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A Coach's Playbook for Workplace Teams
Jim Clemmer
We cheer for our favorite teams in sports, communities, schools and even families.
So why don't we see workplace teams in the same rah-rah way?
For all the big talk, matching T-shirts and off-site strategy sessions, calling a group
of people a team doesn't make it one. These groups are usually just a collection of
individuals from the same department who meet periodically.
Few of us have been lucky enough to participate in a strong, united team. These
groups rise to ever higher levels of performance and make all of us better than any
one of us.
Laying ground rules, setting goals and dealing with naysayers are just a few of the
guidelines that can help your team reach its goals, whether they be improvements in
productivity, customer service, quality, process management, innovation, cost
effectiveness, job satisfaction, morale or financial performance.
Why many groups aren't teams
Here are some of the reasons that many groups aren't effective teams:
Lack of focus: If members don't have a shared picture of what success would look
like, they will pull against each other. They also should have an emotional
commitment to what they're doing.
Confusion between team building and team development: Giving everyone a
T-shirt may produce short term warm and fuzzy feelings but it rarely leads to a
powerful, united team unless root issues are addressed. An example of a root issue
might be chronic animosity between managers working with the team.
Too much attention on the team itself: Some teams are so busy sailing the ship
they have gone off course. They confuse their frantic activity for progress.
Lack of priority setting: If everything is urgent, group members will feel
Poor processes: Typical team members often have little training in such basic skills
as meetings, conflict resolution, planning, follow up and problem solving. They may
not even be aware of them.
Misuse of e-mail: It's a great way to share information but a poor way to
communicate. Weak groups spend more time interacting with their computer screens
than with each other.
Victim mentality: Less effective groups that feel powerless will point fingers at
senior management, customers, shareholders, suppliers, governments or other
departments. Instead of re-setting their sails and navigating through their problems
they curse the wind and wait to be dashed upon the rocks.
Forming effective teams
What does it take to create a high-performing team? Here are a few suggestions:
Run meetings well: Meetings are more important than ever in our increasingly
complex and interconnected workplaces. Research shows that when meetings are
run effectively, teams make better decisions than individuals.
Among the basics are establishing an agenda that outlines the meeting's purpose.
Are you solving a problem, seeking input or distributing information? Meeting leaders
should choose decision-making processes -- among them are command, consultative
and consensus -- and time allocated for each agenda item.
Later, they should summarize and document actions to be taken, and ensure follow-
through. High performing teams also should frequently review and improve their
meeting processes.
Agree on ground rules: Rules for debating issues, making decisions and resolving
conflicts should be clear about unacceptable behavior. Anyone who violates a ground
rule is called to account by team members.
Focus on the big picture: The old adage says that "it's hard to see the picture
when you're inside the frame." Team members build more excitement about the
work they are doing if they can see how it plays an important part in a bigger effort.
For example, a team working to improve processes in a health-care organization
would benefit from learning how their work would benefit patients and caregivers.
Ask each team member to imagine the team's ideal future state in a few years from
now. Listen to each person's vision, and then summarize the key themes that have
emerged. Some groups also use drawings, cutouts of pictures, symbols, metaphors
or success stories to paint a picture of what everyone sees in the future.
Another variation on this exercise is to imagine that each of you is being interviewed
by a prestigious trade publication or major newspaper about your accomplishments.
What have you done that is noteworthy? What principles guided your success?
Where do most people feel your team has made the biggest difference?
Set priorities and review them frequently: Effective teams navigate their way
through setbacks, misdirection and negativity that cloud most organizations in
mediocrity or low morale. They refuse to be victims of weak senior leadership,
cynical colleagues, flawed organizational processes, demanding customers or poor
One way to counteract naysayers, for instance, is to challenge them with deeper
involvement or problem-solving. Don't allow the cynics to set the team's emotional
Brainstorm a list of the biggest issues to be addressed by asking for ideas on the
"dumbest things we do around here," "biggest barriers to reaching our goals,"
"major implementation issues we need to address," "pet peeves," "dumb rules and
forms" and "things that drive you crazy."
Cluster the similar points until there are five to seven major groups.
Then divide them into things the team directly controls, can influence, and can't
control at all. Prioritize the things you control and make plans to address them. Do
the same for things you can influence. Agree on ways to stop fixating on the issues
that the team can do nothing about.
If senior management does a poor job of setting priorities, the better the team must
be at doing this.
Team leaders should establish a process to reset goals and priorities as conditions
and demands change.
Keep highly visible scoreboards, big thermometers (for a fundraising campaign),
bulletin boards, Intranet sites, voice-mail messages and newsletters to update
everyone on the team's progress.
Build around strong members, and balance the team for strengths: Strong
teams add people because of their strengths, not for their absence of weakness. To
balance a team for strengths, the leader of a well-balanced team might assign a
person with strong technical abilities and weak people skills to work alongside
another member with weak analytical skills and strong communications abilities.
Celebrate and laugh: Strong teams have fun. They care deeply about their work
but don't take themselves too seriously. Use humor to diffuse tension or keep things
light. You could appoint a Director of Fun, take joke breaks, show humorous video
clips or schedule dress-up theme days.
Learn to improve: The final component that continues to strengthen a team and
take it to higher levels is a strong feedback and learning loop. Effective teams
eagerly look at their processes and behaviors to streamline and improve them. Team
members should regularly reflect on what they should keep doing, stop doing, and
start doing for continuous improvement.
Team ground rules
Every team should have ground rules. Here are a few:
Start meetings on time, with all the right participants present.
Focus on the problem, issue or behavior -- not people. No one should make personal
put-downs and judgmental statements about others. If you have an issue with
another team member, talk to him or her privately and resolve it.
When discussions involve some but not all participants, encourage them to discuss
the issue at another time.
Don't cut each other off, finish another person's sentence or engage in side
Practice "cabinet solidarity" by keeping disagreements and debates inside the
meeting room. Don't continue them elsewhere.
Don't discuss sensitive or emotional issues by e-mail. Talk to each other instead.
Look for opportunities to celebrate the team's successes.
Encourage team members to vent frustrations but avoid blaming, whining and
wishing for the past. Focus discussions on the present and future.

Originally appeared in Jim's column in The Globe & Mail. Jim Clemmer is a bestselling
author and internationally acclaimed keynote speaker, workshop/retreat leader, and
management team developer on leadership, change, customer focus, culture, teams,
and personal growth. During the last 25 years he has delivered over two thousand
customized keynote presentations, workshops, and retreats. Jim's five international
bestselling books include The VIP Strategy, Firing on All Cylinders, Pathways to
Performance, Growing the Distance, and The Leader's Digest. His web site is

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