The Birthday Cake

I was talking to someone the other day who works from time to time on photo shoots. She described the personalities – generic not specific – of the participants: the photographer, the money (the client for whom the photos are being taken), wardrobe, make-up, hair, oh and the model. Each person a large personality who feels that they have a stake in the success. She said that when she first started participating in photo shoots, it took her a while to learn who had to be happy with her work (answer: the photographer) and who was just sharing their opinion, often in an entitled way. She described what was at stake: even if you’re not the model or the photographer, even if you don’t publish the photos or own the product being featured in the photos, the photos reflect on your portfolio of work. If the wardrobe manager or the hair stylist doesn’t do a good job, it reflects badly on your work, and diminishes you in some way. Which is why photo shoots are so dramatic and everyone has an opinion.

My mind leapt immediately to teamwork. Here is a group of people, all participating in an activity with a shared goal, with their own role to play, and whose role is influenced by the decisions of the people around them. They should function as a team. But often people are hired for shoots individually – every shoot uses a new team. And, not being students of management, they probably spend little or no time forming their team, describing the goal and each person’s role in attaining that goal, and discussing what is expected and what is unacceptable behavior. How much time and effort must be wasted by miscommunication.

On another evening, I had dinner with a friend who described a client she is working with who owns a small business. When my friend first started working with her, the client had access to a lot of money and told my friend, pretty directly, that she wasn’t interested in being “the boss” – and it showed in her business results. Now things have shifted for that client, the independent funds she had access to have dried up, and the success of her business has a direct impact on the funds she has to support her life. Suddenly she has a new interest in leadership and is looking at her team differently.

When we come together as a team, a few things are important:

  • Having a leader, whose role it is to describe the desired outcome and help the team members measure whether their work moves the team towards or away from that outcome; to rally resources and remove roadblocks to achieving that outcome; to build excitement about that outcome outside the team; and to be the final arbiter of whether certain decisions further or obstruct the outcome.
  • A logistics manager who makes sure the right people are present at the right time, sets immediate priorities for what work gets done when, and identifies gaps between the work that has actually been completed and the work that was supposed to have been completed by now, and who raises concerns to the leader.
  • The specialists – i.e. the other participants – who actually do the work, bringing their expertise to the project to achieve the team’s goal.

Depending on the scale of the work the team is doing, these roles could be filled by one person, two people, three people, or hundreds of people. If, for example, you’re baking a birthday cake for your son’s party, you will be the one who decides (based on the known preferences of your client, your son) how big it needs to be, what flavor, and whether it should be dinosaur- or lego-themed. You will decide when to start shop and how much to spend on ingredients, when to start baking, and the order in which the decorating steps need to occur. And you’ll be stuck putting the darn thing together.

If you’re creating a building, the architect is the leader, the contractor is the manager, and there are hundreds or even thousands of workers of all kinds putting the darn thing together.

But if, like my friend’s client, you lack a leader, bad things happen.

Your son could end up with a cake with daisies on it instead of dinosaurs. Or with no cake at all because mom went crazy trying to build a three-dimensional dinosaur who would stand up and roar “happy birthday!” when little Timmy would have been just as happy with the outline of a dinosaur created by the use of a dinosaur cookie-cutter if it meant the cake actually showed up at his party and mommy wasn’t crabby from staying up all night doing unnecessary work.

If you lack a strong logistics coordinator, you could know exactly what cake you need to make, but keep having to run back to the store to get ingredients because you didn’t make a good list to begin with. You could start baking an hour before the party, which doesn’t leave time for the cake to cool before decorating, to say nothing of the time for doing the decorating itself.

And if you lack experts, you could know exactly what cake you want to make, organize the heck of out the preparation, and stand the with flour all over the kitchen and sticky hands on your head, staring at a lumpy mess, wondering why you thought you could do this.

Or your skyscraper could end up running billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, with a ton of changes that people thought were good ideas when they saw what was possible; or deliveries are late and the painters show up before the walls are up; or you don’t have any electricians.

All because your team isn’t functioning as a team.

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