SuddenTeams™ Program>
Team Readings

Contents


Overview

Team members should read this page before beginning the training. There are action boxes calling for discussions, but the team will conduct those while going through the “Team Training” section.

Definition of a Team

There are a lot of work groups that call themselves “teams,” but they really are not. Descriptions of a true team vary among the experts, but here are some common elements:

  • Small size, perhaps five to 12 people.
  • A concrete sense of purpose.
  • Specific, challenging goals.
  • Spelled-out rules for interacting with each other and carrying out team duties.
  • High levels of cooperation required for each member to complete his or her work.
  • Clear understanding of who decides what.
  • Mutual accountability—team members’ job satisfaction, performance measures, and/or compensation are based, at least in part, on the team’s performance.[1]

Among business researchers, the most widely-used definition of a team is from The Wisdom of Teams,[2] a site first published by the Harvard Business School:

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

The main alternative to a true team has been called a “work group”: that is, a group of people bound together by an organizational chart or other artificial means, but not meeting one or more of the elements of a team. Unlike team members, members of a work group all do the same job, have different performance goals, are accountable only to themselves and their boss, and so on. In some situations, a work group is the most efficient organization, such as in sales “teams” whose members compete with each other for bonuses. If you think your team is really a work group, raise the question in your next meeting as to whether doing this whole program will add value. Perhaps instead the group only needs the sections addressing specific issues.

As mentioned at the start of this site, researchers have spent decades digging into the science behind teamwork. In doing so they have identified what high-performing, low-conflict teams have that others do not, the key elements of successful teams:

  • Mission—A statement of purpose that excites interest while supporting the company’s mission.
  • Goals—Three to five measurable goals that quantify progress toward the mission within a specific time frame.
  • Values List or Code of Conduct—Rules created by the team to reduce workplace behaviors that hurt team performance and job satisfaction.
  • Team Procedures—Procedures for handling the team’s administrative tasks.
  • Process Documentation—Written descriptions and/or diagrams of how the team performs its daily tasks, for use in quality and cost control and process improvement.
  • Role Definitions—Clear descriptions of each member’s role in both everyday work and team procedures.
  • Project Plans—Formal task breakdowns and schedules for meeting the team’s goals and/or project requirements.
  • Teamwork Skills—Skills in group communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and decision-making.
  • Incentives—Rewards for achieving team goals (not necessarily financial rewards).
  • Visibility—A method to ensure upper managers become aware of the team’s accomplishments.

Using The SuddenTeams Program, your job is to create as many of these elements as you can for your team given your company environment.

Program Definitions

The SuddenTeams Program tries to stay away from fancy words and business jargon because English may not be the first language of many readers,[3] and because jargon can mean very different things in different industries. But to make this program useful to the widest possible audience, there are a few terms we have to use in ways you may not be used to. Keep these in mind:

  • Board—Except when clearly referring to a “board of directors,” this means a writing surface or medium visible to all members for recording discussion notes, such as a white board, flip chart, projected computer screen, or Web-conference tool.
  • Company—The largest level of organization you work for. It may be a private company, a corporation, a charity, a professional group, or a government agency, but we will use the term “company” for every case.
  • Self-Directed Team—A team whose manager does not regularly attend team meetings or direct team members’ daily activities. A self-directed team reports as a group to the manager. It may have a person who serves as a permanent facilitator or administrator, but that position can be reassigned by the team.
  • Team Leader—A person formally appointed to lead the team while working alongside the members. The leader may or may not serve as a supervisor—doing performance appraisals, for example. He or she usually is involved in the team’s daily activities and performs some of the same work as team members.
  • Team Manager—The person who everyone on the team reports to within the team’s function. If you all work in the same part of your company, it is the first level of supervisor you all answer to (even if members have different supervisors in between). If you are in different functions but have been brought together on a project team, it is the project manager. Unlike a team leader, if any, the manager usually is not involved in the team’s daily activities and does not take part in this program’s team training.
  • Division—This refers to a part of a company and can be at various levels. For example, your team may be part of a “program” that is part of a “division.” In this site, both would be referred to as “divisions.” Obviously, in larger companies, all but the highest-level teams will be in two or more levels of division.

Team Member Benefits

By agreeing to try The SuddenTeams Program, you are agreeing to put a lot of time and effort into changing the way you do your job. It is perfectly reasonable for you to wonder, “What is in it for me?” Here are a few possible answers:

  • A chance to use ideas you have about how to do things better around here.
  • A chance to influence how the company spends money to solve problems that are important to you.
  • New relationship and problem-solving skills, which may help you with your performance appraisals, raises, career advancement, or personal life.
  • Greater visibility for your contributions to the company, because your teammates and team stakeholders will get a better understanding of everything you do for them.
  • Greater understanding of your work needs from your peers and supervisor.
  • Possibly, more control over the money you earn. If the company allows your manager to implement a team-based pay system, you will get a better idea of why you are paid what you are paid and thus how to get more.
  • Perhaps a happier life: A number of studies have shown better teamwork to improve job satisfaction in a wide variety of teams. Since job satisfaction impacts personal relationships and quality of life, this team development effort could improve your life.

Typical Reasons for Failure

Efforts to create true teams often fail. Your team can avoid some of the pitfalls by keeping in mind the typical reasons this happens:

  • The team does not have or develop the needed range of technical and personal skills.
  • Team members cannot handle conflict constructively; they do not agree upon and follow good team behaviors.
  • Team members fear that individual recognition and/or challenges will be lost.
  • The manager does not share sufficient information or decision-making authority (or, at the other extreme, shares too much, too soon).
  • The manager does not provide enough resources, such as meeting or planning time, training, equipment, or needed personnel.
  • The team does not develop supportive relationships with other teams, functional managers, senior managers, and other stakeholders.
  • Members assume that because previous teamwork efforts failed, this one will, too—not recognizing that those failures may have been due to incorrectly formed teams or ineffective training (such as “team building” exercises) rather than a problem with teamwork itself.

Key to Success

The key to success is for each team member to accept that achieving the team’s goals is more important than achieving your idea on every issue. If an issue affects more than one person, the best solution will, logically, arise from joint decision-making by all affected.

The Team Mesa

Overview

Most teams do not magically get along with each other from the start—if they did, every new sports team would be a threat to beat the league champions in its first year. Becoming a true team takes time, and sometimes things get worse before they get better. New teams have a lot to figure out, and you cannot expect problems that developed over months or years in an existing group to go away in a few weeks.

This was captured in a model of team development sometimes called, “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.”[4] Supposedly team measures followed a curve that rose a bit during “Forming,” dropped below the starting point during Storming, and climbed through the final phases to high levels. Though this model from 1965 might be useful for thinking about what your team is like, few if any teams go through these stages one after the other. Some parts of your team development will happen unevenly, in “fits and starts.” For example, you can go quickly from nobody thinking about a teamwork issue to it becoming a cause of conflict, even in well-performing teams.

Furthermore, research shows that typical teams go through much of their change in a short period closer to the middle of the group’s life span than the beginning. In project teams, for example, this happens near the halfway point in a project schedule regardless of how long the project is.[5] The performance “curve” is more like approaching and climbing a cliff on the side of a mesa (a flat-topped hill):

For roughly the first half of the project, the team struggles with varying degrees of conflict and tries without success to increase measures such as output quantity, quality, or customer satisfaction. For reasons not yet fully understood by science, the team then comes together, often making agreements that would have been helpful earlier such as Team Charters or procedure documents. By virtue of having worked together a while, they also develop unwritten rules about how to get along, usually without even discussing them. After that the journey is much smoother. Of course, if the team does not climb the mesa, it falls apart or never reaches high performance.

If the team stays together long enough, it may get to the other side of the mesa. In danger of slipping down, it may need to revisit some of its previous steps to maintain top performance and stay on the mesa top.

What if your team has no end date? “When there is no deadline or it is ambiguous, groups do not establish a pace for their work and tend to flounder,” two Harvard University researchers have written.[6] In other words, the team never climbs the mesa.

Based on the scientific findings, I use these four phases instead of the old model:

  • Approaching the Mesa
  • Climbing the Mesa
  • Enjoying the View
  • Avoiding a Fall

No two teams will approach the mesa the same way in terms of the problems they face. Various performance measures will shift somewhat up and down in each phase. There also may be a period of increased struggle as you start up the cliff. The point is, if things get bad for a while during your team development using this program, that does not mean the team or program is failing.

The primary goal of The SuddenTeams Program is to “move the mountain.” That is, doing the steps in this site should get you to the mesa top sooner rather than later, reducing or ending your long walk across the desert below. If your team has been operating a while, the worst part is probably over. By starting on this program, you are preparing for the climb to the top.

The next few sections detail traits and behaviors more likely at each phase. But again, any can appear at any time during the life of a team.

Approaching the Mesa

The Good

  • At first feelings are generally positive, though cautious.
  • Everyone is on their best behavior.
  • Everyone is trying to figure out what is going on.
  • People are testing the boundaries of their relationships with other team members and the boundaries of their jobs as team members.
  • People are trying to figure out their roles, both formal and informal.

The Bad

Especially when true teamwork is a major shift in the way a group and its manager have been doing things, people will naturally resist the parts of teaming they do not like. This resistance may come out in behaviors such as these:

  • Some people will hide their normal styles of communication, perhaps becoming more outspoken or more guarded.
  • The tendency to work separately remains.
  • Conflicts may arise, confusion about roles and responsibilities abound, procedures and boundaries are tested, and there may be lots of blaming others (especially of the team manager).
  • The full range of people’s personalities begins to come out, both good traits and bad.
  • Some members, if not most, think about leaving the team, even if that means leaving the job.
  • Productivity and morale stay flat, and in the case of restructured teams, may even drop below pre-teaming levels.
  • Managers wonder A) if they have done the right thing, and B) how to look like they personally are accomplishing anything.

Climbing the Mesa

  • Some teams experience an “a-ha” moment, in which they realize why they have not been collaborating easily.
  • Roles become clearer.
  • Resistance to teaming drops as members begin to see the benefits.
  • Conflicts, internal and with the manager, decline.
  • Information is more freely shared within the team and between the team and stakeholders.
  • Members begin melding individual strengths and weaknesses.
  • One or more informal leaders may emerge. This must be monitored to ensure they do not become de facto team leaders.
  • Productivity begins to rise well above pre-teaming levels.
  • A strong team identity develops. This is mostly good, but it must be monitored to prevent over-protectiveness of team turf, hiding of underperforming members, etc.
  • The team begins to document more, creating such controls as task-tracking systems or standard operating procedures.

Enjoying the View

  • The team achieves optimal levels of productivity, efficiency, and quality.
  • There is a strong sense of community within the team, of members being responsible to and for each other.
  • People are comfortable admitting weaknesses and asking for help.
  • Taking on new tasks or objectives becomes routine.
  • Member thinking becomes broader.
  • Both teaming competence and commitment are high.

Avoiding a Fall

  • Productivity and morale level off, and may begin to dip if issues related to this stage are not addressed.
  • The team may become too inward-focused, hurting communication with other teams or individuals.
  • The members require new challenges and related training to stay energized.
  • The team can become set in its ways, resisting new ideas or challenges.
  • Turnover and new hires may reduce the sense of team identity and cause tension between remaining and new members.
  • Revision of team agreements is often necessary to keep the team moving forward.

Discussion

As a group during the team training, talk about where you are relative to the Team Mesa.

Maximum: 5 minutes—You do not need definite answers.

The Paradoxes

Teamwork creates some personal tensions you will have to overcome for the team to succeed. One researcher called them “paradoxes,” defining a paradox as “a constant struggle between apparently opposing values.”[7]

  • Being an individual versus being a team member—Each team member has to express his or her strengths as an individual to create the skill mix the team needs, but at the same time you have to put the team’s needs first. As one worker put it to a researcher, “In a team, everyone has to give up a bit of himself or herself to make it work.” The solution to this paradox lies in finding just the right amount to give. A team member put it bluntly: “You have to be able to let go of your own ego. You have to relinquish ideas to the team—let the ideas be the team’s, not yours. This is tough.”
  • Being your job titleversus being a team member—You have to find a balance between doing what the team needs you to do and the other demands of your job. You should find ways to communicate with both your manager and your team members when you feel pressure from this paradox and work together to resolve it. In short, teamwork must become part of your job.
  • Trusting versus earning trust—You are being asked to take a pretty big leap of faith with each other: to blindly believe that everyone is going to give this teaming thing a fair shot, give you a fair shot, and communicate openly but respectfully when things go wrong. But our tendency is to trust people only as they earn that trust. “Trust” means the willingness to assume that the other person is going to behave the way you would in a given situation—or if they do not, that they will behave as they do with the intent of helping the team. This program tries to “jump-start” that trust by setting ground rules that are clear to everybody. If you know what the other people expect, and they know what you expect, that is a big step down the road to trust.
  • Liking versus respecting—Obviously, we all prefer to spend time with people we like. But in a work group, the chances are that you will not like some people personally. That is perfectly normal, and there is nothing morally wrong with not liking someone. If you let that personal dislike affect your ability to work together, you can sink the team. For the team to succeed, you must learn to focus on your own behavior as a team member in deciding how to act with him or her at work. Any other thoughts should only determine whether you choose to spend time with the person outside of work.
  • Reducing conflict vs. standing up for your idea—If the team cannot bring out different opinions—no matter how different—there is no point in having a team. The whole idea here is to get different perspectives working together. So if you are not willing to put those perspectives out there… well, why waste your time with team training? Of course, when ideas are quite different, things can get heated. Because most people like to avoid conflict, that creates this paradox. But teaming experts are unanimous in saying that many high-performing teams have conflicts at some point in their growth. The trick is to find a way to handle those conflicts that will get ideas out without damaging future teamwork. Helping you do that is another goal of this program.[8]
  • Being yourself vs. doing what is best for the team—Most of the points above can be summarized by this one. The idea is to try to reach a happy medium between the way you usually do things and the way the team needs them done. For example:
    • If you are shy compared to most people, and do not make yourself speak up when you have an idea or disagree with someone, you may hurt the team.
    • On the other hand, if you tend to correct people a lot, or do so less politely than most people do, you may hurt the team.
    • If you tend to think faster than most, and you try to hurry others along, you may kill the open exchange of ideas, and you may hurt the team.
    • If you like to think things through to the last detail more than most people do, and insist that the team do so on every issue, you may hurt the team.
    • If you work fast or get bored easily, and choose to take on the majority of team tasks, you may hurt the team.
    • On the other hand, if you feel overwhelmed and therefore never volunteer for any team tasks, you may hurt the team.

Despite these last two points, it is okay for some people to take on more tasks than others, and that will happen. The point is to spread the work around as much as possible to help everyone feel accountable to the team.

If you let yourself do these behaviors and the team begins to break down, do not go around blaming the other people. It is your fault, too.

Being a Team Player

Every team, from baseball teams to boards of directors, needs people to fill roles that go beyond their official positions. Successful sports teams have players who step into critical unofficial roles: one who encourages the team, one who makes big plays when the team is down, even a team joker to “keep people loose.” A business team will perform better if people take on unofficial roles that help teams operate more smoothly.

Fortunately, there are many different ways to be a “team player.” You do not have to be all things to all people. Instead, you have to adapt your personal style in ways that help the team. It is vital for everyone to participate to the fullest degree, any way they can, if your team is to succeed.[9]

So let’s look at the different ways you can be a team player. The basics are pretty obvious: follow the team’s values and procedures; contribute your ideas; take on team tasks; do not bad-mouth the team or its members behind their backs. Beyond that, there are a number of informal “team player” roles from which you can choose one or two that fit your personal style[10]:

  • Challenger—Be willing to disagree openly with the team, and push the team to raise its goals and standards.
  • Collaborator—Work outside your usual tasks to help other team members, by providing training or assistance with their tasks using skills you possess.
  • Communicator—Share information openly and listen well.
  • Contributor—Volunteer for tasks and complete them.
  • Encourager—Praise and actively support members.
  • Expeditor—Encourage participation of less assertive members by asking questions of them or inviting their help on your tasks.
  • Harmonizer—Mediate differences and keep discussions focused on behaviors instead of bad motives.
  • Organizer—Keep the team on track regarding schedules and budgets.
  • Promoter—Serve as a team spokesperson with stakeholders.
  • Specialist—Keep the team up-to-date on information or skills it needs in a particular area.
  • Standard-bearer—Keep the group focused on its values, objectives, and criteria for decisions.

On the other hand, if you really want to stop this teaming effort, here are some “Ways to Be a Team Destroyer”[11]:

  • “Don’t share information.”
  • Avoid confrontation.
  • “Dominate group discussions.”
  • “Resist or sabotage group efforts.”
  • “Refuse to compromise.”
  • “Put your own agenda ahead of the team’s agenda.”
  • “Don’t maintain self-discipline.”
  • “Blame others.”
  • “Be more concerned about recognition of your efforts than about your teammates’ success.”

Discussion

Starting with the facilitator, go around the room and have each member say:

  • Two or three roles the member is willing to take to be a team player.
  • A behavior from the team destroyer list the member has been guilty of at some point in the member’s career.

Maximum: 3 minutes per member.

Note: Do not record these in the meeting notes. The goal is to get people thinking about what kind of a team player each is, not to get commitments for the future.

Conflict

The Truth in the Myth

One of the myths about teamwork you will often hear is that “conflict is good.” However, a 2003 review of 35 studies over the previous decade found that conflict, whether or not it turned personal, hurt both team performance and the job satisfaction of team members.[12] Another goal of The SuddenTeams Program, therefore, is to help the team make great decisions without significant conflict. Many successful teams have done so.

But there is a truth at the base of the myth. If you are going to grow as a team, you have to risk challenging each other. Otherwise, a better idea or information proving a decision was flawed might not come out because someone was scared of “causing a problem.” The team might go along with a manager or expert rather than fully tapping everyone’s opinions. If fear of conflict keeps you from sharing or debating ideas, the odds of your making the best possible decision go down.

Confrontation vs. Conflict

When a confrontation arises, it is very important that you keep it as positive as possible and freely exchange ideas without getting into a fight. Though from an older study using different terms, these quotations do a good job of separating the two:

Confrontation:

  • “Disagreement over goals, priorities, and methods.
  • “Sharpening of issues.
  • “Argumentation and insistence on considering alternatives.
  • “Mutual respect among the parties, but probes for weakness.
  • “Mutual efforts to ensure there is no permanent winner.”

Conflict:

  • “Hostility, antagonism, punitiveness, dominance striving and threat.
  • “Perceptual distortion, stereotyping, and scapegoating.
  • “Trickery, feelings of betrayal, and revenge seeking.
  • “Mutual disrespect and denigration.
  • “Inconvenience, discomfort, or damage to bystanders.”[13]

In general, task conflict—clashes about job-related ideas—is not as harmful as personal (or “relationship”) conflict, which comes out in such behaviors as yelling, name-calling, and questioning a team member’s motives. Both types of conflicts are bad, but those that “get personal” simply are not acceptable. If confrontations drift over into task conflict, the facilitator must step in as soon as possible to calm things down and move back into constructive conversation. When relationship conflicts break out, the facilitator must stop them right away. With good conflict management, members will build enough trust that fights will eventually disappear even though you still question and challenge each other. At the other extreme, if personal relations get bad enough to end the free exchange of ideas, that ends the team.

You will find conflict-resolution techniques in the “Troubleshooting” section. But later on you will be creating some team rules—behaviors everyone agrees to use in dealing with each other. I have found that a team can minimize conflicts by defining and sticking to its values. If you bear this issue in mind while you work on your team rules and procedures, you can strike a balance between conflict and its equally dangerous opposite, “groupthink.”

Discussion

  • What kinds of confrontations does your team tend to have (confrontation, task conflict, relationship conflict, none)?
  • What actions by team members contribute to conflicts?
  • What could a facilitator do to reduce conflicts or encourage confrontation?

Maximum: 15 minutes.

Decision-Making Methods

Overview

The method you choose as a team for coming to a final decision can add or reduce conflict, either due to weaknesses in the method itself, or by applying it in situations where another choice would be better. Consensus is usually best, but can take extra effort and time you might not have. Votes are faster, but by definition, if there are winners, there are losers. If a few people end up on the losing end a lot, their morale will go down and they may start to resist team efforts. However, no harm comes from voting on smaller decisions that will not create much heartache. Certainly some decisions are better left to managers and subject experts. The tables below will help you choose the best method for a given decision.

Consensus

Though it can take longer to achieve than taking a vote, consensus is one of the most powerful tools for developing teamwork. People who support the team’s decision feel internally motivated to make that decision work, while losers in a vote simply resign themselves to it and may not help at all. On larger issues or those that raise strong emotions, call a vote only as a last resort.

One of the biggest objections to consensus is the extra time it is believed to take. That time can be reduced through effective meeting facilitation, which most groups do not use but you will be learning as part of this program. It also can be reduced by not making every decision that way, as noted above. And if failure to achieve consensus means only part of the team works toward the solution, far more time will be wasted in the long run. You have to either spend time building buy-in before the decision or building it after. The former provides the added benefits of increasing motivation and ensuring full support.

Another objection to consensus comes when people confuse “consensus” with “a unanimous decision,” in which everyone completely agrees with the position. But there is no way a group of people with different backgrounds talking with each other honestly are going to agree on everything every time. The only way to get a unanimous decision every time is to stifle any disagreements. The goal of consensus is to come up with a decision that everyone can support, meaning they will help the team implement the decision even if they disagree with it. Three levels of agreement can bring consensus:

  • “I agree with the group.”
  • “I do not fully agree, but I’ll go along with the group.”
  • “I do not agree, but I’ll support the group if we make a mistake.”

That last level might seem a hard position to take, but it is a “no-lose” choice for the individual. If the team turns out to be right, the member is respected for having gone along with the team, and his or her credibility goes up. If the member turns out to be right, everybody knows it, and again respects his or her support, so… again credibility goes up!

Note that governmental bodies and some types of charity boards are legally required to hold votes. Even then, the goal of the team should be to develop consensus such that the “vote” often ends up unanimous.

Considerations for Consensus

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Improves decision quality by ensuring all members’ perspectives have been considered.
  • Gains full commitment to and participation in the solution.
  • Increases feelings of belonging.
  • Takes more time up front.
  • Requires mental effort to control egos and work through different opinions.
Best Used: Whenever possible on decisions that affect the whole team and will have a significant impact on team time, tasks, goals, or finances.

Voting

There are times when a simple vote may become necessary. The most obvious is the one mentioned earlier, in which it is legally required. But even when not, there are times when a vote is perfectly fine. And if the deadline for a decision has been reached and an honest effort at consensus has failed, there is little choice but to take a vote and move on.

Considerations for Voting

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Saves team time.
  • Reduces short-term emotional damage.
  • Hurts identification with team.
  • Reduces commitment to implementation.
Best Used: On issues of little emotional importance to the team, or on significant issues (as described under “Consensus”) when consensus-building efforts:

  • Have been exhausted;
  • Are becoming counter-productive because people have become too frustrated; and/or
  • Will take too long because a deadline is near.

Delegation

Some decisions can simply be delegated to individuals on the team with expertise related to those decisions. Be sure they really have that expertise, though. Base this judgment on their unique experiences, skills, or education. Also, if the results of their decisions over time hurt team performance, the manager or facilitator will need to quietly move back to team-wide decisions on those issues.

Considerations for Delegation

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Saves team time.
  • In many cases, pushes the decision down to the appropriate level (i.e., the whole team does not need to be involved).
  • When an individual truly has unique expertise, delegation can be as accurate as group decision-making.[14]
  • Team must accurately determine the person has the expertise.
  • Outside perspectives are lost.
  • Implementation often falls on the decider.
  • Team loses some opportunity for learning from the expert.
Best Used: On issues that do not impact the entire team or a large percentage of stakeholders, or which require a high level of special knowledge.

Manager Decision

Within most companies’ job descriptions, a manager has the right, and in some cases, the duty to make certain decisions. These tend to be high-impact issues, but sometimes it is more efficient to have a manager decide on trivial ones as well. Bear in mind, however:

  • If team members’ opinions might change the manager’s position, the manager should bring the issue up for discussion, while making clear that the decision is the manager’s.
  • If the manager does not have the time, interest or authority to take input on a decision, the manager should not have a discussion just because it “looks good.” Team members will see through that and feel their time was wasted. Make the decision and inform the team.

Considerations for Manager Decision

Advantages Disadvantages
  • No need for the team to gain support at the manager’s level.
  • Saves team time.
  • Protects the team when decisions may have political effects.
  • May interfere with team initiatives.
  • Commitment to decision will be less than if generated by the team.
  • Decision quality may be poor if team members’ perspectives are not used.
Best Used: When a decision must be made quickly, or when the team agrees it is too trivial to spend group time on it.

 

Discussion

  1. Brainstorm a list of the decisions or types of decisions your team makes on a regular basis.
  2. Assign preferred method(s) to each item on the list. You do not need to come up with firm answers at this point. The goal is to start thinking about the most efficient ways to make decisions.

Tip: Start with the tasks in the “Administrative Tasks Checklist.”

Maximum: 30 minutes.

Meeting Facilitation

Overview

Despite the bad reputation meetings get in many organizations, you can think of at least one meeting you have attended that you actually enjoyed, because it went well and something good came out of it. A large international study found that people did not mind meetings if they felt something was accomplished.[15] The main reason meetings get such a bad reputation is that they are not run well.

Facilitation is a method of running meetings to make effective use of everyone’s time. This is accomplished by:

  • Creating and following a specific agenda.
  • Preventing time-wasting habits.
  • Building consensus.
  • Producing and tracking action items to achieve results.
  • Putting all agreements in writing.

Facilitation is not:

  • Team leading or management.
  • Imposition of the facilitator’s views.

The Facilitator’s Role

The rest of this section[16] describes the tasks of the facilitator before, during, and after a meeting. In a well-performing team, all members will help with facilitation, either by filling the role on a rotating basis or speaking up to keep the team “on task.”

Setting a Meeting Time

You will increase attendance if you give attendees input on timing:

  • If everyone uses a group calendar system, try to find times without adjacent meetings on days when people do not already have many.
  • If not, send an e-mail asking people to send you their schedule gaps (not their “available times”) and choose the one free for the most people.
  • For regular team meetings, choose a standard meeting day and time if at all possible, or plan several meetings in advance if not—this will increase future attendance by making it easier for people to plan other activities around the meeting.

The Agenda

Overview

A proper agenda is the blueprint for a good meeting. Without it, the meeting has no better chance of full success than does a building created from flawed (or no) plans.

Send the agenda out in time for the participants to review it and know what is expected of them. If notes from a previous meeting have not already gone out, be sure to include them with the agenda. Also include any handouts related to issues to be discussed.

Format

A useful agenda format for recurring meetings such as team meetings is:

  1. Revision of the previous meeting’s notes:
    1. Ask if any corrections are needed.
      Note: After the first meeting, do not allow meeting time for reading them, to save time and enforce the discipline of reading the notes before the meetings.
    2. Achieve agreement on the changes before moving forward.
  2. Status updates:
    • For project teams, review where the project is supposed to be versus where it is; if problems are identified, add them to the Parking Lot (see below).
    • For all teams, this is the time for each member to quickly review changes to workload since the last meeting.
      Warning: Do not let this become an unedited telling of everything done since the last meeting. Keep the focus on changes affecting other members’ activities.
  3. Old issues:
    • Old issues are those discussed in previous meetings.
    • Issues are included here only when:
      • Action items have fallen due since the last meeting, or
      • The group previously agreed to discuss those issues at this meeting.
    • To restart the conversation, have people responsible for action items report their progress, or give a synopsis of the previous discussion and ask a follow-up question.
  4. New issues:
    • New issues are those identified in previous meetings or raised with the facilitator in the interim.
    • Issues raised during the meeting may be given priority over other new issues if the group agrees to do so.
      Note: Do not skip “Old Issues,” however.
    • For team meetings, new issues must meet one of these criteria:
      • Relate to team goals, project plans or the Team Charter (discussed in the “Team Training” section).
      • Be a response to a request from outside the team.
      • Relate to a problem that may affect every member.
        Note: If the person raising the issue, or the team at the meeting, cannot relate an issue to one of these criteria, turn the issue back to the person to resolve alone or with selected team members outside the meeting.
  5. Review of the Parking Lot and action items (discussed under “Running the Meeting” below).

Meeting Rules

Through a combination of research and trial-and-error, I developed a set of rules proven to help make meetings efficient by reducing time-wasting behaviors. Start using them as soon as you begin the team training. Later on you will have a chance to add to or modify the set any way the team wants to, but try them as written for now:

  • All members are equal—From now on, your job title, place in the company’s hierarchy, years on the job, and expertise do not give you any special power during team meetings. Perspectives from outside your function will help you and the team see your function more clearly. Note that functional and tenure diversity on a team have been proven to improve performance.
  • No side conversations—You know how during meetings these two people over here will start talking, then these three, and so on? What happens to the meeting? It grinds to a halt. Usually, people are either A) exchanging thoughts that would be helpful to the whole group, or B) talking about things that have nothing to do with the meeting, a symptom that the meeting is off track. In either case, they are not contributing to the group. For the sake of everyone else in the meeting, the facilitator must politely interrupt any side conversations. If you feel the need for one, decide what it is that you want to tell the group: either information helpful to the discussion, or your concern that the meeting has gotten off track.
  • No phone calls, e-mailing, texting, or instant messaging—During team meetings, your teammates deserve your full attention and energy. Any other business can wait an hour.
  • One subject at a time—If a new subject comes up, write it down for discussion later if it is not on the agenda already.
  • No backtracking—This does not mean you can never revisit an old issue. Once a decision is made, do not let someone go back to it unless there is a compelling reason, like they realized the decision violated a company policy or they have new facts.
  • No decision without an action—Every decision must end with an action item (see “Create Action Items”). Even if the decision is to not make the decision, there is almost always someone who must be informed unless they are in the room at the time.
  • Understand before you decide—This is based on one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.[17] Really listen to other people before you speak, and ask questions if you do not understand their position. Otherwise, attacking it will probably waste time and certainly cause ill will.
  • Silence or absence means consensus—In other words, team meetings are the only proper time and place for negative discussions of team issues. If you do not speak up in the meeting, you give up the right to complain. Introverts need only ask for time to think about the decision before final approval. In that case, postpone approval to later in the meeting, or to the next meeting if possible.

As for the absence part, you will never accomplish anything if you are constantly waiting for so-and-so to be there, because there will always be a “so-and-so” missing. It is okay to delay noncritical decisions to get information from an expert. But at some point, you have to move on. If you are the person not at a meeting when a decision is made, you need to support whatever the team decides unless, again, you have a compelling reason to backtrack.

Action

  1. Ask if the team can agree to follow the rules in the section above on a trial basis.
  2. If there are major objections to any of the rules, negotiate a change that will make the rule acceptable. Remind the team it is only trying these rules for now, and will have a chance to change them after seeing how they work for it.
  3. Ask if anyone knows another meeting time-waster that should be addressed.
  4. If so, negotiate a rule to address it.
  5. If the trainer does not wish to be the facilitator outside of the training sessions, the team should choose someone to fill that role for the next regular meeting. This does not mean they will be in the role permanently. Later the team will decide whether to rotate it.

Maximum: 45 minutes.

Running the Meeting

Start on Time

  • After the first meeting begins the way your company’s meetings usually start, make sure meetings start or re‑start (after breaks) on time—two participants will comprise a quorum. Otherwise you waste the time of people who show up on time, and of those who have to leave on time because of other appointments. If people are tardy, the “absence equals consensus” rule kicks in.
  • If participants in team meetings often have trouble arriving on time, have the group develop a fun punishment for latecomers.

Enforce the Rules

  • Do not be afraid to interrupt (politely) if necessary.
  • Use humor to reduce tension.

Follow the Agenda

Stay close to the agenda:

  • If someone starts talking about an item further down the agenda, or tries to reopen a closed topic, gently bring them back to the current topic.
  • If they talk about something not on the agenda, mark off a section of the board, label it the “Parking Lot,” and add their topic there. (This is addressed below.)
  • Follow the agenda, but do not be a slave to it. Listen to the group and adjust your meeting process to suit the members. If they insist on breaking a rule, help them change the rule. If the group does not want to follow your way of doing something, adapt.

Use the Board

Use the board or flip charts frequently:

  • Guidelines:
    • Write bigger and more carefully than you think necessary.
    • Ask permission before editing or combining statements.
    • Before leaving a statement, ask the speaker if it reflects what the speaker said.
    • Use different colors for different types of statements, categories, lists, etc.
  • Things you should always write:
    • Definitions of terms, issues, or problems if there appears to be any question about them.
    • Ideas during brainstorming.
    • Agreements to change documented plans or the Team Charter.
    • Off-agenda issues for later discussion in the Parking Lot, as mentioned above.

Build Consensus

A goal of the facilitator is to create consensus decisions. To build consensus during a meeting:

  • Make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate.
  • Ensure understanding through active listening:
    • Keep your eyes on each speaker.
    • Nod, smile, and make brief comments to show you are listening.
    • Focus your thoughts on what each speaker says: do not allow your mind to wander or start forming a response before the speaker is finished.
    • Make sure you (and the group) understand what each speaker says; if there is any question, repeat back what the speaker said using your own words and ask if that is correct.
  • Watch body language: Challenge participants who are speaking with their bodies but not their voices.
  • Encourage compromise:
    • If the group gets locked into disagreement on an issue, state the points on which there are agreement.
    • Propose compromise positions even if you do not think the team will go for them, to stimulate new ideas.
  • Remind people their decisions are not “written in stone”—If a particular solution does not work, or if new facts come up, the group can revisit the issue.
  • Look for missing information—Sometimes agreement cannot be reached because the group does not have all the information it needs. Listen to the team’s language, especially for the word “if.” That may indicate a need for more information, or that the team is trying to make a decision too soon. In either case:
    • Postpone the decision if possible.
    • Create an action item (see below) for someone to get the needed information before the next meeting.
  • When a decision appears made:
    • Restate or write it up.
    • Ask if everyone supports it.
    • On bigger decisions, ask for at least a head nod from each member.
    • If someone refuses, ask, “What must change for you to support this solution?”
  • If necessary, use one of the formal techniques under “Decision-Making” in the “Troubleshooting” section.

Create Action Items

After each decision is made, ask what action should result due to that decision—every decision must lead to an action.

Each action item must include:

  • Task—What must be done, using words specific or measurable enough that everyone will be able to agree that it is “done.”
  • Responsible Person—An individual agreeing to perform the work or lead a subteam to do so. If one person has special expertise, or an interest in trying something new, he or she can volunteer or be nominated. If the job is too big for one person or will benefit from several perspectives, the champion should ask for volunteers to serve on a subteam. If someone is nominated who feels overloaded already—especially if they are already taking on other action items—it is okay to say so and perhaps serve as an information source or be on a subteam but not lead it.
  • Due Date—Have the responsible person set a realistic due date immediately.

Do not allow the person to set the deadline later. Have them set a date they are positive they can get the action done by; they can always get it done earlier or reset it to an earlier date. Nothing will kill your enthusiasm faster than constantly missing deadlines because they were not possible. If anyone on the team feels the proposed deadline will prevent other work from being achieved on time, that person should speak up.

Try to assure that task loads are balanced among participants, allowing for differences in workload and expertise.

To ensure items are addressed, create a single list of them. Using a spreadsheet or other program that can sort the items by date helps. Each facilitator should review past action items each time he or she creates an agenda. After an item is due, include it under “Old Issues.”

Action

  1. Discuss whether and why you think the following statement is true: “Setting and following up on action items may be the single most important change you can make in your meetings to increase their usefulness.”
  2. Decide which method the team will use to track action items, such as a shared team calendar or a spreadsheet, and where it will be posted.

Maximum: 10 minutes.

Take Breaks

For longer meetings, break every 60 to 90 minutes, even if it means interrupting a good discussion. A good rule-of-thumb is to have each break last five minutes for every 30 minutes elapsed since the meeting start or the last break. (For example, if an hour has passed, break for 10 minutes.) Never go more than four hours of meeting and break time without a meal break of at least an hour.

Clear the Parking Lot

If you complete the agenda topics with time left, address any Parking Lot issues. Any you cannot complete within the scheduled time should become “New Issues” in the next meeting.

End on Time

Build respect for your starting times by respecting your ending times. If an issue is being discussed five minutes before the end of the scheduled meeting time, interrupt and ask if the discussion can wait till the next meeting. Extend the meeting only through consensus; if a vote on adjournment appears required, or if some members have to leave, end the meeting on time.

Tell participants:

  • When to expect to see the meeting notes and how they will be distributed.
  • When and where the next meeting will take place, if not on a regular schedule.
  • If you are a team member reading this section prior to the start of team training, you may stop here.
  • If as a team you have started training and were performing the action boxes in this section, skip to “Charter and Mission.”

Preparation | Team Training


[1] Perhaps the best way to explain that last idea is to give you the words of a “Founding Father” of the United States, Benjamin Franklin. On July 2, 1776, as he signed the Declaration of Independence that started the American Revolution, he told the group: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Now that is mutual accountability!

[2] Katzenbach & Smith 1993.

[3] For the same reason, the site uses few contractions. The use of “do not” instead of “don’t” may seem stilted for native English speakers, but is easier for non-native speakers to understand.

[4] Tuckman 1965.

[5] Wheelan 1994; Hackman & Katz 2010.

[6] Hackman & Katz 2010.

[7] Donnellon 1996. Unless otherwise noted, everything in quote marks under this topic are from this source.

[8] There was a great, true story in an academic journal about this years ago. It was a hot afternoon in small-town Texas, but with a fan going on the back porch, a quiet dominoes game, and some lemonade, the day was tolerable for the family. Then the father-in-law suggested they drive into the nearest city for dinner. “What?” the article’s author thought. Drive 53 miles to Abilene, through a dust storm and 106-degree heat, in a 16-year-old Buick without air conditioning? But everyone else says it is a great idea, so the author says, “Sounds good to me.” Of course, by the time the trip was over four hours later, no one was happy, and it came out that everyone had hated the idea from the start—even the father-in-law, who said he suggested it only because he thought everyone else might be bored. In other words, everyone “just said I wanted to go because you did.” The author, a business professor, coined the term “the Abilene Paradox” to show that agreement can be as harmful as conflict (see Harvey 1974).

[9] Phil Jackson, the great professional basketball coach, proved this early in his career. He took over a minor league team in 1982 which in the previous year had lost twice as many games as it had won. He did something radical: he arranged for everyone on the team to be paid exactly the same, and started playing everyone, from stars to benchwarmers, the exact same amount of time for the first 32 minutes of the game. In the last eight minutes, he put in only the players who were playing best that day. Using that system, the team eventually won the league championship (Jackson 1995).

[10] Based on information in Parker 1994, Skopec & Smith 1997, and Tubbs 1988.

[11] McDermott, Brawley & Waite 1998.

[12] De Dreu & Weingart 2003.

[13] Rosen 1989.

[14] Yetton & Bottger 1982.

[15] Rogelberg, et al. 2006.

[16] This section is condensed from the student guide for a half-day facilitation course offered by TeamTrainers. The company recommends that all teams get formal training from somewhere to learn more detailed information and practice in a no-stress environment.

[17] Covey 1990.