High performance teams in the corporate world are rare. Even more so when working for a public sector or non-profit organization. In my work experience a team’s ability to collaborate had a huge impact on the team’s level of performance. Where there was a culture of individual, and even competitive performance within a team, production and innovation faltered. Where team collaboration and mutual success was encouraged and rewarded, production and innovation was through the roof.
Struggling Teamwork in the U.S. Navy
When I was serving in the navy I was ordered to a naval command where many sailors go to finish up their career. It was a 9-5 office environment with a relatively easy and mundane, though very important, mission. We had work to get done, with well established practices to follow. There was not a culture of innovation in this command. When I came on, the command was experiencing increased demand for higher performance, but the higher ups could not justify giving the command more senior sailors. Instead the command got stuck with people like me; sailors who were fresh out of training and had no significant real world experience. Gratton and Erickson (2007)1 of the Harvard Business Review talk about how Nokia inspired a culture of collaboration within their company by assigning all new employees a list of key relationships they needed to create. These relationships were designed to create a social network within the organization so that despite its size, everyone was connected through someone else. In the article they write,
“Our research shows that new teams, particularly those with a high proportion of members who were strangers at the time of formation, find it more difficult to collaborate than those with established relationships.”
The article went on to say that when 20-40% of the people on teams were already connected their ability to collaborate increased. When I arrived at my new command I didn’t know anyone. I was left mostly on my own to get to know people. I was not really guided in which relationships were important to have other than the required relationship I had with my direct superiors.
Our research shows that new teams, particularly those with a high proportion of members who were strangers at the time of formation, find it more difficult to collaborate than those with established relationships.
- Gratton, & Erickson.
- Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
What actually happened was small groups of junior sailors formed cliques based on their backgrounds. I had a small group of friends that I hung out with and would sometimes rely on for help with work problems. We never worked together as a larger team. Gratton and Erickson warned against this saying that the formation of strong subgroups based on common interests and backgrounds rather than creating intentional key relationships based on collaboration and knowledge sharing can lead to conflict both within and between these subgroups. In contrast to this, Kelley (2007)2 of leading design firm IDEO quoted the character Marry Poppins who said, “. . . in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.” This describes perfectly the high performance team I am now a part of.
High performance at Our Daily Bread
After I separated from the Navy I began reaching out to my network of friends from college to find a job. My friend Brett told me about a job on the team he worked for at Our Daily Bread Ministries. He told me about how exciting the team was, that it was growing and evolving all the time. It was just what I was looking for. I wanted to work in a place where I would constantly be learning and building meaningful relationships. Lafley and Charan (2008)3 of Proctor and Gamble talk about how they cultivated a culture of innovation and collaboration within their organization. They were intentional to ease out people in their organization who were controlling and not willing to learn and collaborate. They didn’t want anyone on the team who wasn’t curious. They found that cultivating curious individuals led to natural collaboration.
This is exactly what I discovered on my new team. From the get go I was mentored by Brett in learning not only the skills required for the job, but the ins and outs of the organization. Brett also worked hard to foster a family-like atmosphere within the team. We always ate lunch together as a team, and this was a great way for me to get to know everyone. Since my early days there we have moved on to opening up our family-like culture to other teams by inviting them to the lunch table, playing games, sharing jokes, and talking about how we can improve each other’s work.
We believe the strongest teams take root when individuals are given the chance of picking what groups they work with and even occasionally what projects they work on.
- Tom Kelley
- The Art of Innovation
There is still room for improvement within my team for sure. Kelley says, “We believe the strongest teams take root when individuals are given the chance of picking what groups they work with and even occasionally what projects they work on.” Our team still struggles to break out of our technical expertise silos. We don’t take a lot of opportunities to give ourselves time to work on our own projects.
Kelley also talks about how planned breaks can be great opportunities for team building. My team does a great job of this, but sometimes we abuse it. We let our team breaks go long, especially on a cold rainy day when we’re struggling to stay motivated to get our work done.
Lastly we would really benefit from seeing this culture infect the organization as a whole and be demonstrated and encouraged from HR and the executive leadership team. Gratton and Erickson talk about how important it is for executive leaders to demonstrate collaboration amongst each other in order for collaboration to spread throughout the organization. The executive leadership needs to plant and nurture the seeds. They also talked about how HR departments can help by providing intentional collaboration training and organization wide outings, giving more people from different teams the opportunity to interact with each other in a casual way.
- Gratton, L., & Erickson, T. J. (2007). Eight ways to build collaborative teams. Harvard business review, 85(11), 100.
- Kelley, T. (2007). The art of innovation: lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm. Crown Business.
- Lafley, A. G., & Charan, R. (2008). P&G’s innovation culture. Strategy+ Business Magazine, 1-10.