In engineering we have these heroic visions of a lone wolf like Tony Stark working day and night in isolation to unleash the next great technological advancement (…though Thanos might not see it this way).  In reality, anything that is cutting edge these days requires diverse teams with a variety of skill sets.  Doubly so when we get into human-centric design (and we should always be designing for the human). 

We’ve all experienced projects where the results were greater than the sum of the people working on them – and projects where the results were less.  Yet project management often overlooks how the team works. 

Most high-level project planning is based around broad resource/expertise types.  While this is a necessary part of the early planning process, it misses how those people will work together.  You can’t expect to throw a mechanical engineer, software engineer, and electrical engineer at a project and find immediate success.  First, they have to learn how to work together as a team.

So how can you solve the team problem as plan your projects?  There are 4 important factors:  time, trust, networks, and purpose.

Time

Teams take time to gel – something no one likes because there is no easy way around it.  Sure, sometimes we get lucky and a new group completely comes together quickly, but Glenn Parker, a worldwide expert on teams, shows in his research that it usually takes 6-9 months to form a team. 

Think back to a time when a new person started on your team.  If they were experienced and a professional, you were probably able to work with them right away.  Now think about 6-12 months later, maybe after living through one of those projects that increases your grey hair count – at that point, you know their tendencies, habits, strengths, and weaknesses, and they know the same about you. 

This deep understanding allows the team to be much better at managing risk, dividing work, and planning for success.  It’s a lot like when a basketball team starts to understand each player’s strengths, or an orchestra gets its timing just right.  There are ways to speed it up, but it always takes time.

Trust

Trust between team members is important for a team’s effectiveness, and it is the responsibility of the organization to create an environment that enables that trust. 

At Treetown Tech we create trust through our values of open communication, winning as a team, and encouraging constructive conflict (rather than running from it).  This kills the type of inner-company politics that causes a team to be distracted by infighting rather than focusing on delighting customers.

Without a company’s leadership creating a trust-building environment, teams will either rally behind (bad) politics and not the greater goal, or team members will go into lone-wolf mode.  As Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fisher-Wright say in Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, trust makes the difference between “I am great (and therefore you are not)” and “we are great.”

Networks

The more connections a person has within the company the quicker cohesive teams can form and then re-form.

Rarely do you end up working on only one team – and most people are simultaneously part of several teams (especially in startups!!).  Leveraging the research performed by Logan, King, and Fisher-Wright, we have found that forming triad groups, vs. the more traditional boss-subordinate reporting structure, helps to build a cohesive team among the whole company, and that greatly speeds up the process of forming new project teams.

In addition to the triad structure, we also use company-wide processes to build and reinforce networks among our staff.  All Treetown team members get at least high-level exposure to all current projects through a full team project standup review several times per week.  And our company goals and values are derived from the whole team, not just the leadership group.  The net result is a common team vision and value set that quickly translates to all project teams. 

Purpose

None of this matters much if you can’t help steer the ship in some sort of way.  Years ago, I used to do work with a big automotive company.  This company had a process of running shadow teams that didn’t know about each other, but they were working on same goal.  When I first experienced this, I thought it was a rather innovative business strategy as it gave you more chances at success (at a high price).  In practice, however, the result was often demoralization of the team that learned they were just the backup option.  Even a highly functioning team will eventually dissolve if what they are working on doesn’t collectively matter to the mission.

As a Michigan Football fan, it took some effort not to start this post with Bo Schembechler’s famous quote about the importance of the team (…almost as much effort as it takes to keep up such football arrogance in the face of so much mediocracy…. almost).

But I can end with it….

“The Team. The Team. The Team.”