In ancient mythologies from around the world, it’s common to find gods and monsters bearing multiple heads, and such beings are depicted as formidable and difficult to defeat. It turns out the ancient people were not just creative; they had good business sense too.
We have, since the days of yore, managed to harness electricity, mechanize and automate equipment, develop mass production, and build a global network of communication. But an important truth has remained: When trying to get something done, many heads are better than one.
Since we’re merely people and not magical creatures, we must add heads a simpler way … through teamwork. Whether you’re tasked with developing viable products, improving operational efficiency or manufacturing output, or increasing revenue, you’ll get better results from teamwork than you will from going it alone.
Unlike the Hydra, the multi-headed serpent of Greek mythology, however, human team members don’t share a collective consciousness. This is actually a good thing, but it takes a bit of work to get such a team operating at maximum effectiveness.
The Hydra might have a head start (pun intended) on a team of regular old human beings, thanks to its single-minded focus, but once a team of humans gets in sync, they can achieve surprising and amazing things. And the most effective, high-functioning teams engage in the following practices:
1. Flattening the Hierarchy
When a single team leader makes all the decisions, delegates the work, and holds others accountable, it’s not really a team; it’s a work group with a supervisor and subordinates. On a true team, it may help to have a designated facilitator, but goals should be shared and agreed upon by achieving a consensus using a good decision making tool or process. Ultimately, the team as a whole must agree on the norms for communication, decision making, and accountability.
Rather than one member telling the rest what to do, an effective team will determine together what needs to be done, when it needs to be completed, and the desired outcome. Let the person handling the specific task choose the work method (while leaving the option open for input from others if that team member is looking for some ideas or support).
Also, different people offer different strengths and have different limitations. Instead of, for example, dividing 10 tasks across five team members by randomly assigning two tasks to each member, let people volunteer to take on the ones that interest them. The conversation itself will help the team discover what component might have been overlooked. If no one volunteers for a task, it could be a sign that the task isn’t really necessary. Or it could mean that the team make up has not been optimized. Which leads us to…
2. Embracing Diversity
Whenever you gather a collection of like-minded “experts” with similar backgrounds and experiences in a room, you are likely to achieve rapid consensus and focused decisions (there’s that Hydra rearing its ugly, er, heads again). The problem is that you often end up with predictable, safe, uncreative results based on precedent rather than forward-seeing vision.
On the other hand, when you bring together people of diverse backgrounds who have a wide variety of experiences, communication styles, and problems-solving approaches, you generate new perspectives and creative energy, with the outcome being ideas that no individual or homogenous group could have conceived alone. Everyone benefits from learning and can take those experiences to other groups and teams, further diversifying your thought leadership potential as an organization.
The critical mentality required for building diverse teams is one of open-mindedness, where everyone understands that no single approach is always best. Everyone’s experiences and perspectives should be seen as valuable. Perhaps you’re thinking, “But this will inevitably lead to conflict.”
3. Leveraging Positive Conflict
People bring a variety of personal work styles to a business setting. When working in silos, we tend to deploy our own style to make decisions, manage priorities, and exchange business information. Maybe we grumble once in a while about a stakeholder in another department who does things differently, but most often we hunker down and get our work done in the way that makes us comfortable.
When people are thrown together onto a team, however, a clash of styles can occur. Some members may be deliberative and process-minded, whereas others are likely to be intuitive and spontaneous. Some might want to focus on brainstorming and big-picture strategy, while others are inclined toward building relationships and fostering collaboration.
Yes, these varying approaches can cause conflict within the group. But properly facilitated and leveraged, such conflict helps broaden possibilities and engenders creativity. Once individual team members learn to understand and respect each other’s styles, discussions and disagreements can open doors and (there’s a recurring theme here) enable the team to develop solutions that no individual could have arrived at alone.
Team builders will probably need to gain buy-in from skeptical members to some of the ideas discussed above. Once everyone is on board, however, they will discover that effective teams are not just some mythological fantasy. High-performing teams can do great things for an organization and are even more unstoppable than a multi-headed dragon.
George Brough is currently the Vice President, Organizational Development Services at Caliper. He has over 25 years of experience in helping leading international companies as well as developing and selling development and training solutions for the U.S., European, and South American markets. Prior to joining Caliper, George was Director of Coastal do Brazil, the Latin American arm of Coastal Training Technologies one of the world’s leading producers of training programs and e-learning.