Opinion Column

The strength of the team is in the rim

By Larry Schruder, The Delfi Group

Wagon wheels were an amazing development in our transportation history. A wagon wheel has three main component parts. First comes the hub - the centre of the wheel, connected to each and every spoke, the only point of contact with the wagon, and usually well lubricated to ensure minimal friction with the larger entity.

Next come the spokes - each connected to the hub, extending far beyond the immediate circumference of the hub, aligned in a fixed array coming out from the hub, and usually straight and strong for the heavy load that they have to carry as the hub turns. The spokes never touch the wagon - and never touch each other, except though a connection to the hub "¦ and through a more distant connection to the rim.

And finally comes the rim - a structure that connects the distant end of the spokes to each other, is designed to be round and smooth, and must be strong enough to survive the rough ground over which it travels. It is important to note that this is the only part of the wagon wheel to touch the ground. The rim is only connected to the hub through the spokes - and is only connected to the wagon through its connection through the spokes to the hub. An amazing technical development in the history of the human race that still sees it's offspring in most of our tools and technology to this day.

So where is this analogy going? Wagon wheels are one of the most important tools to better understand teams. The hub is the leader - centring all of the spokes that carry the load and serving as the main point of effective connection to both the larger organization and to the spokes. Without the hub, the spokes get all tangled up and quickly become ineffective - and the connection to the main organization fails.

The spokes are the team members - extending reach and capacity far beyond the hub, and because of this greater physical presence, allowing the wagon and the wheel to cover a lot more ground. Just think how much faster a small wheel has to turn to cover the same amount of ground as a larger wheel. And each spoke needs to carry an equal weight - or the stress on the neighbouring spokes intensifies - and distresses the wheel.

But the rim is where I want to focus today. The rim holds everything together at the furthest point form the hub. If it breaks, the spokes eventually break - and the wheel collapses. The integrity and strength of the rim is only determined by those it touches - specifically the spokes. The rim gets no direct support from the hub - only from the spokes. And this is the part of the wheel in constant touch with the ground and responsible for the smoothness of the ride and the overall image of the entire wheel. An awesome responsibility from something so far away from the centre of the action.

The rim is created through an extension of each spoke to connect with the spoke on either side. The rim is really a product of the relationship between and among the spokes. The rim corresponds to the essence of team - a group of individuals working together in a collaborative manner to achieve a common goal. Just as the strength of the rim determines the utility and longevity of the wheel, so too does the quality and strength of team behaviours ultimately determine the productivity and success of the team. There are many factors that go in to making up a strong rim in teams of all types.

At the top of this list is the clarity of purpose - the single most important goal that the team must accomplish to be successful. Every team member has to understand the role of the team, what success looks like - and how close or how far they are from being successful. Without the clarity of a shared goal, the team quickly disintegrates into separate silos of activity focused on the goals of the individual team members. Clarity and singularity of purpose are not easily attained - and must to be revisited often. Even more challenging is the clarity of metrics required to track performance towards the goal. Without clarity of purpose or metrics, teams quickly get distracted and the ride gets bumpy.

Second on the list is the willingness for each of the spokes to carry their own share of the load - and to be receptive when other spokes provide feedback that this load-sharing is missing. Team members need to understand their individual roles, expectations and responsibilities and commit to delivering their part of the workload. They also need to know when, and be willing, to ask for help.

Third is the willingness of each team member to reach out and help other team members succeed. This happens when one team member has a responsibility that they are not sure how to handle, when a team member has personal issues that temporarily reduce effectiveness, or when an individual's share of the load looks a little too much to handle. It also requires looking out for your teammates in another way - and that is providing honest feedback on performance in a caring but honest manner - when that member's performance is detracting from the effectiveness of the whole team.

The rim is the strength of the wheel - and the team members' interactions with each other as they journey towards their shared success goal determines the strength of the team. When you review the teams you are active on, reflect on the strength of these rims and what options that you have as a team member to strengthen them. And stay tuned for more Delfi ideas on how to make your rim - and your teams more effective.

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