Posted by: hmchang | December 14, 2007

Business: Lessons from a Team

Great business is not done by one person. It’s done by a team of people,” – Steve Jobs, Chairman and CEO of Apple, Inc. [Video]

Most CEOs, like Steve Jobs, would agree that the success of a company lies in the success of the underlying teams. When we form a team, we hope to work collectively to achieve what cannot be accomplished by a single person. However, just teaming people does not guarantee fruitful results – many teams worked efficiently but more failed miserably. This article addresses the most important aspects of how to run a successful team.

Diversity Makes 1+1=∞

A team can be as small as two people. Three to five people are usually the best number for a team. No matter how many people we have in the team, how do we achieve results that are collectively greater than the sum of individual efforts?

Diversity is important in building a team. People coming from different backgrounds have diverse skills, viewpoints and personalities. In accomplishing an objective that a single person cannot achieve, a team needs members from different backgrounds. For example, a technology startup company needs people with skills in finance, marketing, engineering and production. No single person can be a master of every field, so getting people with required backgrounds in a startup is essential. Especially in the highly competitive world nowadays, each field of study is further divided into several specialized sub-fields. To accomplish goals efficiently, getting a group of specialized experts will be very powerful.

A heterogeneous team also enables a well-rounded view in any decision making. If all team members are from similar backgrounds, they tend to analyze problems with a specific pattern and come up with a sole answer. This analysis framework or answer is rarely the optimum solution to a problem. Getting different viewpoints from people with different backgrounds can trigger discussion and allow consideration of different possibilities. Specifically, more alternatives and information can be obtained from diverse members and enable thoughtful decision making.

Moreover, team members with different personalities help balance out too aggressive or conservative reactions. When making business decisions under fierce competition, being too aggressive or conservative may both lead to disastrous results. A prudent decision comes from thoughtful processes and careful analyses, and should not be biased by personal preference. If every member’s emotional reactions can be carefully monitored, a team can collectively make un-biased decisions and reacts reasonably to any challenges.

Despite all the advantages of a heterogeneous team, coordination among team members is not an easy task. Communication is the key but building a common dialogue among people with different background takes time. Team members may get into conflicts easily if they do not understand or tolerate different opinions. While functional conflicts – debates over different viewpoints – are good, personal conflicts are not. Initially, team members should spend time building up the team dynamics and understand the different skills and personalities of the team. Team members should learn to appreciate different viewpoints and also sometimes think in others’ shoes. Experienced team players can become accustomed to different team dynamics very fast and thus it is always good to start learning how to work as a team as early as possible.

Building Team Dynamics

Good team dynamics start from building an encouraging environment for everyone to freely express their opinions. Encourage members to actively participate in all the discussions, and also learn from each member even if they have different background as you. The more one understands what others are doing, the more one can respect the others’ opinion. Additionally, by fostering open communication, everyone can contribute fully to the team and find support if needed. Individual’s difficulty can soon become the team’s difficulty, and open communications help identify potential difficulties at the early stage and ensure efficient and timely solutions.

Every team is formed for a specific purpose. A team would not work effectively without a clear goal. Whenever possible, each team should define or update the overall goal of the team periodically in addition to the initial goal setting when a team is first met. Bearing the overall team goal in mind, each member can clearly identify his/her contribution to the team and also try to maximize the overall performance of a team. Understanding how individuals work fits into the big picture and also builds a stronger connection among members, enhancing team dynamics.

Teams do not necessary have a leader, and many teams work well without a clear leader .Although in most management roles a leader is someone who determines the final decision, the leader role in a team is different. A leader in a team is more a guiding role than a leading role, meaning to lead in a team is to foster discussion and monitor efficient meetings. Sometimes it is also good to let each member take turns leading a discussion. Whether a team has a leader or not, the decision making process is still a team effort and should not be determined solely by leaders to prevent any bias.

Team Meetings: What should be achieved

Team meetings are a typical yet effective way to synchronize the activities and thoughts of each member. Team meetings are also an open communication platform that can help foster good team dynamics. When a team is working on a project for a long period of time, it is important to have regular team meetings to monitor the progress of each individual and to re-assign and re-arrange tasks in case someone needs more support. Some teams may meet irregularly. For example: meet whenever a significant task is accomplished. Whichever meeting styles a team chooses, as long as there a good communication platform and team dynamics exist, the team should work effectively.

When a group of people meet, it is easy to waste a lot of time. A good practice is to have each member come prepared and finish assigned individual tasks ahead. The team meeting time should focus on problem solving, discussion, decision, and individual task assignment. It is thus good to have a list of what should be accomplished for each meeting. The assignment for each team member should be as specific and clear as possible to avoid any ambiguity. Without clear separation of functions, individuals may not clearly understand their responsibility and certain tasks may be overlooked. Reassigning tasks can easily postpone the whole schedule.

Time control is extremely important in decision making. It is easy for a group to break into two extreme ideas and eventually come up with nothing. Set a proper time for each topic and make decisions whenever arguments converge or a time limit is met. If necessary, votes on the proposals and execute the selected proposal wholeheartedly. Additionally, since integrating individuals’ work also takes time, make sure some time slot is set specifically for integration.

Finally, team brainstorming is a good technique to use when a lot of ideas should be generated. All the pros and cons can be freely expressed and no one should critique on each other’s idea during brainstorming. After all the ideas are expressed, revisit each of them and determine what might work and what would not work.

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