The idea of working in a team-based environment can strike fear in the heartiest and most energetic of workers. Images of hours-long meetings slowly meandering to nowhere, deadlocked votes, and quibbling power plays may cause your most valued employees to run for cover.
But when you have a complex customer service challenge or marketing campaign that needs expertise from several areas of your company, a great team can step up to the plate and come up with a wildly successful plan that never could've been implemented-much less conjured-by one person alone. So how do you create and manage successful teams?
Kristin J. Arnold has been answering that question for her clients for years through her team-building and facilitation consulting firm, Quality Process Consultants Inc. (http://www.qpcteam.com), and now in her new book, Team Basics: Practical Strategies for Team Success (QPC Press, $14.95). Read on to find out how you can help lead your employees in successful teams.
Entrepreneur.com: What's the difference between a team-based environment and a traditional management structure?
Kristin J. Arnold: A traditional, fairly hierarchical environment is where information flows up and down [from management to employees] and where work can be done independently. But what's happening now is information is not just orally passed and we have technology that integrates the way people work. Things are getting much more complex and customers are demanding products faster with higher degrees of quality, and one person just can't do it all. So people need to communicate across areas of expertise, and companies are becoming more team-oriented.
There are some companies in which it still makes sense to use a traditional approach, so I don't advocate teams being the answer for everybody. It's a good approach when you've got a problem or a process that's complex and interdependent. You need people's buy-in [and commitment] in order to execute that process. Or it might be something that's high-stakes or high visibility that you want to be well-known within the organization.
Entrepreneur.com: What are the characteristics of a good team?
Arnold: I call it an extraordinary team. That's kind of my byline. Extraordinary teams have a couple of things that are important. The first is that the team has to have clear goals. What makes a team different from just a group of people in a room is that when a team meets in a room together or comes together virtually, it's to accomplish a specific goal. A well-functioning team, an extraordinary team, knows what that goal is, both in the long term as well as the short term.
Another facet of an extraordinary team is something I call "shared roles." The team isn't just dependant on one person; everyone takes responsibility for being in the team, for sharing the team functions, for helping each other without being asked, for offering help. I also believe in open and clear communication, from both the speaker's side and the listener's side, and in providing feedback. You also need to create an environment that allows for participation and where people can say what needs to be said.
Another facet of extraordinary teamwork is what I call effective decision-making. Not everything has to be done in a consensus-you know, let's hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." Extraordinary teams use several different ways to make decisions. If one person has all the information and the project has a short-term fuse, then one person can make that decision but then let everybody else know. Or maybe we use the American standard of the democratic vote: Let's all vote by raising our hands. There might be some issues where it's absolutely important that there's a consensus and everyone can live with it and support it. Or maybe it might be that we need a unanimous decision. Or maybe sometimes the team leader or a team member can just delegate it and say, "Here, just handle it." So it's about using an appropriate range of decision-making behaviors.
Another element is valuing diversity-that the team appreciates each other's strengths and differences. People don't look at things the same way, and that's important because if we all looked at something the same way, why have a team? Paralleled along with that is that conflict is managed constructively and not shied away from. The team recognizes that conflict is part of the process because it's a way for teams to express and clarify issues.
The last element of teams is what I call a cooperative climate. People on teams don't have to love each other, but they should at least like or respect each other and recognize that they can do better together in a team than by themselves.
Entrepreneur.com: Why is a team charter important? What are some elements of a charter?
Arnold: Most teams really don't have a good charter. The boss comes in and says, "Hey, why don't you go work on XYZ," and then walks out of the room. The team scrambles around and does some really great work and comes back to the boss and presents what I call the "rock." The boss looks at the rock and says, "Um, close but not quite. You're missing this and you're missing that." Okay, then they throw away that rock and go back to the drawing board. What a charter does is keep the rock phenomenon from happening.
The charter is an agreement between the team leader and whoever is chartering that team, the boss or what I call the "champion." In really good teams, the whole team meets with the champion to talk about how they want to set the team up for success. What are the goals? What is the champion expecting? What are your ideas about this? What's negotiable? What's not negotiable? What's within our limits? How quickly do you want this done? Who do you think should be on the team? Later on down the line when teams are struggling, they're usually struggling because one of these key elements wasn't addressed in the charter. The chartering process forces people to sit down and talk about expectations. If you charter the team effectively, you can prevent 80 percent of your problems from happening in the first place.
Entrepreneur.com: As a company owner, what steps should you take to encourage a healthy team atmosphere among your employees?
Arnold: A key step is to model team behaviors yourself. If employees see the owner being a team player, modeling the techniques I talk about in my book, then they'll do it just by osmosis more than anything else.
There are also little things owners can do to really send the signal that they care. Most people in a team want to be heard, so owners should provide the opportunity to let the team do the talking vs. monopolizing or dominating the conversation. Listen to other people's ideas and build on them and not make it like it's got to be your own [idea to be valid]. The team may go off in a direction, and you'll say, "Well, that's not my first choice, but it could work." So if you can could live with it-and that's the definition of a consensus, that everyone in the team can live with it and support it upon implementation-then the team isn't falling back on your decision when they can't reach a consensus. You know, we all look to the owner and say, "Okay, what do you want?" But you should let the team figure out, "Is this the best? Was the owner right or was the team right?"
You also want to let the team fail sometimes. There's an interesting archetype for American behavior in that we learn more when we fail. Sometimes as owners-just like when our kids learn to walk-we have to watch employees stumble from time to time because they learn from that. [And that's OK] as long as you go back, debrief and determine what worked well in the process and what could be done differently, so you're supporting a continuous improvement and feedback loop.