Vanessa Fudge, Founder and CEO, Leading Well
I think we are definitely seeing more and more non-traditional teams being built inside organisations. Agile is the term that gets used for a team that might not be a permanent team fixture in the organisation, but it might also be a team that’s put together for a need at a certain time. I think there will always be functional teams, where they are clustered around more solid functional requirements. But then I think there will be more dynamic teams as we can already see based around project requirements, and the changing needs of the organisation.
A dynamic or an agile team might be a team that is here to see us through a major change project, whether it’s a new ERM, a supply chain transformation, or a restructuring, leaders will need a team to be put together. What you notice is that these teams need to get really, really good at forming faster than teams might’ve formed in the past. There is also the notion of, as an organisation, how good are we at teaming? As opposed to how solid and successful our teams are, which is more of a permanent notion. It is how good are we at assembling and performing through dynamic teams that might be just in time for a particular requirement.
There have always been project teams. I’d probably just say that project teams are forming, in regards not to necessarily anticipated change, but unplanned change. So pretty much everybody agrees that we are dealing with an unprecedented level of disruption, ambiguity, and unplanned change. So the rules of change management and team engagement don’t necessarily apply to unplanned change in the same way they apply to planned change, because you just don’t have the runway to get that team up.
Resourcing is definitely one of the challenges. If a team needs to be built in a short window of time, resourcing is often the challenge, particularly if the organisation is drawing people from existing functional teams and those people are already close to capacity, and now they are expected to deal with an additional load over and above their day-to-day working load.
However, assuming that the resourcing equation is realistic, then some of the challenges will be leadership. By what mechanism will this team be led? Do we want it to be a collective leadership entity where leadership is shared across the team? Do we want it to have a notional team leader? There is also being crystal clear as soon as possible on the expectations, roles and responsibilities for that team. Even if it’s a dynamic team, that is still vitally important that everybody has a sound place in the team, and that means that the deliverables are clarified and that there are very, very clear belonging rules, rules of engagement, and expectations so that people can feel successful in that team.
Another challenge when building a team is around anything that’s going to be competing with the team’s attention and bandwidth. It might be that they have more than sufficient functional allocated capacity to get on with it and to do the job, but they’re not well resourced as a team. The systems might be lacking, the information might be lacking. We’ve already addressed the leadership may or may not be in place. So, you can have a team that has the time and capacity, but they’re still not equipped to succeed.
Conflict is another obstacle, particularly if the team has come off the back of another part of the organisation that hasn’t succeeded or has been quite a burdened part of the organisation, burdened because it’s been too stretched or because it has undigested history from its past. Conflict can always be an obstacle for a team as well, particularly if they don’t have the skills to deal with the conflict.
If we look at all the research on high performing teams which we know has been a top 10 business topic for over 50 years, we haven’t nailed it. If we launch off that and say, where have we lacked insight to build and sustain high performing teams, not just to build but to sustain high performing teams, i.e. they can sustain their success, then at the top level we discover that they are equipped to perform and still stay healthy and well, as individuals and as a team, because of course the team is more than the sum of its parts. We need that parallel focus on performance and wellbeing. If we have got that properly in place, then we do have the foundation to build in other elements that are required for a thriving team.
This might be belonging, a sound sense of belonging, whereby the stated belonging rules and the enacted belonging rules actually align, and that there are no weighty unspoken belonging rules, like you are expected to give more than you can sustain, which is a really common one in high-performing environments. Featuring more and more at the moment is safety in terms of, do people feel safe to be themselves? I think it’s more than psychological safety. It is diversity of thought, as well as diversity of backgrounds tolerated, and ideally harnessed within that team environment, is vitally important for an ongoing, sustained high performing team.
The tolerance for ambiguity and conflict, the two often go together for obvious reasons. We know that is a trigger, that’s a huge site for disconnection, and yet if it can be harnessed with wisdom, it can be a fuel for connection. The capability, the ability, the tolerance to deal with conflict is another really, really important element. We’ve already spoken about role clarity, so everyone has a sound sense of place, and they can clearly manage their expectations.
It is very important that a team has a vision as well, so there is a direction, there’s a place to move towards that is not just different, but inspiring. The vision, purpose, and direction all feeds in here so that people have a higher level of motivation to go beyond where they’ve gone before together as a team.
If you have that in place, then the challenge can be a good thing rather than a draining thing that it often is within a team. If we’re going to have a challenge, then we need to have inspiration to go along, because we need to fuel us through the challenge. But high performers love a challenge, so it is really good that each timeframe that there’s some kind of bar being set on performance that’s supported by building capacity and resourcing sound wellbeing. They’re beautiful levers to pull together to strengthen a team.
Quality relationships are really important within the team, not just the relationship between the team members and the leader, but that relationships across the whole team and all the roles and the people within that team remain sound and strong. As soon as we have a broken connection, we have a weak link and no longer have an effective circle of strength around that team. You could argue the team can only be as strong as its weakest link.
Give and take is really important for a thriving team so that it’s beautifully distributed across the team. We are not relying on some superhero that ultimately becomes a martyr, that only then resents the team down the track; you need really good balancing and counterbalances. We actually want people to be able to receive and to give from the organisation and from each other.
Much of what we draw on to improve team performance has come from our heritage in the space of team coaching. A good portion of our coaches, advisors and facilitators grew up in the realm of team coaching before they did one-to-one coaching. Effectively what we want to do is we want to equip a team to be able to be a self-coaching. What does that mean? It just means that if an obstacle arises, they can collect themselves and coach themselves through that obstacle, i.e. raise new awareness, contact new resources, delve for new insights, galvanise back towards necessary shared intention, and strengthen. So anything we do is designed to strengthen the dynamics across the whole team, and of course strengthen the individuals within the team.
We do have a specific program called Thriving Teams which was built off the back of noticing that the perennial high performing teams workshops and offerings weren’t able to sustain high performance because they were missing that wellbeing dimension. Our Thriving Teams offering includes some of the elements I have been mentioning that are geared towards sustaining high performance and not at a personal cost for the members of the team.
It is really important that each team has a strong known connection to the vision and purpose of the organisation. Sometimes certain teams are closer to that than others, and it can take work by the executive team, by the CEO to make sure that no team is left by the wayside when it comes to strong felt connection and inspiration from the company vision, purpose, and direction.
What is also really important is to have a look at the composition of the team? Sometimes we start with the people. It’s actually better to start with the roles and responsibilities. A team is going to be a collection of roles and responsibilities temporarily inhabited by individuals. We’re all passing through.
One last thing I didn’t mention was good beginnings and endings. Think about a good beginning for a team… what will effectively launch this team so its sufficiently visible across the organisation to be seen as a legitimate dimension of belonging to the company, but also what needs to be visible for within that team? Quite frequently, teams as a whole or at least individual roles within teams are invisible for their contributions. What we want is for people to have the satisfaction of being witnessed as they contribute, as they grow, as they thrive, and be appreciated and included in the narrative of the organisation as a whole.
Then there are lots of obvious things like clear roles. Think through those roles, those responsibilities, how will the team be measured in performance? What will be the undeniable proof points that this team has been a success so then we can enable the necessary recognition, and ideally reward and celebration for the team also?
Quite often a team is created to compensate for something in the past, and it could be for another team that didn’t succeed in its place. It is very important that no new team is pulled into a place from the past or a dynamic that could lead to a repeat of non-performing patterns.
It’s incredibly helpful before a team starts to harness any lessons from any previous failed attempts to achieve something similar within the organisation. A big mistake that gets made is, we’ll just bring in new people and we’ll get it right this time. It is really important to take stock if there is, once again, that undigested history in the organisation. It could be a previous failed project, it could be a failed product launch, a failed service offering. It’s vitally important to thoroughly mine what hasn’t worked in the past and acknowledge that adequately if we’re going to expect a new team to rewrite history for the organisation.