It's Spring Training time for Major League Baseball. First order of business -- a return to the fundamentals. No matter their tenure, first year recruits or long-term professionals, you'll find them hitting off the tee, taking ground balls, and catching pop flies (two hands!). They'll practice fielding the ball and making quick & exact throws to first base. They'll even practice running the bases. Coaches watch for ways that small changes in the basics can help them improve each player's individual performance -- and by extension, team results.
But if team performance is what you want, it's not enough to have a group of skilled individuals. They have to work together, to execute from the same playbook, so to speak. There are four keys that must be turned to unlock the potential of any team. They are: Goals, Roles, Rules & Relationships.
Key 1: Goals
You might be surprised how often this first Key is minimized or assumed. Team's generally have one or more "big G" Goals that they work together to achieve. How well that Goal is defined and understood varies greatly. I've worked with teams where each team member had a different description of the end-Goal, as well as a different understanding of the path to achieving the goal.
Beyond the big Goal, each team member has their own "little g" goals. Whether stated or unstated, all these goals are part of the team process and can impact results. For example, if the VP of Sales has a goal to become the President of the company, he may behave in ways he believes will bring positive attention to his leadership skills, or what he thinks will most impress the current President. That behavior may not be what is actually best for the team.
The Goals key goes beyond definition and scope of the big G Goal. That's step one. Understanding the little g goals of the team members and ensuring their goals align with the broader team purpose is of equal importance.
Key 2: Roles
Each team member has a core role to play. Roles are based on one or more identifiers, like personality, skill set, availability, knowledge, motivation, or the like. Someone with one job description may play different roles on different teams. Some aspects of a role may be shared with other members on the same team. For example, all members of an executive team are expected to actively model the core values and/or leadership principles. Roles can rotate between members -- like time-keeping or meeting facilitation. Roles can also be assigned to one team member.
Role definition goes beyond a job description. Traditional job descriptions do not go into enough detail to outline team roles fully (hence the inclusion of the "other duties as required" clause!). As teams evolve, the needs of the team also change, signaling a need for a shift in roles. If you find tasks often slip through the cracks, role definition may be to blame.
Imagine a softball hit high in the air toward right-center field. The second baseman has it in her sights, as does the right fielder. Both are running all out to catch it. At the last minute, the second basement abruptly shifts her route and the right fielder swoops in to catch the fly ball. What you didn't hear was the center fielder calling off the second baseman. The role of the center fielder in this situation is to call the ball and prevent a collision. I should know. I was the right fielder in this situation, except our center fielder didn't do her job. The second baseman and I collided. The ball dropped, the other team scored, and I severely dislocated a finger. Our center fielder later apologized; she also never forgot to call the ball again.
Like goals, roles are not a "one and done" discussion. People evolve. Goals change. Roles do, too.
Key 3: Rules
This key includes any and all structure -- process, metrics, other tools -- used by the team to manage its performance. For example, all team leaders on an ERP implementation team were required to update the online, shared project plan every week by noon Friday. This gave senior leaders an opportunity to review the project plan and discuss issues, helping the team stay on track. We had a rule, with real consequences for breaking it.
Ground rules are a common tool for teams. Ground rules are commonly set at the first team meeting and posted on the wall in the team room, never to be referenced again.
Rules are by far the most difficult aspect of the four keys. As humans, we tend to dislike structure, preferring to believe that as adults we don't need it (or shouldn't). Rules come with conflict -- both in their creation and when holding team members accountable. Metrics and dashboards trigger feelings of vulnerability for some. Our natural, physiological, human response to avoid pain kicks in.
That said, engaging in dialog about rules is a great way for the team to move through conflict together. It does a lot for setting the foundation for dealing with other conflicts, up to and including violations of the rules of engagement. Like goals and roles, rules also evolve. And yes, you guessed it, rules are not a "one and done" discussion.
Key 4: Relationships
Problems get solved when people with strong relationships partner together to solve them. When relationships are strained, trouble with goals, roles or rules could be the root cause. But getting the goals, roles and rules squared away does not guarantee strong relationships. Building relationships takes time. Jeffrey Hall, a University of Kansas Associate Professor of Communication Studies, engaged in a study of how long it takes to become friends. His findings were published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Hall found that it takes roughly 50 hours of time together to move from mere acquaintance to casual friend, 90 hours to go from that stage to simple "friend" status, and more than 200 hours before you can consider someone your close friend. This means time spent hanging out, joking around, playing video games and the like. It can take even longer at work. Hall's study also found that hours spent working together just don't count as much.
For those of you thinking you don't come to work to make friends, consider this: from a retention standpoint, the most important question on any employee engagement survey is the one about having a best friend at work. People are more likely to stay in a job or with a company, even if they don't like it, if we are close to someone there. Having a friend at work helps us feel known, connected, and valued.
Team members may not need to be best friends. That said, people in best friend relationships have a higher level of vulnerability and trust with each other. Team expert, Patrick Lencioni, describes trust as the foundation of any team's success.
Strong relationships are key to team success. You can leave the relationship building to chance -- or you can actively support it. As awkward as mandatory team building may seem, when well done it does invite individuals to connect. Some of us need and appreciate the invitation for mandatory fun. Whichever you choose, it will have impact on team performance.
There they are, the four keys to team performance: Goals, Roles, Rules, Relationships. None are a "check the box exercise" or a "one and done" activity. Each requires purposeful, consistent, and ongoing attention, as well as self-awareness and strong leadership. It takes work and it takes time -- but the results are worth it.
(Photo used with permission, 123rf.com.)