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Playing to Win: Best Practices in Team Construction and Development

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Introduction

Team development has long represented an outsize challenge for leadership due to a range of factors, beginning with the fact that it is fundamentally difficult to identify, assign, and retain talented individuals. However, more than the discrete components, it’s the gestalt that defines success or failure in a team environment. Thus, leaders have to determine not only the skills and abilities that must be represented within the team structure, but the optimal balance of personalities and behavioral characteristics. Too often, groups of talented individual contributors fail to coalesce around a shared goal and are undone not by a lack of ability, but by a lack of alignment, politicking, and interpersonal conflict. Unfortunately, most of these challenges can only be dealt with after the fact, once the sources of dysfunction have actually manifested within the team itself. 

However, there are tools and strategies available for assessing the way people think and act, how they learn, and how likely they are to succeed within a given team as set against the characteristics of other team members. This isn’t to say that teams should be comprised of people who are the same, or even people who will like each other personally; rather, care should be taken to ensure that there are unique perspectives, personality types, and strengths within the team. The key is ensuring team members are broadly capable of succeeding in a collaborative environment, or that enough support exists to insulate the team against colleagues who struggle interpersonally but possess an indispensable skillset. 

Furthermore, the structures, systems, and practices that are built around the team form parameters for success and performance. Even if teams are constructed intelligently, inadequate guardrails can undermine the mission from the outset. While there are a litany of team building and development best practices, we’ve tried to synthesize what we’ve learned based on the lessons and perspectives of our unique Membership. 

What can be done?

  • Establishing a framework, or identifying a toolset, that supports data-driven decision making and injects repeatable objectivity into team construction. More traditional approaches to team building tend to be highly subjective and rely too heavily on gut feeling. Applying some combination of assessment and analysis to team construction can remove the burden from managers and give team members confidence that they are being evaluated using an equitable, transparent, shared standard. Fortunately, we are entering a new age of intelligent evaluation, and the availability of AI-driven tools that can effectively be applied to these challenges has never been greater.

  • Considering the importance of diversity for team and business success. Teams that are comprised of people with different perspectives and backgrounds are best positioned to consider multiple potential roadblocks to success, to identify downstream implications, and to see a problem or challenge from a wide range of angles. Organizations that are committed to DEIA should create structures to ensure that teams are constructed in adherence with these principles, as this is proven to maximize performance over time. Equally, it is important to note that it is not simply a mix of physical or immutable characteristics, but of thought patterns and experiences, that makes a team diverse. 

  • Establishing fun, engaging, even gamified techniques for kickstarting collaboration and innovation, and getting team members energized for problem solving and critical thinking. This also helps to cultivate a sense camaraderie and interpersonal connection between team members. Team building activities can be virtual or in-person, but the best approaches typically combine physical and intellectual challenges. However, fun need not entail superfluous; the best and most successful organizations, from the corporate elite to the most accomplished militaries, utilize regular simulations of real-world challenges to prepare teams for a range of known and unknown threats and opportunities.

    Not only does this reinforce unit bonds and introduce relevant practical concepts that are likely to be encountered in the real world, it makes the process of systematically working through a problem second nature, helps to uncover leadership potential, and enhances the skills and experience of the entire team. This constant, focused repetition is the surest and most effective way to achieving the ideal of Deliberate Practice in a business environment. 

  • Creating a shared location for all communications, recognition, and collaboration that can be accessed and utilized by all members of the team. High performing teams need to have their own space to engage with one another, whether this is for the management and planning of tasks, the completion of documents or projects, or simply for lowing off steam and building personal connections. This also helps to preserve timely completion, clear understanding of goal, and true accountability. In turn, this can help to establish a unique or shared language, and informal rules of engagement, that are conducive to harmony, collaboration, and a sense of belonging. 

  • Flattening responsibilities and expectations to make the team more responsive. In most team scenarios, there is a clearly defined team lead who establishes goals, sets timelines, and keeps the team on-task. While this responsibility often falls to a single senior individual irrespective of the work being done, for teams that operate in dynamic or rapidly changing circumstances, it is worth considering a more distributed model that empowers the entire team to craft an attack plan and hold each other accountable.

    For instance, while we think of the military as adhering to a strict and clearly defined chain of command, Special Operations Forces (SOF) teams have a more flexible structure, whereby a more junior member may be placed in charge of a mission based on specialized experience or expertise that is most relevant within mission parameters. Ultimately, the core tenet is that the team is more capable of responding to complexity than any individual and must be constructed and empowered to act accordingly. Thus, in the most difficult or unpredictable environments, the best team leaders are those who construct a team that can lead itself and is not dependent on any individual to perform at its highest level. 

Conclusion

As with all other aspects of managing businesses and people, COVID has presented some unique challenges to team building and development. With most organizations shifting to a virtual environment, it can be much more difficult to establish the connections and collaborative routines necessary to create a sustainable model for team performance. However, it has placed tremendous pressure on organizations to get team construction right – it has never been more important to develop a systematic, repeatable approach for identifying the characteristics that best position an individual to excel within a given team. The lack of personal interaction and the loss of opportunities for casual conversation and water cooler discussions make it that much more important to calibrate team development carefully from the outset. There simply aren’t as many opportunities to build connections between people. Furthermore, the highly unpredictable and increasingly complex reality that faces most businesses serves as a stark reminder that it is critical to build diverse, well balanced teams with a range of perspectives and skills, that are prepared to respond in unison as challenges arise.


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