Mediocre Teams

Posted by jlubans on April 08, 2020

An obituary set me thinking about work teams I’ve known and why some thrived while some dithered.
The death notice was for Psychologist Susan Wheelan who studied work teams and extended Tuckman’s research on the evolutionary phases of teamwork, form, storm, norm, perform.
Feudin’, fussin’ and a-fightin’
In my experience,” storming” is the most problematic phase for any team. Wheelan offered ways to get through this fevered state into something healthful and productive.
Her guidance was pragmatic. She said in a 2000 interview: “When I go into a company I’m often asked, ’You’re not one of those touchy-feely types, are you?’”
“‘No,’ I say. ‘Here’s my data. This is how it works.’”
She knew well that all too many teams never get past the storming or trust building phase, forever stuck in a purgatory of pretending to be effective when all their work and effort show otherwise.
Yet, it seems few can break through the chronic impasse.
Unlike most of us who prefer to avoid conflict, Dr. Wheelan saw it as necessary for working through differences and establishing a climate in which members feel free to express disagreements.
Patience, she espoused, is a must.
Unless one is lucky, no team hits the road running. As I learned over several decades of team management - and Wheelan confirms - a team will need at least six months to become highly effective and then only if it can break through the storming phase.
Of course, if it never gets past storming, the team will be forever mediocre.
There is help out there for those of us who do not want to settle for mediocre. Several techniques offer ways for teams to get to good performance.
And, instead of pushing, I’d be more patient. Most important, I’d call more timeouts to check in with the team and how it is doing: What’s working? What’s not?
Quorum response.
Choose the right team players!
Red, Yellow or Green? Stop, Idle, or Go?
AAR, “After Action Review”.
Team Wellbeing Test
Our friend the honey bee suggests techniques for reaching agreement without wasting time: As I wrote, “a quorum response is an antidote to endless debate. Once a threshold number is reached among bees for where to nest, that is a quorum and those bees that have yet to be persuaded, now stop advertising and sign on to the chosen nest. In faculty decisions, ones requiring a unanimous vote like for granting tenure, Dr. Seeley - the bee researcher and a department head - takes periodic anonymous straw polls. He finds that once 80% of the professors agree with a decision, the others concede.”
When choosing team players, include women, experts, and expert generalists. All should share interests and provide mutual respect. Let no one individual dominate the team discussion and abide by explicit team norms. (What does it mean to be a team participant?)
Here are a few variations on ye olde Plus/Delta (a rapid listing of what’s working? and what is not?)
The plus/delta is helpful in my teaching; I do one early in each class and then one after the in-class final - the anonymouss "Slam/Dunk" version - to find useful information for the next semester.
Also, I ask each student project team to do a plus/delta and to hand it in to me. I've been impresses with the team's honesty and candour about team dynamics.
A team leader could do a rapid-fire plus/delta after every meeting to get at things unsaid and needing to be said.
In the plus/delta genre there’s the traffic light approach to taking team mood. Are members overly cautious, hesitant (yellow), fiercely opposed (red) or feeling groovy (green)? What are the underlying issues for those team members who choose yellow or red lights? How will you find out?
Then there’s the AAR, “After Action Review”, a process for group assessment of how things are going, what learnings there might be, and what is missing/needed.
The AAR – if guided well - may be better for novice teams seeking openness and honesty.
I once used my one page Team Well Being Test with a Nascar racing team’s three pit crews, each in competition with the other.
Here are several of the questions I asked each pit crew member to rate on a five point scale from weak to strong:
Inclusion (Am I in or am I out?)
Elbow room (I’m easy or I’m crowded)
Discussion (Is it free or is it guarded?)
Level of conflict (Is it low and tolerable or high?)
Handling of conflict (Do we work on it or avoid it?)
Support (Each to all or self only?)
Not a single member responded! They were not about to reveal personal and team weaknesses.
Two decades later the team remains mired in mediocrity and down to one pit crew and driver and seemingly satisfied with finishing anywhere from 15th-25th place in a 40 car field.
I’d venture they are still stuck in the “storming” phase of team development. The stock car team owner should have sent a SOS to Dr. Wheelan!

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

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