By Jodi Walsh
It’s an elusive concept. When teamwork is great, it is often taken for granted; when it is bad, everyone suffers and few know what went wrong.
One thing is certain, those having high performance teams are able to achieve success, often exceeding what anyone believed could be accomplished or what each individual could have achieved alone.
Is great teamwork like a mystical, elusive creature, that appears out of the blue and then, just as suddenly, disappears? Can you bring it back with finely ground unicorn horn, eye of newt, and the wave of a magic wand?
Seeking magic seems similar to how many view lean, six sigma, or other improvement projects which require great teamwork in order to succeed.
Fortunately, great teamwork is neither a myth nor a random event. There are tangible actions you can take to achieve success. There are warning signs of dysfunction which all project leaders and team members can watch for. Teams who strive for excellence must be on the lookout for these warning signs which point to potential disaster and must be addressed.
A Great Book
In his book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni does an efficient and engaging job of simplifying this deceptively complex goal of creating a great, high performance team. 5 Dysfunctions takes the form of a leadership fable in which the senior leadership team of a small company struggles to develop a high performance teamwork culture.
In the course of telling this tale of the new CEO and her cast of C-suite characters, Lencioni demystifies what it takes to develop a team that works. Using entertaining and realistic details, Lencioni puts the academic model into a relatable story short enough to read in one sitting.
The 5 part model is easy to grasp, as Lencioni portrays and then describes the typical elements of team dysfunction and their functional alternatives.
Simply put, Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions are:
- Absence of Trust – The tendency of individuals to protect themselves, or be careful, around other team members, when they feel their vulnerabilities, or weaknesses, will be used against them
- Fear of Conflict – The characteristic of treating emotion, passion, or frustration as unproductive discord, to be avoided or suppressed
- Lack of Commitment – While forcing public consensus, individuals believe other team members are silently disagreeing with the actions which have been publicly agreed to
- Avoidance of Accountability – There is an absence of positive peer pressure for the success of the team and no discussion about the consequences of failing to achieve the goals
- Inattention to Results – The tendency of individuals to care more about something other than success at meeting the team’s objectives
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Absence of Trust
Teamwork requires rigorous sparring in order to refine and improve ideas. All processes, whether well established or newly formed, require invasive examination when seeking dramatic improvement.
A lean transformation will challenge processes and organizational roles; it attacks the very essence of comfort in knowing how things “have always been done”. Six sigma probes the sacred territory of subject matter expertise; it forces the question of examining data and facts to get at the root cause of variation.
The bigger the change, the more uncomfortable and threatening it can be.
Fear of Conflict
Sparring reveals weakness and refines strength.
The bruises which happen in pursuit of perfection can make us stronger as we learn and become familiar with our limits and vulnerabilities in a committed team. The friction and fruitful combat that is so necessary to improvement can be perceived as threatening; injury to avoid rather than a powerful step in transforming into something sharply competitive or highly functional.
Failure to dissect the status quo for true value, failure to probe for the root cause of a problem, failure to test for the weakness of an assumption – they preserve an artificial harmony.
This absence of passionate engagement and even disagreement, however, is frequently fatal to any transformation.
Lack of Commitment
Ideas or initiatives that have not been effectively refined can still be presented as seemingly strategic targets.
Actions to create consensus can look like seeking alignment when they really just silence the opposition, eliminating any ability to address individual’s concerns.
The pursuit of high levels of certainty before goal definition can have the appearance of due diligence but simply be a delay of action.
A team must wrestle with the uncertainties, misunderstandings and inconsistencies around what they have been asked to pursue. They must recognize together the risks they are taking but not be paralyzed by them.
When every team member has put all their cards on the table the entire group can move forward with clarity, even in the absence of consensus or certainty.
Avoidance of Accountability
A team who has committed to a clear and measurable goal can still fail to deliver.
“A 19% improvement in on time delivery performance in three months” is either achieved or it is not, and the source of the success or failure can be diagnosed after the fact.
Along the way, however, a team must notice the behaviors and performance that are enabling (or disabling) forward progress at each step. The difficult conversations that must occur between peers in order to reveal and address shortfalls are uncomfortable.
This mutual accountability is not a managerial role but a team dynamic. These peer to peer confrontations require courage and mutual respect.
A dysfunctional team may avoid personal discomfort even to the point of team failure.
Inattention to Results
Leaders or team members may seek to achieve artificial harmony by defining success as “whatever has been accomplished.”
In the absence of commitment or accountability, preserving one’s ego or validating one’s status rather than accomplishing goals can become the “shadow mission” of the team.
Each team member can define personal success outside the goals of the team. The addition of personal priorities to a problem statement causes scope creep. The reinterpretation of team goals to the benefit of the individual can delay or disable forward progress.
In cases like this the inattention to TEAM results can result in the team losing all ability to deliver real value.
“Not finance. Not strategy. Not Technology. It is TEAMWORK that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, because it is so powerful and so rare.” – Patrick Lencioni, Author of The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team
The infection of these dysfunctions can appear in any kind of team – from executive leadership to people working in a production cell or working in cubicles. The responsibilities of team members remain, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the goals they pursue.
Leadership Teams – Teams at the head of an organization have the added responsibility of setting the norm.
Effective teamwork around strategy and organizational initiatives will influence the behavior of teams with more concrete project or deliverable goals.
Team problems at lower levels in the organization can often be traced to bad habits at the top. Dysfunction in leadership is infectious. Fostering humility and encouraging real feedback from those who are led can be an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection in a leadership team.
As a leader, when your teams don’t work, look in the mirror first.
Project Teams – Coming together for a project poses unique challenges. The team will often have a mission which needs to be accomplished in 90 to 120 days.
There is not much time for the forming, storming, and norming phases of team development.
There needs a to be a strong focus on the project charter as the commitment each team member has agreed to pursue. The benefits outlined in the benefits section of the project charter defines the results everyone is accountable for.
Cross Functional Teams – Defeating silos, transparency, vulnerability, and active open debate are critical for the definition of effective operating procedures, collaboration along an extensive value stream, and diagnosis of multifaceted root causes.
Teams who work, only occasionally, together are especially vulnerable to an inattention to results. The temptation to defend territory, rather than collaborate for the good of the whole, is strong. Focusing on specific objectives which are clearly defined is invaluable.
Work Teams – It can be difficult to maintain the habit of heated debate and consistently walk away without residual feelings or collateral damage day after day.
Constantly challenging the status quo for improvement and relentlessly pursuing excellence and perfection can leave a team reluctant to engage again tomorrow, with a new group or over an especially difficult problem.
It can be useful to pause and actively remember why debate and transparency are important or have been valuable in past results. Activities which build collaborative relationship and reinforce mutual respect can be useful.
The team that seeks out transformation must commit to being a high performance team able to deliver for their organization genuine, sustainable results.
As outlined by Mr. Lencioni, they must:
- Trust one another
- Engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas
- Commit to decisions and plans of action
- Hold one another accountable for meeting commitments
- Focus on achieving collective results
In the end, Good Teams are hard work. Hard work pays off.
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” – Colin Powell
About the Author – Jodi Walsh
Jodi is an innovator, with a passion for simplification of the complex and creating sustainable systems.
Formally educated at Northwestern University as a PhD Chemist, Jodi is an accomplished manager and leader with key strengths in manufacturing, supply chain, process engineering, and applied research and development.
With 23 years of experience at Lexmark International, she is recognized as a “go-to” person who directs work teams that exceed expectations and pursue continuous improvement. Jodi has developed people, products, processes, and organizations.
But, don’t think Jodi is all work and no play. She is a singer, gardener, home cook, and poet. She has a deep conviction that balancing professional time and personal time are critical to the well-being of people, processes, and organizations. Learning, technical rigor, innovation, and respect for the dignity of individuals are some of her highest values.
See: LinkedIn profile
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