Reason 1


PavementThis is the number one reason why a team does not work!  Ask the members of any team from boardroom teams to bathroom teams, “What is this team supposed to be doing?” and observe the puzzled looks.  If your team cannot consistently answer this question it is doomed to failure.  And if you are a member of such a team you are doomed to experience the torture of participating in this failure.  Most teams THINK they know what they’re supposed to be doing.  However, a painful number who think they know, really don’t.

Try this at your next team meeting.  Give everyone two minutes at the start of the meeting to write down their answer to the question: What is this team supposed to be doing?  No talking allowed.  If you end up with more than two different responses your team is in trouble.  So either stop whatever you are doing and find one answer to the question or disband the team since it can’t possibly do anything of value until the question is answered.  Unless you can agree on what the team is supposed to be doing you are wasting everyone’s valuable time.

By the way, if you are part of an organization where some people tell others what to do (the official term is hierarchy) then 98% of the teams should be told what they are supposed to be doing by someone up the ladder.  This saves a lot of time, is consistent with how things work anyway and most teams are very happy to get the direction.  Don’t let anyone tell you this will decrease ‘engagement’ or some other such term; it won’t.  Teams want to be successful, and knowing what they are supposed to be doing is the first step in that success, regardless how that knowledge comes about.  So if your team doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be doing, try asking the boss.  If the boss doesn’t know, disband the team quickly because you’ve got bigger problems to deal with!

If you are one of those few teams that is expected to figure out what it’s supposed to be doing without direction from above, then do this task well.  The key ingredient to finding the answer is honesty, and there is a really good chance you will need some objective help in being honest.  You also need to test your behavior against what you say you should be doing.  By testing behavior you can discover if your team is just TALKING about doing something but really DOING something else.  Talk is cheap; activity tells the real story.

If you are puzzled about what testing behavior means or how to do it, don’t get all complicated here.  Start by looking at the measures your team uses to assess success.  If they are not measuring what you have said is important you have a problem.  It was your behavior that created those measures or your behavior that neglected to change them.

The next post will be suggestions about trying to deal with this reason to hate work teams.  Use it to jot down some of your thoughts about your team, note any questions that might need answering, any ideas that you think might help your team be more effective.  Bring these to your next meeting and continue to push for discussion on these topics.  Who knows, it might help your team take a big step forward.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Have you ever been on a team like this? Describe the experience
  2. Have you ever worked with a team with this reason to hate it?  What did you do?
  3. It is often expressed that getting the boss to tell the team what it should be doing isn’t a good thing to do, other than at a high level.  Do you agree?  What assumptions might be driving this perspective?
  4. Have you found measurements often are at odds with what a team says is important?  Why do you think this is so?
  5. And of course, any other musings you may have!

8 Responses

  1. I think all teams, no matter how well they work together towards the same goal, get in to muddy situations. Maybe the leader backs off, significant change takes place that the team members may not even be aware of. The key is to find a way back to talking about what they should be doing.

    I worked in the not-for-profit sector for a number of years, as the Executive Director. Often, our funder changed the game without any notice to us (myself and my board of directors). It was super frustrating, as the team leader – we always referred to it as “dancing on a moving carpet”.

    I don’t think it is a problem to have someone (higher up) telling teams what to do/setting the direction. Someone has to steer the ship. As long as they are setting the direction from an informed position with the information they need. Otherwise, it’s just hierarchy. It’s important that everyone understand the direction and then provide people with the ability to self-manage. Making an assumption that you are self-managed without a context/direction is just fooling yourself. And, not at all valuable to the team as a whole.

    The worst team I worked on was in a municipal government setting. Our team leader’s reason for any information/”guidance”/decision she provided was because “she was senior management”. Doesn’t do much to build a team or welcome input. Luckily, I had enough experience to keep that kind of comment in it’s proper perspective, still get a sense of the goal of my team and carry out my tasks. But I watched younger staff recoil at her words and at times become quite ineffective at being a part of the team. I didn’t stay there long.

    • Kathi, I think you’re absolutely right; teams always have ups and downs and should expect this. In many ways that’s the reason for this e-Booklet, to help teams recognize and act on many of the most common issues teams seem to face.

      Your worst scenario is looked at in one the 10 reasons coming up pretty soon and in many ways, there is not a lot the ‘team’ can do about it, except as you say, recognize what is going on and then do what you can to be effective within your scope of control.

  2. Tom, this is timely. I am currently working with a senior leadership team who is working to understand their purpose or what we used to call mission.

    One of the 1st things we did was look at what is the ‘job to be done’. We broke them into two groups and ask three questions.
    1. Who are the team’s most important customers?
    2. What are those customer’s most important goals?
    3. What specific job are your customers hiring your team to do?

    The process was interesting and they had a very difficult time determining the answers to these questions. It did create lots of great dialogue that we will continue.

    There is a lot of role confusion on this team and my hope is this we are on the path to determining – what is this team supposed to be doing.

    My experience is that it if the leadership team is not able to articulate what the job is how can they possibly expect the rest of the organization to successfully achieve the goals.

    Thanks for confirming, we are on the right track and look forward to the other posts.


    • Wendy, these are very good questions to get the team thinking about their purpose or goals plus it wouldn’t surprise me if you had some good conversation about who the customers of this team even were!

      Your post is also an example of the types of post that will expand and deepen this initiative. Other ideas and experiences that people can use to help them deal with these 10 reasons. While the posted text for 10 Reasons is very basic, practical and simple, the perspectives and experiences of others adds tremendously to efforts in helping teams be more effective.

      In addition to your questions above I also like to make sure the team thinks ‘internally’, at least a little, in terms of what they want for themselves from being on this specific team. I do think the focus on customer or organizational value is of primary importance but I also think a team needs to discuss what might be called the more ‘self’ ish goals they may want to achieve that are just about them as individuals on a team.

      • Hmmmm….I never thought about it from the perspective of the more ‘self’ish goal. I will try this on with the team next week and let you know how we make out.

      • Wendy, I really hope you do see what the group has to say on this topic and you share it here….

        The reason I ask this of teams is that when it comes right down to it, simply achieving organizational goals as a team is simply not enough at an individual level; those goals rarely resonate deeply with us I find.

        I was doing some work with a large group a while ago and we had done the warp speed exercise ( the one where tennis balls are thrown) early in the day. At the end of the day the leader of the group was doing a debrief of what had been learned; you know, that serious revelation of how your life has been changed by ‘seeing the light’ that day.

        One person stands up and says, ‘The best thing for me was the game! I had fun and I don’t have enough fun on this team!’ I was at the back of the room and actually stood up, pumped my fist in the air and said ‘YESSSS’ and then sat back down realizing I might have ruined the seriousness of the heavy expectations of the debrief.

        Yet for this person, fun was important, probably just as important as any organizational goal the team was tasked with. For me, that has to be important.

        I have found that sometimes teams are reluctant to talk about these ‘self’ ish goals, or they shroud them with organizational speak. But if you keep it light and honest it can really be important for a team I think.

  3. Tom, in my experience teams often do know what they are doing and need to do but unfortunately meet resistence or a different story elsewhere in the organisation. And this throws things into doubt and brings on frustration. Coherence in the system is key and often the big thing that is absent. Alignment up and down and across the organisation is a real killer for teams.

    • Hello Katie! I would agree that coherence and alignment are important, but are also very difficult to attain in larger organizations with so many competing priorities (well often even in small organizations!)

      Nevertheless I am regularly surprised, especially by senior teams comprised of people who are accountable for large divisions that respond with blank stares or silence when asked what are they supposed to be doing as a team.

      This just happened a few weeks ago and they were quite honest about this situation and began work on establishing a purpose shortly after.

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