Creating the Capacity for Teamwork in Real Time

Much of what we accomplish in organizations is reliant upon the close, collaborative mode of interaction we associate with teamwork. At its peak, teamwork aligns and connects the skills, knowledge, and goal-directed drive of several to yield a powerful summing effect in problem solving and performance. So enhancing the firm's capacity for teamwork should be among our leaders' highest priorities, right?

Why is it, then, that research tells us that most teams don't get beyond the "storming" stage? It cannot be because people prefer functioning in fits and starts. Not only is that a costly and frustrating way to do our work, we know it is avoidable - after all there are many examples of high functioning teams. We propose that the solution is sustained attention to the relational dynamics that enable collaboration, conflict resolution, and adaptive action.

Most importantly, we believe that fixing this problem is something management can do if they make it a priority. We offer some guidance on how to do that, and we encourage you to try it with at least one important initiative early in 2016. Persistence is a key, but so is understanding your role in this effort.

Sizing up the issues

Some organizations are actually pretty good about taking care at the initial stage of team formation. They select team members thoughtfully based on the complementary skills and experience they offer. Goals and expectations are clearly specified, and teams are given sufficient flexibility in determining how to reach their goals. They may even be given support for a kick-off meeting to encourage bonding among team members.

All of that is good. But what happens after the early days have passed, as they enter the "storming" phase and encounter the inevitable differences that arise and cause conflict, defensiveness, andresistance? Have these predictable issues been discussed? Is management able to notice these dynamics? Are they available as a sounding board and resource for problem solving these issues?

You may answer that wrestling with these issues is an essential part of the learning and development process for team members. True. Were management to "babysit" the team and rescue them from these challenges they may convey a lack confidence in the team to do it themselves. True again. Nevertheless, there is a role for management.

Two dimensions of teamwork

Since we cannot address every possible scenario in which teamwork is used as an approach to getting things done, I shall focus on time-limited project teams. Such groups are used to drive innovation, improve quality, and address a host of other business issues that benefit from a combination of complementary skills and perspectives, i.e. teamwork. Often the problems or opportunities they address have systemic causes and implications.

There are established disciplines for guiding the task-oriented aspects of this work. Six Sigma and Lean are two very familiar methodologies that involve a highly structured set of practices and operating principles. See also the 90-day cycle for evaluating innovation ideas used by Procter & Gamble (Connect and Develop, Huston & Sakkab, HBR, March, 2006). In any case, it is not the task-oriented aspect of structure and process that I will address.

Rather, what I offer is some advice for forming, developing, and maintaining the dynamics of interaction that enable high levels of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. My advice addresses the "soft technology" of teamwork, i.e., group dynamics. It is intended as guidance for management concerning their role in the launch and oversight of teamwork. 

Basics of forming a project team

We shall assume that management has a clear purpose and goal in mind, something that merits the significant investment of time and effort that teamwork requires. It is not unusual for project team members to allocate 5-8 hours a week (or more) to the project. Clarity about expected time commitments is very important. Team members are typically inclined to err in the direction of over-investing in the project. This is an important reality check!

Decisions on the composition of project teams should be weighted to take into account two kinds of purposes: 1) quality and timeliness of the work product; and 2) development of the people involved. If there is a high weight on the first criterion, you will probably want to take less risk in assigning people without a rather high level of established competence in the key skill areas. Doing this regularly, however, does little to develop and expand your talent pool. 

Of course, the more dynamic aspect of team formation arises from the interaction between team members. You may be familiar with the Tuckman Model of team development (forming-storming-norming-performing). It is valid! Each stage of development is vital and builds upon its prior stage. This is true at the outset and when recycling the steps, which also happens. Setting expectations for this kind of developmental journey is another key reality check.

The dynamics of getting started

The more dynamic element of forming ensues when management leaves the room. The team is now going to be further elaborating and specifying the purpose, goals, and expectations that were communicated to them by management. At its best, this step in the process enables the group to begin internalizing and owning their mission and goals. That's important. And it's not as easy as it sounds.

There's a formality and tentativeness that usually prevails in this initial stage of team development. Members are focused on three objectives: 1) Objectively, they are seeking to frame the challenge, express their views, and achieve a shared sense of direction. 2) Subjectively, they are striving to establish their position, credibility, and influence. 3) Inter-subjectively, they are seeking to gain a sense of connection, cohesion, and significance as members. 

The energies, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that express these strivings are complex, often conflicting, and usually not operating under the control of optimal self and other awareness. Indeed, as tense feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration build, many or most of them go unspoken. Still, they assert their influence beneath a brittle and superficial pretense of harmony. Storming manifests when the pressure seals that contain this unexpressed emotion begin to breakdown.

Members begin to express their differences, exchange verbal and nonverbal appraisals of one another, and give and receive feedback. No matter how much they are told that this jockeying is normal, they seldom find it comfortable, especially when they are engaging with co-workers they do not know well. Management should expect some inefficiency as these dynamics are getting worked out. They also must recognize when the team is stuck with storming issues.

One good reason to have a faciliator available (internal or external) from the outset is to be available to help out with these early stages of forming and storming. Peer relations are notoriously more competitive and complicated than subordinate-boss relationships. If you picked ambitious, achievement-oriented people, be ready for some friction. Pay attention to their attitudes, emotions, and behavior. Share your observations of what seems problematic, what you expect, and what needs to change. Also, express confidence that they will resolve these developmental issues.

As the team works through their differences internally and receives constructive feedback on their progress and performance from management, functional norms (and accountability to them) begin to manifest. Sustaining the disciplines of candor, timely issue resolution, and attention to building an enduring sense of cohesion - we're in it together - is critical to reinforcing the norms and advancing into the performing stage. Since research indicates that many teams struggle to get beyond the storming stage, complacency should not be indulged.

Cohesion and productivity build

When adequate attention is given to these dynamics, common ground (norming) should begin to emerge within the first 3-4 weeks. A consensus view of the team's task, issues, and a path forward should be taking shape. Increasing levels of mutual respect and appreciation for differences should be evidenced in the give-and-take of group discussions. Readiness to delimit the focus of action and divide the workload reflect a capacity to reach agreement and make decisions as a team.

Advancing into the performing stage is marked by the adaptive and productive application of established norms and a growing sense of cohesion. Robust relationships and the relational dynamics fundamental to sustainable performance distinguish the mature team. This maturity is perhaps most manifest in the team's capacity to repair ruptures in relationships and to persevere and bounce back in tough times (resilience).

Should there be formal reviews of progress at 30-day intervals (something I recommend), you can expect that this will induce some anxiety, perhaps a fresh wave of storming. These review points are not only good opportunities to do alignment checks on substantive work content, they constructively challenge the team to takes its collaboration skills to the next level. They must learn to cope as a collective with performance anxiety.

This should be a diagnostic moment for management and team members. For management the question is "How are they doing and what do they need from us, i.e. feedback, encouragement, course correction on task?" For team members the question is, "How are we doing, how is this feeling, where is my anxiety coming from, and what am I doing that helps/hinders team dynamics?" It can be difficult to do this kind of self-appraisal and translate the resultant insights into further development action without a facilitator's help.

Evaluating outcomes

Good work reflects intellectual rigor, practical savvy, and prudent judgment. Management may or may not get what they hoped from a project team in terms of desired growth opportunities or cost savings.  A Six Sigma initiative may not fully deliver the cycle-time improvements management wanted. The questions for management are did they get quality work from the team, and does the team have capabilities for teamwork now they did not have before? 

The demonstrated capacity to deliver a good piece of work usually indicates that people have been able to adaptively develop their teamwork skills. It also means that they will be even more capable of performing teamwork the next time around - that is, if you reinforce and sustain these capabilities by reassigning them to this kind of work with some regularity. It should also be expected that they will carry over and apply what they learned to their regular work groups.

So, why would you not want to use team-based work as a means of increasing productivity and developing the collective capacity for collaboration? If it is to serve a development purpose, the project must be of a certain kind. If, on the one hand, it is not sufficiently challenging it may not create enough stretch to stimulate development. On the hand, if it is too challenging or time-pressured, the work may not be amenable to learning and development. As rule of thumb, I recommend that you target projects of 4-6 months in duration initially.


Very seldom do senior mangers who play an active, effective sponsoring role in promoting teamwork of this kind not learn something themselves. They also benefit from some consultation and support, mostly in service of anticipating what to look for and how to respond. With some rather simple and timely prompting of this kind, senior managers are better able to make judgments about when and how they should intervene.

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As always, I welcome your questions.