Team Building, how to build winning teams

James Scouller is an executive coach and author of the trilogy, How To Build Winning Teams Again And Again

Team Building: 3 Common Problems & Solutions

Did you know that research shows 75% of business teams fail? Behnam Tabrizi reported this finding in his 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “75% of Cross-Functional Teams Are Dysfunctional”. He studied 95 teams in 25 leading companies, chosen by an independent panel of academics and experts. In fact, they weren’t just dysfunctional, they failed. More specifically, they failed on at least three of five criteria: (1) meeting a planned budget (2) staying on schedule (3) adhering to specifications (4) meeting customer expectations (5) maintaining alignment with the company’s corporate goals.

Clearly, organisations are struggling to form teams. But why? That’s too big a topic for an article as short as this, but I will outline three common problems and suggest solutions.

Problem #1: Missing Behaviours

Let’s imagine you’re watching a top professional football team emerging from the tunnel before kick-off. And imagine your surprise when eight of the players go to the left back position and the other three stand near the centre circle to play the main striker role. What would you be thinking?

I’ll bet you would see their team set-up as ultra risky. Too many would be playing the same role, leaving huge gaps for their opponents to take advantage of. So it wouldn’t surprise you when they lose every game.

Surely that would never happen in business, would it? It sure would. Indeed, it does, a lot.

In the business world, we assume we have the right blend if for example we appoint the heads of Sales, Manufacturing, Finance, R&D, IT and HR or perhaps regions or business units to the top team. But job titles – reflecting technical knowhow and experience in one part of the business – don’t guarantee the right behavioural blend. Indeed, a poor blend can lead to constant clashes of opinion, sloppy or over-optimistic planning or poor follow-through. So what does guarantee a good blend?

Solution: choose people for the team that give you a winning blend

What is a winning blend? Some people think it’s matter of personality, but it isn’t. The key is to find the right mix of team role behaviours. That means bringing in people who can play the equivalent of the eleven positions in a football team.

But in a business team, what are those positions?

The answer comes from Meredith Belbin’s 1970s research. Many have forgotten it, and others don’t know about it. But it’s as valid now as it was then. He uncovered eight behaviour clusters (he called them team roles) that add value and gave them names. We don’t have the space here to describe those roles, but it’s important to say that you don’t always need eight people. Many of us can play two of those roles skilfully and occasionally three. Using Belbin’s simple questionnaire-based process, you can find out who can comfortably play which roles, whether you have an overload in one team behaviour and, indeed, if you have huge gaps. The Belbin model is an excellent tool for helping you get that winning blend.

Problem #2: Not Enough Commitment

Many of my clients have told me privately they suspect some colleagues aren’t fully committed to the team. In my experience, insufficient commitment is indeed a common problem.

If you’ve read widely – or if you check on the internet – you’ll often see this advice: “Make sure everyone speaks up as you’re considering a decision because even if they disagree, most people just want to be heard and know their colleagues have understood their view. That way you can disagree and still commit.” 

I think this is correct. However, I don’t think it’s enough.

In my view, if you want commitment in your team, you must all be clear what you are committing to. In other words, you must know your top priority. After all, how can you gain commitment if no one’s sure what they’re committing to?

Solution: agree your number one goal

Through team coaching experience I’ve learnt it’s essential to help teams agree their number one goal for the coming months to gain the commitment and unity they need to succeed.

To be clear, when I say their “number one goal” I don’t mean their basic purpose, their reason for existing. I mean the most important thing the members must deliver in the next 3-12 months. The number one goal is a great device for achieving the galvanising and unifying effect you need.

How do you settle on your number one goal?

First, I suggest you draw up a shortlist of the problems and opportunities facing your team and then decide which one to focus on. 
Second, flip that problem or redefine that opportunity so you can state it as your number one goal. In doing so, express it as a theme with a maximum 12-month deadline that stirs your feelings. The idea is to use emotional language, not dull management jargon, to evoke feelings of urgency. 
Third, to make the goal more measurable, decide what metrics you’ll use to assess whether you’ve succeeded or are on the way to succeeding. I advise you not to have more than three metrics. Keep it simple. Then set targets and deadlines for each metric.
Fifth, make sure everyone feels that what you’ve decided together is urgent and important. If anyone has doubts, circle back to step one.
Sixth, summarise what you’ve done at steps 2 and 3 on a one-page scorecard and find a way of keeping it front of mind every time you get together. For example, by showing it in large letters on a poster pinned to the wall in your meeting room. That way, no one forgets their original commitment.

Problem #3: Wrongly Choosing to Act as a Team

This may surprise you in an article on teambuilding, but not all group challenges demand that you act as a team.

You see, every work group faces a choice of two disciplines: Performance Group or Real Team.

A Performance Group works as a hub-and-spokes model. Its members largely work apart to deliver results – because that’s enough to achieve their goal – while the leader concentrates on coordinating and holding them accountable. Yes, they’ll occasionally meet to share data, update one another and decide things, but that’s it. 

A Real Team is different. It’s more united and performs better. Much better in fact. Think of it as a Performance Group facing a tough challenge that’s forced it to combine members’ skills and experience to deliver results, they couldn’t achieve by working apart. Like solving an important problem. Or creating something new – perhaps designing a new car or figuring out a new company vision. It still has a leader, but it’s abandoned the hub-and-spokes model by adopting the ethos I call “shared leadership.”

Here’s the big point: you only require a real team when, together, you need to pool your skills, knowhow and experience to (1) solve a problem together (2) create something new together (3) execute together or (4) a combination of all three.

If instead you can achieve your number one goal with each group member acting individually, coordinated by the leader, you don’t need a team. That’s when a Performance Group will do. You only need a team when you need collective results.

The problem comes when we assume we must act as a team and impose team disciplines when they’re not needed. This creates the danger of morphing into a Pseudo-Team, which tries to stay united at all cost while losing sight of its need to perform and deliver. If that sounds bad, it’s because it is.

Solution: consciously choose your discipline

I stress the word “consciously.”

The idea is to start with your number one goal and ask yourselves, “Can we achieve our number one goal by acting as a Performance Group or do we need to work as a Real Team?”

From coaching teams for years, I’ve found the solution is to help their members imagine what they’ll have to do to achieve their goal. Then guide them in figuring out whether that means solving an important problem together, creating something together, carrying out a plan together, or producing some other result they couldn’t deliver by working apart.

It’s important the members do this consciously because you’ll often find resistance by some to the idea of acting as a team. Why? Because working in a team means giving up some autonomy. It means your teammates can challenge you if they think your behaviour is poor or your work standards are below par. (In teams you don’t have to wait for the leader to intervene – just look at professional football teams if you need an example.)

If you apply this solution consciously, and you decide the challenge you face demands a team approach, you will usually find any such resistance to team working melts away.

James Scouller is an executive coach and author of the trilogy, How To Build Winning Teams Again And Again published by Hawkhurst Publishing on 11 January 2024, each book priced at £13.99. The three-part series will be available on Amazon and all other major bookstores.

See more breaking stories here.