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Do you and your colleagues sometimes feel you are struggling alone to contend with a tsunami of work?  Do you feel you have to struggle along with the tasks you are given and that the burden is frequently too great, too unrealistic?  Do you feel that you are just managing to get things done to the minimum possible standard?  Do you feel there is no room for creativity or innovation under the press of current demands? As a leader, do you see signs that your teams are overwhelmed … and …. does it seem there is little you can do because you are overwhelmed yourself by the flow of demands from above? 

The solution to these challenges may lie in becoming more true to the idea of “real teams.”

What? What do we mean by a “real team”? 

For us, a real team is a group of people with diverse skills and talents who come together to jointly own a challenge, an opportunity, or a stream of work.  They make decisions, especially about accepting and organising work, together, collectively.  They are self-managing. There may be members of the team who have positional power, but those members intentionally submit to team decisions about work to be accepted, rules of engagement, and other decision-making. 

Real teams work together to deliver. This means that although individual people will lead on many items of work, the whole team stands ready to help each other and work together in flexible ways to create value. In the spirit of “stop starting, start finishing”, the team has a preference for swarming a work challenge to complete it before starting something new. This means that each person may not always be working only in their own area of specialism, but all pitch in in a “T-shaped” way to meet the team’s goals and commitments.

Real teams thrive by welcoming their diversity and reaping the benefits of collective intelligence.  They welcome healthy debate and conflict, but conduct such debates in a spirit of curiosity, vulnerability and mutual respect. This kind of a context is a great place to grow as a person, individually and in relationship to others and the team.

Real teams make their work transparent to each other and to their stakeholders. It is eminently clear what the work is, who is doing what, and what the current situation is with any one piece of work and with the backlog as a whole.

Real teams plan together, deliver together, celebrate together, inspect and adapt together, retrospect together, learn and grow together. 

So what? Why does this matter? 

In traditional, command-and-control, hierarchical organisations, people don’t really work in teams, they work in silos. They may meet in working groups, incorrectly labelled as teams. Often, the silos are personal, where we process work handed down to us from above and hand work down in turn to those below. 

That traditional way of working disables the possibility that members of a diverse team could suggest better ways to attack a problem. It disables the possibility that other team members could pitch in and help in times of high demand. It disables the ability of other team members to suggest that a different skillset might be better suited to the task, so that team members might swap tasks or swarm tasks currently held by other members. It disables the potential of collective intelligence, only found in teams, to suggest radically creative solutions, pivots, and different ways of handling challenge and opportunity. And finally, perhaps controversially, it disables the ability of a team to prioritise work, to say no, to feed back together to their stakeholders about what is possible in a given time frame, while maintaining quality.

Without real teams, people tend to struggle in those personal silos, feeling peer pressure to just get on with it, not to complain. They remain short of new ideas, short of help from others, short of better approaches to problems. Personal silos are an exhausting and demotivating place to live. No one does their best work in a personal silo. Personal silos lead to underperformance, burnout, health issues, and often to losing, or even to not recruiting, the best people. 

We believe that the large gains in productivity, creativity and people’s sense of satisfaction at work seen where Agile practices operate at their best are due to the working of real teams. 1,

Now what? 

If you are a leader and have the opportunity to call forward real teams, we invite you to do it. 

Help the working groups that report to you become real teams. Tell them that’s what you’d like to see, and walk the talk. That means encouraging them to make decisions together: defining work, accepting work, doing work, delivering work, inspecting and adapting for future work, retrospecting about the way they work together as a team. It means that they own their challenges and opportunities as a team. They celebrate and are rewarded as a team. This may mean changing the way your HR practices for feedback and compensation work. That structural change may take time, but even before it happens, your intentions and behaviour as a leader can make a huge difference. 

There may seem to be costs and risks to this approach. If you are used to being a command-and-control leader, especially if you are under pressure from above yourself, it will take courage and patience to let go of just telling people individually what to do. You will be called to become a team member yourself, only one voice, though a powerful and articulate one, in some of the teams you work with. This may be hard to accept. 

You may find that your teams start to tell you the truth about what is possible within limits of quality and sustainability, and these messages may be hard to hear and hard to negotiate with your own bosses. We believe the payoffs in long-term productivity, innovation, and a quality human culture are more than worth it. We think you will see the results in hard numbers. 

It may be shocking, but some of the biggest payoffs of a real-team approach may arise in making top teams into real teams. What if your executive committee, or the equivalent, really owned the organisation’s results and strategies as a team? Scary thought, but also incredibly exciting and promising in terms of transformational strategic, innovative and operational performance. 

If you are a team member – a leader in any chair – you too can push for making your teams real teams. You can publicly invite the process of accepting planning, doing, delivering, and reviewing work together. You can become a better collaborator, a better dialogue partner. You can invite your colleagues into real teams and ask seniors for support to make all this happen. 

The traditional ways are easy to fall into. Individual silos often seem to have very thick walls.  Unfortunately, those ways of working have massive long-term costs.  

Let us all commit to breaking through those silo walls, and find our natural, highly productive allies in real teams. 

What are your personal stories of the work of great teams?  Where is there untapped or wasted potential because the silo walls remain unbroken? Where do you know that transformative growth and change could happen if more real teams were at work?

Please share your thoughts in the comments – or directly with us. 

1  See recent studies by McKinsey and BCG

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