Leadership and Team Formation

My guest for Leadership and Team Formation was returning guest Steve Balzac of the Boston-area firm Seven Steps Ahead LLC.


The show was a whirlwind tour of issues around Teamwork and Team Formation:

  1. What’s a team?
  2. How do teams form?
  3. Things that stop team formation
  4. How to test if you have a team or not
  5. Things that harm existing teams
  6. Repairing a broken team
  7. Step-by-Step Team Creation and Maintenance
What’s a team?

Teams start off as groups of people who have been grouped together — by a boss, by circumstance, perhaps by self-selection. When first assembled, they are not yet a team. They might better be described as a “Horde of Heroes” — a collection of individuals, not a team.
For the Horde of Heroes, success is entirely individual. If the company fails, well, they’ll go find another company.
They can become a team over time. That transformation is accomplished only when the success of the team is more important to each team members than is the success of that individual. When you want your team to succeed, more than you want yourself to succeed, you’ve got a team.
Consider the case of Intuit. They ran out of money, and told their staff, “we understand some of you cannot go without a paycheck, so go get one, and we’ll re-hire you when we have more money, and if you can stay and work without pay, we’ll give you extra stock.” It’s a testament to Intuit’s strong leadership that so many folks stuck with them and worked through that tough time.
Teams work well because the members support each other, and spontaneously divide their labor in ways that play to the strengths of each person. That way one person isn’t stuck on a problem that another person has already solved.
How do teams form?

When the group comes together, there is a period of great politeness and great uncertainty. This is a time where people are mostly concerned with their own standing in the group and their own safety and belongingness.
At this point when you assign a task to the group (not yet a team) they give perhaps 10% of their attention to the work and 90% of their attention to these other issues of safety and belongingness.
The leader needs to create structure and comfort, that allows people to have confidence that they are safe, that they belong. If you do not accept that as your starting point, you are doomed, because you’ll end up working on the wrong things.
Start with vision. Tell the team what they are going to accomplish. Microsoft had a vision of “A PC on Every Desktop” — and that vision becomes something that the group members share in common.
The shared vision becomes the first thing that the team members share — it’s the point of agreement that binds the group together and starts them on the path to becoming a team.
When the group first assembles, the only one with a clear role is the leader. By virtue of that position and that power, the leader can create the sense of belonging.
(The antithesis of safety would be a leader — or any co-worker — deliberately embarrassing you in public.)
The Tuckman model of team formation suggests four phases: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing. It’s a model Steve agrees with.
In Forming, you’re getting introduced to each other.
In Storming, you’re clashing and getting to know each other and learning how to disagree.
In Norming, you get some shared values and are communicating well.
In Performing, you put your shared identity into action.
Things that stop team formation
In this progression through the Tuckman phases of Team Formation, here are some of the potential gotchas.
When going forward, you have to go one step at a time. When going backward, you can jump all the way back. It’s like climbing a cliff — you go up a step at a time, and you can fall all the way back down all at once.
Each of these stages takes a couple of months.
The first thing that can screw up team formation is rushing. The phases cannot be rushed. They take as long as they take.
You can still get work done while the team is still Storming or Norming, or even while Forming — however it’s less effective work. Try to rush the stages, and you can prevent progress entirely.
It’s been said that a couple aren’t really married until they’ve had their first fight. That’s because they need to be able to have conflict without worrying that one of them will walk out on the other, or one of them will belittle or emotionally destroy the other.
Similarly, you cannot be a team until you’ve had your first fight. That’s when the team feels comfortable enough to start to challenge the rules and values. This is when the team is figuring out what’s important, and also figuring out how to debate each other. They’re finding out “where the edges are” and how to disagree productively.
This is the next gotcha – most companies hate conflict, and they try to squelch the arguments. They fear that it’s a sign that the team is falling apart. Often people think that a lack of arguing demonstrates that the team is strong. Not true.
If people are not comfortable diagreeing or arguing, it means that tough problems don’t get surfaced. People are afraid to bring them up.
The way past that is, to get the team to the point where they know how to bring up issues and make the disagreements and arguments be about issues not people.
Another gotcha comes when the leader becomes uncomfortable in the transition from Forming to Storming. At first, the leader has a lot of power and influence because members are uncertain and compliant. Once the members become comfortable and start to question things, the leader may mis-perceive this as a challenge to their authority as a leader.
About three out of four leaders will respond by “smacking people down” — which inevitably hurts the leader and the team.
And the team may split — some will band around the leader, who is their source of safety, and the rest band together in questioning the rules or the leader. Sometimes the questioners will band around another individual who becomes a faction leader. In extreme cases, these folks will split off and form a new team. Once that happens, it can become the cultural norm — that when disputes arise, they are resolved by one group leaving. (The martial arts have followed that pattern, with teachers leaving dojos to start their own variants of a base martial art.) That can be very bad for the company.
The key here is for the leader to remain emotionally detached from this arguing process, and to deflect that energy and redirects it. The leader needs to be focused on the team, not on winning a fight with the team.
Sometimes a team drives out its leader. This becomes bad — the team has “tasted blood” and this behavior can become part of the team culture, that when there is conflict with the leader, the team just drives him out. Harvard University is this way, says Steve. They cannot hold a President for long, unless it’s Derek Bok.
Fully 50% of teams never get beyond Storming. The leader keeps clamping down on the disagreement and the team cycles between Forming and Storming.
Another 28% of teams will get stuck at Norming. They are so happy to be done with Storming that they get complacent.
How to test if you have a team or not
The test is whether the team is effective when their leader is not around. If everything stops because we’re waiting for Fred to get back, you don’t really have a team.
The team performs well — with the leader absent — only when they share a vision, they understand goals and roles, they are comfortable making decisions, and comfortable arguing with one another.
Things that harm existing teams
The most common thing to harm a good team is boredom.
Good teams are performing well, and it’s now the job of the leader to keep them performing at a peak level. It’s tiring. The leader is delegating most work and is monitoring the team’s effectiveness.
So the leader needs to get people to take vacations, to take breaks, to keep things fresh.
Another source of risk to a good team is bringing in too many new people too quickly. An example is Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).
DEC had a very strong team structure, and in the 1980s it was the Microsoft of its day — it was going to topple IBM. They had great teams, and then they grew. In that growth they disrupted teams, added many new people, and most of their teams were disrupted.
When DEC’s teams had to sign written letters of commitment to each other, it was a sign that they were trying to replace real team commitment with bureaucracy, and they were doomed.
You can replace team members without harming the team culture, provided you dont’ change too many too quickly.
A new leader can harm a team. If the new leader refuses to respect the existing culture of the team, it can harm the team deeply. An example is John Sculley at Apple. He nearly destroyed that firm.
Repairing a broken team
The first thing is, it doesn’t matter how you got broken. It’s not a cop show where we look for the culprit. Instead, the team’s problems are symptoms to be understood. The symptoms tell you a lot about the ways in which the team needs to be strengthened.
Remember that if the team is weak with communication, it will show up with the person who is most vulnerable to that weakness. You may be tempted to replace the person. Replacing the person doesn’t strengthen the team’s weakness, however.
It helps immensely to get an outsider to come in. Fixing broken teams requires perspective.
When you put the problem into a person, you give the problem life. And it’s also often misdirection. When the team’s weakness is not repaired, and you replace the person who was most vulnerable to that problem, you guarantee the problem will return in a new guise and manifest in a new way.
When you put the problem into a system — you attribute it to that abstract entity “the team” rather than to any one member of the team — you take away its energy and you are on the path to fixing it. You then need practice and discipline.
If you keep re-enacting the mistakes, they can become habits and the team can become un-repairable. You may need to disband the team. (Steve suggests the US Congress may be an un-repairable team. I suspect the members are so interested in their own re-elections that — absent an overwhelming external national emergency — you’ll never see the US Congress act as a team.)
The key lesson is to prevent errors from being repeated so often that they become ingrained.
Step-by-Step Team Creation and Maintenance
Starting with a vision and a group, what do I do?
First, involve the group in refining the vision.
Next, allow people room to adjust their own roles as they achieve a deeper understanding of the vision and the team and how they can each best contribute.
Next, as people get more comfortable, they will start asking questions and pushing back on decsions — expect it, welcome it, and work with it. If you get caught up, disengage for a bit, “walk to the balcony” and then come back and re-engage on the issues.
Any time arguments get onto personalities or people, stop, take a break, and re-direct back to the issues and goals.
Now you start to give people lots of autonomy. Give them goals and deadlines. When things don’t work, adjust. Set up your schedule so you can have checkpoints where you analyze and adjust — that’s Analyze and Adjust, not Blame and Punish.
Checkpoints need to be done frequently enough — and early enough — that we can see where we’re falling behind, and can adjust appropriately to keep the work on track.
Leadership and Detachment
The leader needs to be able to not care that much about any particular team conflict. If someone attacks me, I interpret it as part of the team formation process. It means people are becoming comfortable with asking questions. It’s a great sign.
There’s a crucial scene in the movie The Dirty Dozen where the team starts to rebel. The leader goes away and privately expresses his delight that they are no longer 12 rugged individuals, each one concerned about himself alone — they are using the words “we” and “us” for the first time.
Steve suggests that the leader needs to get to a point where he surrenders his coercive power entirely, and relies on his power of relationship with the team members.
Further Reading
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