Opinion Column

Teamwork is a challenge...and a strategic choice

By Larry Schruder, The Delfi Group

Our last Delfi column provided employee-based survey results indicating that teams in the workplace are not always as efficient and effective as they could or should be. This should be troubling to all business leaders as teams are increasingly replacing individual employees as the unit of production - for both products and services. Increasingly, researchers are concluding that the ultimate competitive advantage for any organization is the quality of their teamwork - both at the executive table and at the production or service delivery level. In addition, organisational consultants are quick to point out that teamwork is always lacking in businesses that fail, and is most often present in businesses that succeed.

Teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice - a strategic choice. But it is also a challenge. Important things like teams do not grow and flourish by accident, but rather take careful stimulation and nurturing. Too often, organisational training and development dollars are exclusively directed towards individual employee development, with little invested or directed at the team level. Teams are not a natural consequence of having superstars around the table, or on the ice. So here's a good opening question to reflect on - "What investment have I made recently in helping my team achieve its full potential?" Social outings and having fun together are important - but these are not the kind of investment that I am speaking about. Teamwork is a choice - a choice that has to be made - and a choice that has to be invested in and supported. It is a challenge that does not come easily.

So where do we put the shovel in the ground in our pursuit of strong teams? The first question that needs to be answered is whether the unit is a team - or a work group. In everyday language, "team" is often a word that is used to describe a group of people who are affiliated in their work. Perhaps they work in the same office - or report to the same person. But unless these people share a common goal and responsibility for achieving a common objective for their organization, they are NOT a team. They are a work group, similar to a golf foursome that play their personal game and get together at the end of the day to compare scores. A golf foursome is very different than a high performance basketball or baseball team. The team must be interdependent and collectively responsible for the achievement of a common goal. Groups seldom are.

The second step in building strong teams is increasing the self-awareness of individual team members through the use of a valid and reliable personal assessment tool. There are a number of commercially available assessment instruments that increase team members' awareness of how they individually deal with conflict, their comfort levels with trust, openness, tolerance, collaboration and sharing. If team members do not have an opportunity to develop an enhanced understanding of who they are and how they interact with other people, then they will have blind spots when they are trying to work in a team. An enhanced level of self awareness is a necessary pre-requisite for effective participation in a team environment.

The third step in building strong teams is to use a common simple assessment tool that allows each team member the opportunity to comment on how well they are functioning as a team. One of the available tools enables feedback on how well the team trusts each other, engages in meaningful and constructive conflict and honest dialogue, makes and sticks to commitments, gives honest feedback to each other, and most importantly, achieves its results.

The final step is to invest some dedicated time to get the team up to speed on the most current information and theory on building and maintaining cohesive teams. Productive teams invest in getting healthy and in staying healthy. They agree that understanding how they work together is at least as important as what they are working on at the moment. Healthy teams make regular time and development investments in learning and practicing how they can be more effective. All sports teams spend more time in practice than in real games. There are external programs and resources available to help your teams integrate information from all of the steps identified above and combine these with leading-edge developments on growing and enhancing cohesive productive teams. One or two days of investment can reap huge dividends.

The best news is that these dividends can go far beyond the workplace. Increasing an employee's ability to effectively participate in a high performance team has a positive influence on that employee, and on the other teams that they participate in outside of work - like their family, their community, and eventually the broader society. The problems that we face in our world today go far beyond the capacity of any one individual superstar to solve. It takes highly productive cohesive teams to solve these. And workplaces are great places to start putting the shovel in the ground and building better team skills.

First next step for any reader that leads a workplace - change starts at the top. Are you ready to walk the walk with your senior leadership team and see how well you are performing and what type of role model you are? You do have an audience - and it is all of those working in your business. Your employees, your business success, and our families and communities - we all need you to lead the way to creating better team skills in those around you.

Larry Schruder is president and co-owner of The Delfi Group, Pembroke and can be reached at larry.schruder@thedelfigroup.com.