Building Teams That Are More Than The Sum Of Their Parts

I love that silly old joke about the driver who is lost and stops to ask a local for directions. “If I was you,” says the local “I wouldn’t start from here”.

Organisations ask a lot of their teams – “please work in this slightly unclear matrix structure while we initiate constant change, Make sure you are compliant in everything you do, while still being creative and innovative. Do more (with less). Oh – and make it all sustainable while hitting quarterly targets. You have a leader. We’ve worked out Vision, Mission and Purpose. The targets are clear. Off you go”. And when problems kick in, someone like me gets called in. I might hear that relationships are strained, team meetings are too quiet, there are unclear roles and responsibilities, the team is not achieving as much as it could. On the face of it, the issues could look like time management, communications or even personality styles but when I start to dig around and talk to team members, I find myself talking with intelligent, hard-working and well-intentioned individuals. And I might decide that they need team-building or team-bonding , or even some development workshops – but that would be starting in the wrong place, because the problem does not lie within the team – it lies in the broader system within which the team exists.

A team is a very complex place:  You know those puzzles where you are asked to count the triangles? On the face of it, there are three triangles, but they are inter-locking so, when you look closely, there are actually sixteen triangles. A team is a bit like that: on the face of it – seven members. But when you look closely there are 94 separate relationship combinations (trust me – I have counted all the pairs, trios, quartets, etc). And the strength of the team lies not in the intelligence, approach and work ethic of the individuals – but in those 94 relationships. Add into that mix the broader stakeholder picture and environmental demands – and now you have a picture of where the work needs to start.  Often the key to the team’s performance lies not within the team, but outside it, in contradictory demands, relentless pressures, constant change, increasing expectations – all pushing inwards on the team with the result that individuals work ever harder while relationships become more strained. For the individuals, we can prescribe mindfulness. For the team – systemic team coaching: a way of working with the team that is real and gritty and insightful. There are three aspects to systemic team coaching:

1) it’s ‘outside-in’ meaning that the team starts by looking at what its stakeholders want and need.

2) it’s ‘future-back’ meaning that it’s about strategically looking at what’s needed long-term, and

3) it’s ‘bottom-up’, which means that the team works as a collective to agree strategy, goals, ways of working, etc.

This ‘other’ focus allows the team to gain perspective on what is really important and to pull back from focusing on interpersonal issues. New insights, shared concerns, joint problem-solving, better understanding emerge as the team explores all areas of its stakeholder map. Very often the presenting issues evaporate to be replaced by joint projects which allow the team to move forward in unison.

Does this all sound a bit magic? Yes. Do all of the other problems go away? No. But this systemic approach gives the team a great opportunity to breathe and settle. And teams that are settled – not stressed – will always be more than the sum of their parts.

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