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Friday, April 14, 2020

"Slow" Teams

You can’t create an effective team instantly, on demand. Teams take time: time to come together; time to learn one another’s strengths and weaknesses; time to discover how best to cooperate; time to grow into something greater than the sum of their individual parts. It isn’t a process that can be rushed. Yet that’s exactly what far too many organizations try to do: push people together into a team and expect them to perform at their best right away.

This isn’t a new idea. People have recognized for decades that effective teams aren’t produced at the drop of a hat. So why do organizations persist in acting as if the opposite is true? A cluster of people sent together into a room and given a common task aren’t a team in anything but name. They maybe have the potential to become a team, but that’s all. Fulfilling that potential will take weeks, months or years—if it happens at all.

Patience isn’t seen as a virtue these days. It’s all about instant gratification. But when “instant” isn’t gratification at all, but a sure road to frustration and wasted effort, it’s hard to understand why anyone bothers to seek it. “Instant” teams are like fast food: a jumble of barely-edible ingredients, thrown together. Real teams take time to cook, so the flavors blend into something truly nutritious.

A team is a community: a group of people with a history of understanding and respect. Its members need time to build relationships and learn how to support and complement one another. They don’t all need to like each other, but at least they must come to accept their colleagues as important and valued members of the group, with essential qualities to contribute.

The “instant team” or "virtual team" isn’t a team at all. You can be part of a consultation group (working party, study group, call it what you will) without personal contact or time to “gel,” because this form of group activity needs little more than remote communication. Members act as individuals or representatives of some department or interest group. If the group stays together for a long time, with a stable membership, it may begin to form some of the signs of a team. But personal contact on a long-term, regular basis—seeing the others operate, talking to them informally, getting their measure and deciding how (and if) to cooperate with them fully—is so fundamental to team formation its absence is bound to block development beyond a certain point.

Team formation is slow. Some of the original members may decide they don’t fit; others may be ejected for the same reason. It’s like a band, or an orchestra, or a chorus. You could put together the best individual musicians around and they might not form an effective ensemble. I recently read an article that pointed to The Beatles as a prime example of a successful team that took a long time to come together. There were several changes in membership. The roles within the group shifted (at one time, Ringo Starr was one of the vocalists). The band spent years playing in small clubs and dubious bars as they formulated a distinctive style. If they seemed to burst on the music scene fully fledged, that’s only because their earlier work was mostly forgettable and forgotten.

If you or I had heard The Beatles in their first few gigs together, we wouldn’t have recognized anything special about them at all. There was nothing. They were just one of thousands of wannabe pop groups. The talent may have been there, but it wasn’t showing itself yet. That took time—lots of it. There are artists who come from nowhere and cause a five-minute sensation, but few last into a serious career. Those that do usually face a distinct dip in popularity and impact for a few years, while they mature into their eventual performing personality.

Teams are living entities. They're born, they grow and mature, they flourish (hopefully) and then they die. Many never reach maturity. The best of them still die. You can’t create a fully-functioning team immediately or by command; you must grow it, as you would grow a garden. It takes patience, perseverance and—above all—time. If you want something done immediately, put an individual in charge. If you want to produce a situation where a group of people produce more as an ensemble than they can do alone, give them the time and space to develop into a team.

A “slow” team is one that has been allowed to grow organically, taking on its own unique character as it does so; just as slow food is cooked gently to allow the ingredients to blend to perfection. Any idiot can toss a mess of meat and vegetables into a pot, turn the heat to maximum and hope for the best—but I, for one, won’t be hanging around to try it when it’s served up. Any organization can throw people together, call them a team and demand results in five minutes. The result will taste just as bad, whether you’re part of the “team” or the ones waiting to try the outcome.


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1 Comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm in the enviable position of being on a project that was never adequately staffed. Now that we're nearing our deadline and a large amount of work has been thrown at us, my manager wants to put more people on our team, as if doing so will neatly fill the gap in person-months. I'm resisting, pushing for some other means of preventing a crisis, such as moving the deadline forward in time. Really, "The Mythical Man-Month" should be on every manager's reading list, and so should your post.

7:24 AM  

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