I clearly remember the day when my former manager asked me if I had ever worked in a dream team. Once we had established our interpretation of the term was the same I replied that I had as an employee in a previous company and was keen to do so again. By the end of that year I was able to answer yes once again.
We had a team of five people that historically were positioned to be in competition with each other, but through coaching, self-realization and some sacrifice, we melded ourselves into an effective and complimentary team of managers that were then able to make a tremendous difference to the wider IT department we served.
So how did this come about?
Traditional corporate culture is intrinsically anti-team: performance incentives are based on individual performance targets, pay is grade related and grade levels instill an artificial hierarchy reinforced by corporate titles. Hierarchies by themselves do not illicit respect (at least of a non-grudgingly way) amongst team members and conspire against the egalitarian goal that all team members should consider themselves as equals.
I’ve experienced companies both as a consultant and as a permanent employee where people will refuse to acknowledge you in the corridor or respond to your emails if you are ‘less senior’ than them in the corporate ranks. More often than not, it isn’t corporate culture or Human Resources policy that is driving this behaviour, sadly it is the individuals themselves that foster the mistaken notion this type of behaviour elevates them above their peers. A sadder fact is that sometimes this behaviour is even rewarded!
So coming back to my dream team, what did we do to achieve this state? Well, first of all we set the stage to give ourselves the best possible team foundation. We established our team vision (no pulling punches here, we simply wanted to be the best and triumph over any challenge that came our way), our team principles (with a particular focus on meeting etiquette) and adopted a shared responsibility for leadership. The latter meant supporting each other’s decisions outside of the team space but demanded open and frank debate in decision-making meetings (hence our not so asinine focus on meeting protocols!).
We weren’t to know at the time (it just felt right) but this neatly aligned with what I now know from the emergn Value Flow Quality “Teams” course as agreed representative features that define a team: having a shared purpose, a compelling direction, complementary skills, shared responsibility and an outcome oriented approach to performance.
We also needed to structure ourselves along new areas of responsibility. We aspired to create an agile project management office (a decentralized function with an emphasis on coaching lean and agile practices), a dedicated production support area and last but not least, permanent cross-functional teams to which projects were brought (as opposed to the other way round). Nothing too hard for a dream team to achieve then!
These goals almost broke us before we had even begun. We couldn’t agree who took the lead role on the various functions and no one was initially willing to take a position that was deemed inferior to their current role. Fortunately we had a team epiphany and were able to make good on our goals; let’s just say humility and respect saved the day and in fact ultimately made our dream team what is was.
So, it is my strong belief that what I learnt from my dream team experience is transferrable across other teams with different challenges.
Firstly, a group of people that aspire to work together as a team need to drop preconceived notions of hierarchy and status-inferring titles when they walk into their team space and instead foster respect through actions and deeds mixed with bravery, respect and humility. Ideally, an organisation should drop corporate titles altogether, they are often meaningless and grant false authority.
Secondly, a team needs to create its own culture in which to thrive; sometimes this needs to embody beliefs and virtues that run counter to traditional organisation culture to promote the right team behaviours and balance external influences that damage the team effectiveness. This is particularly important when the team in question is seeking to drive change where the norm is being challenged.
Lastly, something we weren’t able to do but always close to my heart, is to consider reinforcing team behaviour with team performance targets and, where possible, team financial incentives. By all means continue with individual performance targets, but ensure some are aligned to promoting and developing competencies that compliment team ethics and can be measured against a team outcome.
In case you’re wondering, my last dream team lasted three years: natural events brought about its end but we had a very good run.