Inquiry & Learning for Change

But Why TeamWork?

We Need Participation, but it is Wild and Wooly

Awhile back I wrote a blog about the importance of participation in organizational work. I concluded with this paragraph:

“It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful. Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term ‘communities of practice,’ describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to ‘steward’ their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization. They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation. This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful.  Beyond ‘buy-in’ and ‘ownership,’ beyond ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up,’ even beyond ‘authorship’ true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency. That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.”

Effective Teamwork is at the Heart of Participation

There is something to be excavated here that is the bedrock underlying the question this blog addresses: but why teamwork? Some phrases stand out: a little wild and wooly, but respectful; the gathering of varied experiences and perspectives; a shared sense of purpose and shared practices; the stewarding of knowledge and skill; agency, power, efficiency, and transformation. These are the conditions and dynamics of powerful and innovative work. So what I want to explore today is the idea that effective teamwork is at its heart a necessary process to arrive at a place where all that those phrases conjure up for us can happen in a healthy and productive way.

If your image of effective teamwork is to be able to control a calm and non-conflictual space where people come together to work on a collectively well defined problem, or toward some clear and measurable outcome, in a deliberate and rational way, you may be disappointed or shocked by the actual teamwork experiences you have: it is often beyond control and far from rational. But why do we need that kind of messiness that is beyond our control? Because most problems we face are not merely technical in nature, and often neither the nature of the problem nor the nature of the solution is clear. What we really want is to guide or nurture a space where transformational work with complex problems can happen, and that requires diverse ideas and dissonance among them, conflict and the discomfort of new learning emerging, the exploration of wild places, diving into unfamiliar, even scary waters. Otherwise, what we get is no better than what we started with, mediocre at best, the same old, same old.

You need wildly divergent thinking and experiences in order to converge on new ideas or new products. The paradox is, wildness and freedom in the content of your work require structure and deliberateness in the process of your work; otherwise, what you get is wildly dysfunctional or even dangerous, and often completely unproductive. So. To do out of the box thinking requires a box to contain that work. We create deliberately structured processes to free us to do unstructured thinking, and those structured processes are the stuff of effective teamwork. But that requires letting go of the notion that you can control any of this; you and your teammates can only guide and nurture these processes.

So What Contains the Wildness?

We might categorize the “containers” for effective teamwork as conditions, knowledge, skills, habits of mind, processes, and tools. These containers do not represent a perfect system or technical fix; you can’t just adopt them wholesale. They offer guidance for your team to help you make meaning together of your work. Your collective job is to support the emergence of these containers in your practice of being a team working together. It’s hard work. Practice makes practice.

Here’s a few examples from some of my research and writing on teamwork:

Some Conditions, Knowledge, & Skills:

“The members of an effective team must be:

  • competent in both group skills and the content of the group’s work
  • diverse… [in] …ways of thinking, …kinds of expertise, …experience…

“The support for an effective team’s work must be:

  • guaranteed through structures, processes, and norms that facilitate accomplishing and critiquing the work…”

“The work of an effective team must:

  • derive from an explicit shared mission
  • have specific goals that are measurable and realistic
  • serve the needs of the larger organization
  • be interdependent, requiring all members to work together to accomplish the group’s goals.”

Some Habits of Mind:

“Effective leadership teams have beliefs, and norms of interaction, that support all their members being team players.  An example of such a norm is, ‘Members of effective teams listen actively by digging for meaning and uncovering assumptions and inferences.’”

“Effective teams have and use shared norms, structures, procedures, and team skills for their work (that is, they have created a team culture), and have developed roles that take advantage of their different individual skills, expertise, and experience to accomplish shared work.”

“Individual members take responsibility for their own learning and involvement, even though there may be a process observer and facilitator. All members are responsible for all roles, even when roles are assigned.”

Some Processes:

“Effective teams have clear structures and procedures for accomplishing their work.  Those may include assigned roles such as facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, reflector, process observer, etc.  They also include such things as a regular time to meet, and a set membership.”

  • Effective teams start on time and end on time.
  • They are clear about the scope of, and the authority they have for, their work.  
  • They meet regularly, and establish agendas collaboratively in advance of each meeting.
  • They review and revise agendas at the start of each meeting, and as necessary during meetings.  They create tentative new agendas for their next meeting before finishing each meeting.
  • They keep a public record of their work as they go, on newsprint or other large surface [now that might be a white board, or shared google docs projected on a screen], so all members can see where they are and what they have discussed and decided.
  • They have clear problem-finding, problem-exploring, and problem-solving procedures.
  • They have clear inquiry procedures.
  • They have clear information and data gathering procedures (both inside and outside the organization).
  • They have clear strategies for resource identification and use (both inside and outside the organization).

“They have clear communication procedures for use in their team work, and are clear about when each is appropriate. ‘For instance, when setting an agenda, they do not talk about possible solutions to problems that are as yet poorly defined.’ They practice active listening.  They balance advocacy with inquiry (Argyris et al., 1985). They are concise and concrete in their advocacy, bringing concrete data, evidence, to bear on their proposals. They make their statements open to critique by others. They make their reasoning explicit. They balance speaking with listening, and everyone can speak and is heard. They take turns, or keep a running tally of who is waiting to speak. They don’t ask leading questions that are really disguised advocacy. They ask open ended questions, for information or clarification, or to advance the thinking of the group. They act as critical friends, not criticizers.”

“They have clear decision-making procedures. They are aware of and use consensus procedures when appropriate; they know when to shift from one decision strategy to another. They can decide when not to decide, and when to revisit a decision. They are aware when decisions are not appropriate, and when discussion and meaning-making are more important. They know when to fish, cut bait, or swim to shore.”

They have clear conflict management and negotiation procedures.

  • They have clear ways of moving toward closure and task setting.
  • They have clear ways of identifying the skills and expertise that individual members bring to particular team tasks.
  • They are clear about assigning tasks to individuals.
  • They have clear strategies for tracking work between meetings.
  • They have clear ways of communicating with members who were not present about what happened.
  • They have clearly defined methods for critiquing their work and gathering feedback from others to aid that critique.
  • They have a clear process for guarding against “groupspeak,” jargon, and code language that sets them apart from the rest of the organization.
  • They have a clear meeting debriefing process that is inclusive.

Some Tools:

  • Team Project Definition/ Goals/ Outcome Statements
  • Team Project/ Presentation Rubrics
  • Team Member Performance Contract (agreements; accountability; consequences)
  • Team Project Management Timeline
  • Team Meeting Log Sheet
  • Team Agenda Template
  • Team Norms (working agreements)
  • Team Communication Protocols
  • Team Problem-Exploring, Problem-Analysis, Problem-Resolving, and Problem-Solving Protocols (brainstorming & clustering, data conversation protocols, ladder of inference, balancing advocacy & inquiry, fishbone root cause analysis)
  • Team Decision Making Protocols (voting & forced ranking)
  • Team Product Tuning/ Consultancy Protocols
  • Team Personal Reflection Rubric
  • Team Peer Assessment Rubric

Conditions can be developed. Knowledge, skills, and habits of mind can be cultivated and learned. The internet is full of resources for the processes and tools your team will need. The practice that it takes to make it all work together, you will have to do yourselves.

But Why Teamwork Again?

Remember the quote I started with? “It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful.” Teamwork is essential for creating that space, and effective teamwork is what makes it really hum.  A team skilled at building the right process container for their teamwork can unleash the most diversity of ideas into a wild and wooly wilderness of creative work, resulting in innovative solutions to those “wicked problems” we know lie beyond the stretch of our current realm of knowledge. Go hunting!

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