teamwork provides a unique competitive advantage, but what changes are necessary to take full advantage of it? Why do traditional management systems of hierarchy or matrix management systems occasionally falter?

First of all, complex, obscure tasks that one cannot solve alone are now the norm. The investment climate’s current demands require the work of a comprehensive team; one that works together on each project, side by side. This guarantees the quickest and most effective means of decision-making. It’s what a group needs to succeed when competing globally. Our traditional view of a team consists of a group that understands team structure and that can quickly adapt to one another. Teams that spend a long time trying to learn to “play nice” with one another quickly become unstable.

Secondly, every team has a unique leader and unique members, and their success is a function of the work they do in a unique context – every situation is different. It’s important to understand that it’s impossible to simply take the best practices of teamwork and reproduce them in every situation. It’s important to understand them, but not possible to simply copy them (as you can with knowledge or technology). Each team must adapt these practices for themselves. But without outside help, or an external stimulus (the proverbial kick in the pants), no one will voluntarily leave their comfort zone. People must be forced into competition. Consultants, business schools, and other experienced professionals are necessary to jolt people from their usual habits and force them to study (and adults do not like to study).

A modern team, a dynamic team, a team in motion, consists of four elements: an overarching goal, rules and procedures, attitudes and values, and skills and competencies. The first two are more or less understood. But why an overarching goal, and not just a goal? Because people are willing to sacrifice their own personal ambitions for an overarching goal that is that much bigger than they are – they aren’t afraid to admit “I can’t do this alone.” There should always be an overarching goal, one that is measured and broken down. It should be beyond the limits of individual achievement, so that the team must achieve it together. Every member should understand and believe in its importance, such that they internalize that it is as important to everyone else as it is to them.

The more complex aspects of teamwork relate to attitudes and values – attitudes towards collaboration, attitudes towards teamwork, attitudes towards sharing. These attitudes can appear counter-intuitive (such as getting back more than one gives). Skills and competencies are also more complex. The phrase “Change people or…change the people” is a reasonably well-known phrase. One can either learn the skills of teamwork or be replaced. A few bad members can spoil the whole team.

What kind of skills are we talking about? Firstly, integrated decision-making. This is when we have a choice between solutions A, B, or C. There is a dominant approach: I like solution A the best, and now the rest of you are going to agree with me because I said so. There is a compromising approach: we won’t offend anyone, and will take a bit each from A, B, and C – no one is happy, but no one is fighting, either. But in today’s world, the correct solution is actually solution D, which integrates the best aspects of the previous three solutions. However, in order to reach solution D, team members need the ability to listen (attentively!) and be heard, since everyone comprehends the same information differently. You need to ensure that you listened, and were heard and understood.

Other important skills are necessary as well. It’s important to set and maintain high standards, for which you need critical thinking skills, a readiness to share ideas and resources with others, the ability to support positive and constructive feedback, and a desire to rethink traditional approaches. It’s also crucial to reflect, which involves constantly analyzing the results of yours and others’ work, discussing what works and doesn’t work with your colleagues, and always seeking out new ideas and feedback.

There are also barriers that can derail good teamwork. We live in a transactional world, where administrative barriers are a necessary evil. The same barriers exist in interpersonal communication. Hierarchy kills communication. Differences in knowledge kill communication. All communication is a pretext for conflict, but fear of conflict also kills construction communication (one believes that if he speaks, he could instigate an argument, but if he remains silent, nothing is accomplished). It seems that we’re predisposed to quarrel – a predisposition that begins in childhood – but at the same time, our egos dictate that we impose a limit. In an attempt to remove those limits, contemporary management spends 50% of their effort (or more!) on developing soft skills that help us cooperate with each other. It bears repeating that cooperation appears to be unnatural for people; it is a skill that must be learned – one that we’ll spend our entire lives learning.

Another interesting and important aspect of teamwork that must be emphasized is providing resources and ideas to others. This is the responsibility of the leader.

The overall task of a leader is currently evolving. One responsibility is to support the frame of the four elements mentioned earlier, and ensure that they are regularly maintained. Another is to ensure that the team members develop. Those that don’t want to develop with the rest of the team will need to be “taken out of the field.”

We aren’t allowed to give actual, real-life examples of teams, and are therefore resigned to providing allusions of teams. One is that of the film “The White Sun of the Desert,” which astronauts watch before launch for good luck. You may remember that Sukhov and Sayid almost never spoke, but would still die for one another. They had hard skills – excellent individual training and an ability to execute. Another character, Petrukha, was both not properly prepared, and distracted by love. What happened to him? He was killed. Another character, comrade Vereschagin, joined later in the game and wasn’t part of the decision-making process, yet had an overarching goal (and an attitude akin to “I won’t take any reward, and am ashamed by power”). Most of the time, Sukhov rescued women – but since he rescued Sayid, Sayid refused to abandon him. It’s an enthralling story with a nearly ideal example of teamwork – the kind that you can’t tear your eyes from. The kind that we wish for all of you.