Cultivating Teamwork Excellence

Photo: Andresr

Remember when you built and played on a team (or guild, or clan) as a child? Your efforts then may have been better orchestrated than the typical processes now among your workplace teams. The juxtaposition of childlike effectiveness and uninspired business teamwork was manifested to me in a friendly competition last fall.

The scenario was a team-tent decorating contest at a weekend bicycle tour (my area’s Bike MS event, one of many nationwide benefiting clinical research and providing assistance to those with Multiple Sclerosis). Tour rides started and ended in an exposition area where sponsors, vendors, and partners supplied food, beverages, sports massages, entertainment, and more. One area was designated for teams, most of which fell under the classification of “Friends and Family” or “Corporation.” These teams installed event-style tents and decorated their respective spaces with the theme of “superheroes.”

My friends-and-family team (comprised of not-so-serious but accomplished professionals in education, medicine, technology, etc.) designed and constructed its rendition of what would later be recognized as an award-winning Batman’s Batcave, complete with “Ka Pow” signage and a control center with flashing lights. We were enjoying each other’s company as our next-door neighbors, a corporate team, arrived to decorate their space. For much of the day, a pile of what seemed to be rubble laid next to the tent, awaiting its transformation.

It was then that I noted the contrast between excellent and average teamwork, between efforts that capitalize on enthusiastic participation and playfulness versus activities driven by obligation and protocol. This experience and similar ones have helped me to articulate ways to cultivate teamwork excellence:

Create Awareness of Needs

Simply letting people know of a need isn’t enough to actually fulfill the need, but creating awareness is the first step. Certainly, there may be times that a call for assistance (or leadership) will be answered quickly. Very often, though, communicating the need lays the foundation for subsequent discussions and team member involvement.

A first communication can be delivered via email, Facebook update, or whatever digital or traditional form is accepted among your team members or potential teammates. Reaching everyone among your circle of friends, colleagues, or employees is a priority so that no one, even those who rarely show an interest, will feel left out. Giving all an equal opportunity to accept or reject a call for service is essential.

Follow-up communications can best be handled through face-to-face discussions. These conversations can allow in-depth explanations regarding expectations, scope, and vision. Share past or similar experiences with teams, relate current needs to possible situations that the prospective leader or team member may have encountered, and answer questions.

Set Goals

Establishing baseline goals is useful in getting the team and its leadership to feel comfortable in taking on a project. My experiences have been that the leader either struggles in the teambuilding process as a newbie and finds comfort with relatively low expectations or has a grander vision and achieves outcomes much better than you would have ever imagined. Realize that high-performing teams tend to be those comprised of people with the desire to excel plus domain knowledge.

Embrace Those with the Desire to Contribute (and Appropriate Skill Sets)

Identify the specific skills needed to be successful and emphasize these skills when you recruit, welcome, and involve people. People are naturally attracted to opportunities that showcase their strengths, and many want the chance to hone their capabilities and earn recognition.

Anyone with the desire to contribute should be embraced. Channeling efforts to tasks aligned with team members’ skills can be tricky and should be handled diplomatically. By engaging people in thoughtful conversations about needs, rather than aggressively (and manipulatively) recruiting those who are likely to acquiesce to pressure, you should be able to build a motivated team interested in combining individual strengths for collective success.

Similarly, be open to those who genuinely desire to lead an effort and have the skills to plan, delegate, and oversee. If you need to serve as official team leader, then commit to making the experience unforgettably fun with an eye to developing likeminded leaders for future efforts.

Assure Support

Unless you have an unusual pool of prospective team members, no one will sign on if you don’t offer support. Forms of support will vary depending on the project but generally will include guidance in clarifying organizational nuances and defining measures of success, assistance in performing project tasks, or demonstration of confidence and appreciation of team members throughout the project’s execution and following its completion.

To assess your commitment, team members and leaders will likely ask about financial support for the project. Even a modest budget indicates that you value the project and are willing to allocate resources to achieve a desirable outcome.

Deliver on Your Promises

Never use a bait-and-switch method of recruitment or support (asking someone to help and putting them in charge of a project or offering guidance and assistance but failing to have time and resources available, for example). Your credibility will be decimated if you don’t deliver as promised and reasonably expected.

Though I once joined with colleagues to create a successful team after a leader shirked responsibilities, I advise not to expect some sort of teamwork miracle. Get the right people together and make sure you do your part, whatever that role may be: show up to planning sessions, give feedback on the feasibility of ideas, accept team assignments, and follow up.

Being clear about expectations, accountability, and support — and delivering what you promised — is essential to teamwork; in fact, those behaviors define leadership for teamwork excellence.

Celebrate Success

Great team members will celebrate along the way, reveling in exercising innate skills, engaging with interesting people, and being part of an effort that accomplishes more as a team than possible alone. Have fun as the project progresses. Celebrate successful project completion and special achievements, especially those above original expectations. Show appreciation of team members with the understanding that recognition doesn’t have to be flashy or expensive but should be obvious and heartfelt.

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