The American poet, Mattie Stepanek, once wrote that “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved”. A look at books and articles pondering on productivity management shows that “the difference between success and failure is a great team”. Many authors and speakers reiterate the importance of teamwork in driving productivity, yet many persons find themselves in teams where the total output is less than the summation of individual inputs. I was recently involved in a team project and feel I should discuss some of the attributes that made that team outstanding.
At Cranfield University, one of the requirements for the taught master’s programmes is the completion of a group project that lasts for about ten weeks. This group task determines twenty percent of an MSc’s worth, and must be passed else the chances of being awarded an MSc degree fly away. To form the groups, the concerned administrators try to blend persons from different MSc programmes and nationalities; the underlying idea being to get a diverse selection of strangers to work together, similar to many projects in industry. For a good number of students, this group project is their first opportunity to work with people they have not met before, and therein lies the challenge—turning a random group of individuals into a performing team.
My group consisted of five persons from three MSc programmes and four nationalities—two Nigerians, one Spanish, one French, and the final person, a blend of English and French roots. At the first group activity in the week preceding the group project, the facilitator said, “You may not agree with the ideas of other team members, but it is important to come to an agreement that you all can live with”. This advice would guide our decisions and actions, as we quickly learned that it was not about being right every time, but even when the team makes a bad move, it should be a move whose consequences all members were willing to accept.
We all took a Belbin test, which showed up an interesting trend. The Belbin test provides a glance into the composition of a team, using research conducted by Dr Meredith Belbin, a team management expert. Our individual tests showed that four of us saw ourselves as coordinators. How do you manage a team of five males where four show strong drive to be in charge? In addition to a lecture on using knowledge of Belbin roles to help teamwork, we also received some lectures on Dr Bruce Tuckman’s team development model. Tuckman listed the stages of team development as forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning at the end of the team’s task. Now we were aware of our team’s composition: five males, likely ego-driven, from different cultures, tasked to deliver a project in ten weeks, satisfying our supervisor and client, without tearing the group apart with conflict.
First, we agreed to follow the school’s recommendation to rotate the chair, secretarial and project manager positions during meetings on a fortnightly schedule. However, we resolved to do this for half of the project’s timeline, by which time we expected to have seen which role best suited each person. Whereas these roles could rotate, we agreed that the role of communication manager and editor would be fixed throughout the project. While these decisions were deliberately discussed and written, some other decisions were agreed implicitly. These non-verbal decisions included a de facto agreement that everyone would have an audience for his ideas, implying that the only stupid idea was the one not spoken.
Throughout the project, each team member played to his strengths, allowing real team synergy to be built. While one person with the input of other members would list the tasks for a week on the board during meetings, no one was assigned a task. Instead, each person was asked to pick a task, and where two persons picked the same task, they negotiated who got what. This ensured that no one felt he was being pushed around by others. One person, serving as de facto project manager ensured that after meetings, the agreed tasks, expected delivery criteria and deadlines were mailed to each team member. This “alarm clock” also ensured that during the course of each week, the progress of respective tasks was discussed via a chat group to verify that every person was heading in the expected direction. This proved worthwhile as it ensured delivered tasks did not lead to conflicts. The motivation was the acknowledgement that if everyone knew the expected deliverables and reported progress periodically, there would be limited chance of an out-of-specification deliverable that may draw the team backwards and cause resentment.
Furthermore, at the project start-up meeting, every team member was asked to say when he would be unavailable on campus, especially considering that the group project was straddling the Easter period. This ensured that in drawing up our project Gantt chart, we knew when each person would be absent from campus and we planned tasks around those absences. Each person undertook to still deliver a certain amount of work even while away. The only unplanned absence was when one member’s mom took ill and he had to fly back home. The rest of the team ensured he was not assigned any task for that week, thereby showing that we cared about issues in our personal lives.
Luckily, we had a supervising client who informed us from the start that his experience with teams showed that teams that had some amount of fun tended to be more productive. Taking this advice, we tried to have some fun despite the rigours of the group project. “Fun” ranged from a simple trip to a restaurant off-campus to have lunch, to a birthday party for one team member. When we realised we had created some slack time by delivering ahead of schedule, we considered taking a short trip outside the United Kingdom but had to scrap that thought since it was too late to get visas for the non-European members. Overall, fun activities plus “dry jokes” and comical behaviours by some members helped to create a glue for the team.
Looking back at the group project, we successfully skipped Tuckman’s second stage, storming, and moved on to become a high performance team. Not only did we beat official deadlines by setting shorter deadlines for ourselves, we delivered a report that satisfied our supervisor and the client. We did this without a single fight despite sometimes having divergent views on the way forward. Among our division of six groups, our presentation was adjudged the best in terms of design, delivery and responses to questions. This was a testament to the time we spent refining the presentation and rehearsing our delivery. We wrapped up the group project with a barbecue at a member’s house in London, adding a pat on our backs for being a great team.
Cover Image Credit: wired2succeed.com
- If you read my boast about my team, you may want to watch our presentation. Fear not! Thou shall not sleep off.