Canadian HR Reporter
Dec 1, 2018

Fixing clarity to strengthen commitment

Three SCNetwork members discuss Alex Vincent’s presentation on teams

Note: This commentary is in response to the following article: Building an exceptional team

Jan van der Hoop: The opening statistics grab your attention. Fully 80 per cent of teams in a wide cross-section of industries and company sizes are mediocre or weak, performing at five-tenths or less.

Over 90 per cent believe that high-performing teams are critical to an organization’s success; just over 20 per cent would say any of their teams are high performing.

But it’s not for a lack of effort; there’s a whole lot of activity going on — just not always in the right direction. My boss used a metaphor that is appropriate here — a 50-watt light bulb will light a room because that energy is diffused in every direction; a 50-watt laser will cut through things because that same amount of energy is aligned and tightly focused.

Alex Vincent’s prescription is deceptive in its apparent simplicity: It boils down to clarity and commitment (and if you fix clarity, it goes a long way to strengthening commitment).

Clarity takes a lot of work, and it’s the “slow down so you can speed up” kind of work that’s an investment in time and effort today for possible returns in the future.

Over the course of my career, that sort of investment has taken many forms, from thoughtful orientation and onboarding programs, to company events that were heavy on “context” (with competitive and market updates, evolving strategies to address them, cascading objectives with clear line-of-sight, and whole-team incentives).

I’ve been fortunate to work at organizations that did it right, but in today’s remote work environments — where project teams are thrust together from across time zones to address a problem, and then disbanded — the clarity challenges are greater than ever.

Paul Pittman: I have to say, I have always found “team performance improvement” to be one of those creative consulting solutions looking for a problem, and while Vincent did his best to dispel that notion, it was no epiphany, at least for me. Most of the presentation was spent addressing observed challenges that related to individual behaviour that should have been revealed elsewhere, and individual coaching.

A second question mark for me is about homogenizing teams because they are used for different purposes in different organizations: a systematic event for improving the next app in a tech organization, process improvement in a manufacturing context, obstacle resolution, professional development. Teams are an inherent part of the value chain in some organizations and in others unblock one-time barriers to value.

Companies will select team members accordingly, and projects of critical importance are going to attract (or demand) high-potentials who will increase the prospect of success. Process improvement is likely to be incremental, perhaps just as important but less “breakthrough.” Which would you rather work on? 

So, assessing team performance is relative and expectations must be clearly defined, and I have to say that a numeric indicator, as was constantly referred to, without context is misleading.

A good team manager will provide context, and pick skills and personalities to fulfill a mandate. Others will usually determine its success. If the team is not delivering on expectations, it will be disbanded or the manager replaced — it’s a team, so it’s temporary, not a permanent function. That’s why many organizations place important challenges in teams rather than departments.

I fail to see how inserting an external (to the company) facilitator into what is essentially an internal application, notwithstanding the cost, is going to resolve a team problem fast enough or effectively.

Team values need to align with broader organizational goals and if teams do not fundamentally embrace those goals, then that is a poor selection decision and will result in an equally poor result.

Sandi Channing: My first experience working within a team was completing projects at a school level. Sometimes, the group would just meld together and the experience would be magical — with support, commitment and equal levels of participation.

More often, the opposite would occur and team members would not get along or do what they were tasked. This led to greater frustration and less productivity. Although there was clarity around the goal, the groups underestimated the importance of effective collaboration, conflict resolution, and a strong team culture.

Fast forward to today, and many of us now have the skills to be effective team members but still 80 per cent of us are on teams providing mediocre results. According to Vincent, fixing the clarity will increase commitment, resulting in improved results. I’m not sure it’s that simple.   

Overall, his research provides a strong convincing argument, but does it go deep enough? The key building blocks he describes are important components to driving improved performance, but what’s missing for me is the importance of time and fit, which should not be underestimated or overlooked.

Team members are often expected to join together based on technical expertise required for the project at hand. Initially there is no team — just individuals. They need to get to know each other, establish roles and learn how to problem-solve jointly.  Over time, trust, respect and support develop and members spend their energy on collective goals instead of individual goals. Teams take time to develop and become effective — clarity can help but can’t replace this process.

Clarity, commitment, communication and collaboration — challenges for any team and, as Jan stated, increased for virtual teams. Where possible, consistency in team members would help overcome some of these challenges. This is not to say teams should remain static but perhaps keeping chunks of teams together for various projects and ensuring team fit for the new members would increase performance.

Research on the impact members’ tenure and meeting frequency have on team success would have been interesting.

Van der Hoop: So, are we back to the old fundamental truth again, that the potential of an organization is predetermined by the nature of its relationships and the quality of its conversations?

My sense is that’s a lesson hard-learned and even harder-applied in an ever-accelerating, increasingly transactional (tasks as well as relationships) business reality.

How to break the cycle? I don’t think it’s another gizmo, app, tool or training program. What needs to shift in order for people to trust that if they focus on the relationship and the conversation first, before the task, that the tasks actually generally get done better, with less effort and stress? Is it purely a question of leadership? What’s HR’s role?

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