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Why Your Teams Don't Get Anything Done

In too many organizations, teams are either taken for granted or aren’t seen as being that important in the bigger scheme.

A lot has been written about teamwork and the importance of collaborative work. You’d think we’d be better at it by now. I’ve found that true teamwork, in which team members work together in a spirited way to get new and exciting things done, is infrequent.

Let me define what I mean by “team.” I view any group that gets together on a regular schedule to make decisions and get things done as a team. The Monday morning production meeting is a team. The Lean Initiative Steering Committee is a team. The Management Review that your ISO plan calls for is a team. And, of course that team that’s charged with selecting and implementing the new ERP system…that’s a team, too.

Too many of the teams I see suffer from the following problems:

  • The team isn’t quite sure just what it is it’s supposed to do because goals, directions, targets and metrics for performance aren’t made clear;
  • The organization doesn’t give real authority to teams or hold them accountable for results;
  • Team members protect own agendas, information, and “territory” to the detriment of mutual progress.

These issues aren’t easily addressed but they are surmountable with a modicum of effort. Organizations don’t make this effort because teams are either taken for granted or aren’t seen as being that important in the bigger scheme.

Taking Teamwork for Granted

I’ve come to believe that most leaders expect that good things will happen when they simply gather a few folks around a table and talk things through, that good intentions and the willingness to show up to meetings on time are all that’s need to produce good results. The same leaders, who would see the need for planning of any capital or IT project, see no particular need for the same planning and devotion of resources to effective teamwork.

A team that I work with is developing a large grant proposal. Once the grant is approved, the same team will be responsible for administering the project. That team is already thinking and planning as to how it might build more cohesiveness and mutual trust. The team members understand that they’ll need the solid foundation that early attention to teambuilding provides.

In addition, too often teams don’t use proven team decision and consensus building techniques. For example, everybody knows about good old brainstorming. Yet, I’ve rarely seen it used except in cases where I suggest it. Process maps, decision matrices, affinity diagramming, and structured problem solving, e.g. DMAIC or 8D? When was the last time you heard about the use of any of these methods in your organization? Even the use of simple agendas to organize discussion is infrequent.

These methods always work. It takes time and resources to teach them and more time and energy to assure that teams actually use them. But they always work. All sports teams learn and practice the elemental tactics of their sports. In the same way, all organization teams need to be taught and practice the elemental methods of collaborative goal setting, problem solving and decision making.

Teams Not Seen As Important

Don’t start teams that you can’t keep track of and keep track of the teams that you do put into motion.

Do you have team meetings that suffer from attendance or poor follow through on the part of members? Both are indications that teams aren’t really viewed as important to the organization’s success. I worked with an organization in which a number of teams had been established but were floundering. When organization leaders were asked just what the teams were working on, the most common answer was, “We’re not really quite sure.” I’ve worked with other organizations in which the teams had a (more or less) clear direction but the teams weren’t really held accountable for getting anything done.

What happens in your organization when an important team member develops a pattern of missing meetings or poor follow through? Does that behavior generate a closed door discussion with leadership or an “improvement opportunity” on that team member’s next performance review? I talked recently with a vice president who was beginning to have a problem with team members simply ignoring team assignments. His approach was to call the well-paid, upper level managers aside, ask them about the causes of their performance deficits with respect to team responsibilities and what their improvement plans looked like. The managers’ team performance improved.

This was a straightforward case for that vice president. He could see, first hand, that his team members weren’t taking the team seriously. It’s more difficult to show the same attention to teams not in a manager’s immediate purview. The answer is: Don’t start teams that you can’t keep track of and keep track of the teams that you do put into motion. It’s just that straightforward.

We all spend a lot of our work time in team meetings of one sort or another. Assuring that the time adds value to the organization requires that energy and resources be devoted to assuring team success.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. Bohan has a bachelor of arts in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master of science in organizational development from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He has published articles in National Productivity Review, Quality Progress and ASTD's Training and Development Journal. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference, Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance. Bohan can be reached at [email protected].

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