I am a huge believer in the power of teams, although it seems to be a power that is easily dissipated within corporate structures. My belief in teams comes from my own experience – all too rare – of being a part of a team that is genuinely more than the sum of its parts; but most teams I have been part of haven’t matched up to that. I have been talking about collaboration and creativity a fair bit recently, and my experience in one team keeps cropping up in my thoughts.
The Harvard Business Review talks about hot groups –
a lively, high-achieving, dedicated group, usually small, whose members are turned on to an exciting and challenging task
– others talk about “hot teams”.
The HBR definition certainly fits with the way the team felt: we were excited, doing something that was new, and we felt very productive.
The team was formed on the back of a change programme I worked on in the mid-1990s: once the change had been implemented, the implementation team was told to review how the new organisational structure was actually working on the ground. This was a quite different task to implementation, and one that was new to all five members of the team. It was also pretty new to the organisation.
So we made it up as we went along. The change programme had changed management structures and a large number of people; there were new roles, new competences and new behaviours. We started off by checking what had been implemented – looking at the local management structures, and auditing the implementation. This is what the senior managers wanted: it is fair to say that it wasn’t a high trust organisation, and it was generally managed with a bureaucratic, command-and-control culture. We were familiar with audit, it’s what was expected, so that’s what we did.
It fell completely flat. We produced the data that the organisation’s management wanted – at least, what they thought they wanted – but we very quickly realised that we were adding nothing to the organisation: nothing was changing on the back of our work, and we weren’t helping anyone – indeed, we were seen as a hindrance and obstacle by the people – the local managers – that we were reviewing. We could see what wasn’t working, but nothing that we did helped those managers to sort it out. We needed to change what we were doing – or at least do something extra to help the local guys as well as our bosses.
There was a lot of soul searching. We kicked ideas around, sought guidance from our line – who more or less told us to get on with it – and talked with our networks. We read a bit, kicked the ideas around some more, came up with our modus operandi.
This involved in depth conversations with the local managers and the people they were meant to be managing, followed by detailed analysis and extensive feedback, whilst at the same time collecting the information the organisation felt it needed, too – that, after all, was our raison d’être, and provided our licence to operate.
This was a very exciting period. We were used having the answers; now we not only didn’t have the answers for our internal clients, we weren’t even certain we had the answers for ourselves. We were all having to work in a different fashion from our normal practice: in a consultative way, listening rather than telling, exploring, and helping others see what was working and what wasn’t.
It felt like a very different way working. We effectively became a self-managed team by practice rather than design. Working in this way in the organisation felt counter-cultural. We gave ourselves the space to make mistakes – and we accepted that others in the organisation were free to make mistakes, too: no one had a monopoly on answers. We also had space to think, and when we were working with managers in the field, we gave them the space to think, too.
Not knowing the answers meant that we were learning the whole time. We refined our work and the way we did continuously. We aimed to model the change we were trying to promote. As a small team we were reliant on each other for the success as our projects, on which one of the team would act as lead. Such deep collaboration, coupled with the empowerment we felt – having been left to invent what we were doing, and how we did it – felt very powerful.
Within the context of the organisation and the change programme we were following, it also felt very transformative. We received very positive feedback from those involved in the reviews – both the managers and the managed. No one had bothered before to ask them the kinds of questions we were asking them – about how they did their jobs, and why they were doing things that way. We developed some powerful tools for working with and feeding back to groups.
It was certainly transformative for the team and, particularly, for myself. It changed the way I thought about work, and had great effect on my subsequent work choices. Even after our project finished – despite our success over four years, the work wasn’t seen as being essential and we were disbanded during a corporate reorganisation (despite being reviewed by a couple of other organisations who were very positive in their praise) – the team remained close, and ten years after that, we still meet up regularly (less so now I live in a different city!).
It is hard to say what made the experience so valuable to me. We were doing something new, which stretch us; we were self-organising, responsible for designing the work and in control of it. We were radically different and felt counter-cultural, which brought us close together, so were emotionally engaged in the team and the work we did. And we felt we were making a tangible difference to the organisation and those at all levels with whom we came into contact.
All in all, these seem to encapsulate Dan Pink’s three high level needs for motivation – autonomy, mastery and purpose. The interesting thing is that the team got there by accident, collaborating to create a very rich working experience.