When Teams Fail

It’s almost football season again and, as a loyal Jets fan, it seems appropriate to write about failing teams. (As an optimist, I feel compelled to root for them, because it’s such a delightful surprise when they do something right. As a realist, I don’t expect them to do anything right. There’s blame enough to go around, but the one constant has been team ownership and management, and the buck stops there.)

Several years ago, I joined a business book group. It was a great idea – every couple of weeks, the members would read a business book and discuss the principles.

In practice, it didn’t work out so good for two main reasons, one having to do with the participants, and one having to do with the leader.

First, very few people actually read the books which, given my background, confused me. Why join a book group if you’re not actually going to read the books? The leader, deciding these were busy people, started distributing summaries via email ahead of time so that people could at least familiarize themselves with the concepts. But no one read the summaries. So then she started printing the summaries, handing them out as people entered the room, and setting aside five minutes at the start of the group for people to review the summaries. But they still wouldn’t read them – they’d network, check their phones… Bewildering.

The other issue was with the leader, who clearly thought that the measure of success was size. There were, I kid you not, over 30 people in the room – and she invited more to join by phone. As you can imagine, this did not lead to productive conversations.

I finally dropped out after a particularly frustrating evening where, during a discussion of Blink, one guy kept insisting that autonomous driving = thin-slicing. (Shudder.)

What had kept me hooked on this group after the first bewildering session were the books that the leader chose. The book we discussed at my first meeting was The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – a book I was intimately familiar with because we had been successfully using that model at work for many years.

Our L&D team worked with Lencioni’s Table Group to adapt his principles to the retail environment and develop a learning package that, over a series of weekly meetings, introduced the traits of effective teams and led them through exercises to practice effective communication and interpersonal skills.

What I particularly liked about the model they developed was that it wasn’t a one-and-done. During each stage, the team identified things that they wanted to perpetuate after the meetings were over, including a team goal, specifically oriented toward making the team work more effectively together. And they committed to revisiting and refreshing the goal two or three times each year.

Each store team implemented this model – they’re still using it ten years later. The district managers implemented this model, the regional VPs implemented this model, and several home office teams (Learning & Development, Loss Prevention, Store Operations, Business Development) put it into practice, with great results.

I was particularly impressed by how it transformed the work that the regional VPs were doing together. Before committing to the model, when I’d sit in on their meetings, they would bicker ceaselessly (or withdraw into their phones), and arguments would end finally with someone saying, “Fine, you do it your way and I’ll do it mine.” Not a great indicator of success in a retail organization.

For a few months after they implemented the model, I didn’t see them much. Then I came back to their meeting to present something and was struck by a noticeable difference. The machine that had stuttered and sputtered and gone up in a cloud of smoke on a regular basis was now operating full throttle. They continued to focus on operating more effectively as a team over the next few years and, despite some changes in players, they got stronger and stronger. Last year they co-developed and co-presented a new service model at the annual sales conference – despite a revolving door of leadership during the development period – something the team of ten years ago never would have been able to do.

Contrast this with other leadership teams: they don’t trust each other, they don’t communicate effectively, they don’t have a chance to voice their opinions, they don’t share common goals, and they don’t hold each other accountable for meeting those goals. Sound familiar?

Or maybe you’re more likely to recognize the symptoms than the causes. Does this sound familiar: a departmental leader has an idea that will help his area of the business. He presents it to a peer who shoots it down because that idea should fall under her department’s umbrella. He presents it to another peer, who says, “Like the idea but is this the right thing for people to be focused on right now?” Dashed but determined, he forges on, launches his program and suddenly everyone in the stores focuses on his idea to the exclusion of strategic priorities. Have you ever worked with that person? Or maybe been that person?

Or how about this: Leadership meetings are dominated by a single voice who ruthlessly cuts down anyone who gets in the way. Participants hang back, withdrawing into their phones or laptops. When people try to speak up, the voice finds fault in the minutia. Meetings last forever, extending far beyond their scheduled length, with nothing getting accomplished. No one wants to bring up new ideas or questions, or share information, because no one wants to be singled out for abuse. When the meeting ends, there is no information or direction for participants to share with their teams. In fact, when asked by their employees, they shake their heads like dogs emerging from a muddy puddle, change the subject, and just tell the team to forge ahead in their own direction. Meanwhile the voice complains that nothing ever seems to get done around here. Classic.

I’m not saying that the Lencioni model is the only model that builds teamwork – great teams existed before Lencioni studied teamwork and many operate effectively now without ever hearing about or applying his model.

I am saying that the ability to recognize and foster effective teamwork is the role of every leader. It affects the ability of the team to get things done together and keep the organization moving in a single direction.

What do you think? What have you found effective for building teamwork?

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