In times of increasing change organisations have to find ways of responding creatively. Creative responses require the organisation’s members to co-operate with each other. It is rare that one person can produce the ideas required or carry them out. ‘Team Building’ activities increase the amount of effective co-operation in the organisation. Managers must build co-operation within and between teams to get the best results.
What is ‘Team Building’ within a team?
In a typical ‘Team Building’ event a group of staff, with their manager, clarify and review their purpose and objectives. They identify any obstacles in the way of achieving these objectives and plan future progress. This is rarely a straightforward process. Any lack of trust and openness in the team will create communication difficulties. Many team members anticipate the process being stressful and are somewhat anxious about the prospect. Most team building activities employ an independent process manager or “facilitator” who is outside the team. He or she creates a safe atmosphere, encourages limited risk taking and generates effective procedures to help the team do its work.
What methods are available?
All approaches require that participants look at what happens in the team and decide how to make improvements. They work best in an atmosphere where people can listen to each other and say what they think and feel. Most facilitators will help the group think about its internal processes during the work so members learn from their experiences. Some methods, techniques and theories that facilitators use follow.
Emphasis on Data
The theory behind this is that most practising managers are uncomfortable about feelings and subjective phenomena. They like to work as far as possible within the existing organisational culture and to reduce risk. They see team building as a problem to be solved using objective data.
Here is one way to do this.
- Interview the team’s manager and the team members to learn about the issues the team face and how they work together. Find out how the team interacts with other teams and its outside environment. Challenge everyone to think how he or she can make improvements even before the team building workshop.
- Sort the data into the team’s perceived priority issues. Discuss the data with the manager alone and then with the total team. Reach agreement on the key issues that need tackling. (The role of the facilitator is to help the process not take over).
- Help the team (perhaps in sub teams) tackle the key issues at the workshop and set up follow up activities with review dates etc.
- Review the task outcomes. Ask, ‘What have we achieved? ‘. Also, review the process; ‘What did we do today that worked? How could it be better next time? ‘
A critique of ‘Emphasis on Data’.
Its strength is also its weakness. The fit into existing culture makes it acceptable, almost like a normal meeting. The fit may make it somewhat less likely that people will raise issues about relationships, values or purposes. These issues are often not legitimate subjects for discussion in organisations. They may remain so under these ‘Team Building’ conditions.
However, these processes can be very good where the group has little experience of working together developmentally.
Emphasis on Relationships
The theory behind this is that a team is a network of relationships. If the relationships do not work then neither will the team. If relationships are really bad then the whole may be less than the sum of the parts.
- The facilitator works with the group to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the way the group work together and to plan improvements. To do this it is necessary that people share feelings so the facilitator needs to create a trusting climate.
A typical processfollows.
- Say that feelings are valid. Ask people to listen, describe what people do and what you feel, do not judge, give feedback with support and try to understand others. Relationships are important.
- Pairs equal time ‘Hopes and fears for the event’. Brief listeners to listen, avoid interrupting perhaps ask the odd question to help a person think.
- Review the pair process highlighting the relationship building skills used and their effects.
- Individual work then pairs. ‘What are the good relationships you have in this team? ‘ What other good relationships do you observe? How could things be better?
- Share the “good” data in the group. Then share the data about possible improvements.
- Review of learning and experience so far. (It often feels liberating to get these issues out).
- Ask each person to say, “What I want from each person here?” The facilitator will need to encourage people to be direct and specific. It helps to show people how to do this.
- Pairs identify areas where the team as a whole or sub teams are/are not working well.
- The team plans how to improve negative areas. Team members check that the relationship difficulties they have already identified are not still operating as they do this.
- Share plans for the future and review the event.
A critique of ‘Emphasis on Relationships’
Poor relationships at work cause enormous amounts of unhappiness and wasted effort. Relatively simple processes would put this right. Successful work can generate happy and very supportive teams. The processes develop much significant personal learning.
Most organisations are still heavily male dominated and men often find relationship work difficult so it can be difficult to gain acceptance. A more serious criticism is that the ‘built’ groups may develop cosy norms and can lose sight of their purpose. It may become reluctant to engage with the outside world where the relationship work has not been done. The group can avoid this by improving its working relationships with other parts of the organisation.
Emphasis on Purpose
The theory behind this approach is that teams have purposes. The team has to interact effectively with other teams and systems to achieve these purposes. To do this well requires that the team have a shared and attractive vision of what it is trying to achieve and a spirit of co-operation and commitment. If people are to be wholeheartedly committed to something the whole of them has to be engaged in the process. This approach to team building does this.
- This could look as follows.Outline the structure of the workshop, get agreement to the learning atmosphere required. This is sharing ideas and experiences, supporting each other, keeping confidentiality and offering feedback.
- In pairs, people identify what they want from the workshop. They share this information in the group and learn that the structure and process will meet their needs.
- Map the influences on the organisation, using Open Systems, and how it is changing. Do this individually then in a group. List the implications for the team. Open systems maps are often drawn as a “spiders web” on a flip chart. I have drawn them as tables below for ease of illustration.
|Influences (examples)||Nature of influence||Feelings|
|Technology||Demanding, enveloping||Frustration, anxiety|
|Customers||Loyalty less important||Enthusiastic to meet demands. Also anxious.|
|Competition||New forms emerging||Anxious|
|Our staff||Mutually rewarding so far||Reasonably content|
- Map the influences on this team now in detail. Look at your relationships with those influences and your (individual) feelings about them. Share and clarify your maps.
|Customers||Less loyal, more demanding of value for money.||Anxious, enthusiastic, tired.|
|IT Department||Neither finds working together totally satisfying||Frustration|
|Our staff||Co-operative if not very exciting||Reasonably content|
- Map the future. How we would we like the environment to be around this team. Who or what do we need to influence? Share your maps.
|Influence||Desired feelings||Relationship then|
|Customers||Hopeful||Working together to meet customer needs.|
|IT Department||Content||Facing difficulties and resolving them|
|Our staff||Optimistic||Working together to use everyone’s talents and make work more satisfying|
- Create a purpose from the future vision. This will result in a simple phrase that everyone has helped to create. It might be “Being professional (in everything we do)”, for instance.
- Give brief information on listening skills.
- Pairs identify the key issues that you need to tackle to realise your purpose. Help each other think about your part of that.
- The group decides its key issues and tackles them with process support.
- Review of task and process learning.
A critique of ‘Emphasis on Purpose’
This approach generates powerful insights because of its use of thought and feeling, words and pictures, reality and vision. It taps deeply held values about the desire for excellence that most people share. Sometimes people find the process a bit slow at the beginning. Most are unused to taking lots of time and care to think.
It does not conform to the established cultures with the benefits and costs already discussed. It raises energy and enthusiasm for change in a positive and outgoing way. The process expands awareness and builds teams that act powerfully.
A practical example
You can combine the approaches to gain their individual benefits and reduce the snags. The recipe should respond to the needs of the team and organisation. A brief example follows.
The team members were well qualified and did important but relatively routine work. There was no experience of team building or other developmental activities. The team had a history of uncomfortable personal relationships. They did not deal with these problems directly. People would grumble to others instead. Workloads were increasing too.
I interviewed the team members and the manager individually to establish my credentials, to find out what the issues were and to encourage them to tackle them. These interviews produced a wealth of data and some positive attitude change. The workshop helped the participants decide which of their issues were the priority ones for action. I also asked people to say how they felt about working in the team. Most felt very frustrated.
The team chose to work on their internal communications. This was difficult because team members were not direct with each other. I asked each person to say to everyone in the group what they wanted from that person. This proved to be a positive and helpful experience to all. The group also worked, in sub groups, on practical issues such as the allocation of work and priority setting. They set up working groups to meet later and follow up mechanisms. Their weekly meeting is now much more democratic and less a top down briefing meeting. They are starting to tackle their relationships with other groups.
The participants are now feeling far more positive, enthusiastic and committed. They have learned the value of listening and talking to each other directly. There is less grumbling too.
The example used elements from “Data” and “Relationships”. This was a response to their situation. They were at an early stage of their development and therefore “Purpose” work was not likely to be so helpful. In order to get the best value; organisations should consider the inter-team dimension. It is no good having an excellent team that produces a service no one wants or that is too expensive. A lot of effort and expense can fall down the cracks between departments. The next section shows some ways to work on this.
Team building between teams
Although very many organisations have invested in team building within teams rather less have taken seriously team building between teams. There is scope for much more effective working. Most organisations, for example, could improve communication and co-operation between line and staff departments and vice versa. Line groups often experience staff ones as making demands rather than being helpful. Staff groups often say people from the line dismiss their work and are uninterested in the organisation as a whole.
Difficulties between marketing and production and production and research are very common. They are not inevitable. Very simple methods can help a lot.
The drive to improve team working usually comes in response to an outside pressure. This is often competition that demands increased flexibility and business orientation. A business-oriented organisation requires excellent co-operation within and between groups. This co-operation is necessary to get the business done.
Business oriented managers have to think about the processes operating between people and groups. There must be clear communication of what people need from each other (and do not need). In this way they can eliminate unnecessary work. This way of thinking is difficult for managers who may have operated for a long time in a culture where these activities were absent. They may want to create co-operation between groups but find this difficult. There are four reasons for this:
- Managers lack the confidence in their influencing skills and fear making things worse
- Managers do not easily seek feedback about how others in the organisation see their departments. They may find it hard to offer feedback too.
- Managers lack knowledge about how to create co-operation between groups
- Managers have not received permission or active encouragement from the top to work on these issues
Intervening in issues between groups
A Manager who is skilled and confident in Influencing can do much informally to create understanding and co-operation between his/her Department and others. For example, he/she can:
- Ask the other Department what the Manager’s Department could do differently which would make the relationship or work more productive.
- Where problems arise, investigate them to learn how to prevent them in future. Avoid blaming.
- Set up joint informal meetings to explore issues of mutual interest.
- Encourage his/her staff to be clear and open with the other Department’s people about what they want and do not want from them and listen to their point of view.
More formal methods are also available and can work surprisingly quickly.
- Inter-Group workshop. Two groups meet in separate rooms and list ‘How we see ourselves? ‘ ‘How we see the other group? ‘ and ‘ How we think they see us? ‘. Groups share perceptions (listening!). They then form mixed groups to work on common problems. This is enjoyable and very effective.
- Survey feedback. An outsider or members of the two departments interview people to uncover the nature of the difficulties, examples of successful Cupertino and how to improve things to mutual benefit. People from both Departments discuss the data and plan what to do.
If you want to improve team working between teams
- Start to identify the key interfaces in the organisation and work with managers and staff to improve them.
- Devise Training for managers in Influencing and Change Skills so they will confidently take initiatives to increase co-operation between groups.
- Work with Departments to create guidance for managing co-operation between groups. Publish this via a report or management meeting.
- Influence the organisation so top management gives permission and encouragement for improving the interface between groups with a budget that matches its importance.