Preventing Team Problems
Mention “teamwork” to many people and they won’t get a warm feeling. They’ll remember the times when they served on “teams” in which a fraction of the members did most of the work and the rest were along for the ride. Worse still, they’ll recall groups where the non-working members only created barriers for the workers or sniped at the lack of progress.
These problems can even arise with good teams as the dynamics change from project to project. Some strategies to head off difficulties are:
- Determine roles and responsibilities early and periodically review them. Although it will make sense for members with relevant skills to handle certain tasks, each team member should receive assignments and should be expected to report on their progress. As the old saying goes, if you can’t skin the bear then at least grab a leg.
- Recognize that roles should change with needs. Rather than setting the responsibilities for all tasks at the beginning, it may make sense to determine responsibilities for later tasks at a later date. A task leader in the early stage may shift to a more supportive role later on and one of the team support members may assume leadership, all simply because skills must be matched with responsibility.
- Tie down specific responsibilities. Exactly who is doing precisely what by which specific date. Beware of vague assignments. They have a habit of not getting done.
- Establish team ground rules to determine how conflict should be handled. Some basic rules: No factions. No back-biting. No sulking or declaring war. If there is a disagreement, team members will try to resolve it one-on-one and, if that is not successful or possible, then it will be brought – without prior lobbying – to the rest of the team.
- Set team values. Team members don’t hoard information. They don't ambush one another at meetings. They don’t let other team members fail. They return calls and answer email. They keep their minds open to alternative approaches. [When opinions are solicited, everyone contributes and declares a position. No one "passes" and then attacks the team's actions later.] They are courteous at all times. They criticize performance, not people. They take initiative. They always put mission over turf. They are solution and not blame-oriented.
- Create a “dashboard report” that will feature key elements of progress. Set “red zones” for each area so the team will know if actions are seriously behind their target dates.
- Circulate progress reports on a frequent basis. People get distracted by other duties. They forget things. The progress reports and the red zones can nudge them back on track.
- Watch out for fatigue. Standards and performance can easily slip when people get tired. Schedule rest breaks and be sensitive to the demands of family.
- Celebrate progress. Don’t just keep raising the bar. Take some time to reward the team for success. Make the team, not individual members, the star.
Teams require attention. Maintaining a team is not like launching a rocket. You can’t just set the coordinates at the beginning and then all else will automatically follow. Teams need to be monitored, repaired, and recalibrated. In an ideal world, you might not have to do that, but if you don’t carefully watch your team, you’ll wind up in a jungle.