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Effective Team Building Part 1 - Another Brick in the Wall!

The first in a series of articles giving a slightly different viewpoint on effective team building, condensed from an original seminar presented by the author, John Roberts. John is a Freelance Training Consultant and director of JayrConsulting Ltd. Part 1 deals with selecting and building the initial team. The ideas expressed are personal opinions built up from many years of experience in the Electronics/Aerospace industry, the Armed Forces, the Telecoms industry and the Training industry. There is no suggestion of this being a 100% solution applicable to or workable in all situations, but it is aimed at getting people to think outside of the norm and question the 'normal' way of doing things.

1. Analogy - The bricks in the wall

Most people have been on some form of 'team building' course. They vary according to contemporary fashion from things like 'learning how to work together, to build bridges out of sheets of paper', to the more active residential courses, where people build rafts out of rope and washing up liquid bottles, to 'cross a crocodile filled' ravine! They all have two things in common:

(a) They tend to be very expensive in terms of cost per delegate to the participants.

(b) They are actually not very effective in building effective teams when people return to their real life situation.

Teams are about individual PEOPLE and the INDIVIDUAL skills that they bring to the team and how these should be selected and put together to form an effective and lasting entity. All that is needed can be covered in a 1-day seminar/discussion with a group of delegates with no more props than a white board and marker pen. If it is delivered in such a way that the delegates can be coerced to look at themselves and their teams HONESTLY, it can provide effective change in team culture, creating belief and 'buy in' from delegates and without imposing high expenses on clients.

The analogy that I use to explain the basic ideas is that of building a wall, and I use two types of wall to explain the contemporary team building model and the alternative one. The contemporary model is likened to a 'standard' brick wall and the alternative model is likened to a 'dry stone' wall, of the type found in northern fields!

2. The contemporary model and it's shortcomings!

Visualise a contemporary brick wall: Bricks all the same size, weight and shape. In order to stand up the bricks have to be 'glued' together with mortar. Bricks must be aligned exactly in rows vertically and horizontally or the wall will fall down. The mortar has to be replaced periodically, or the wall falls down. If a brick is not exactly the same size as all the others it has to be padded out with extra mortar, or - the wall falls down! The bricklayer has to keep tending the wall - replacing mortar etc. - or the wall falls down! Life of wall is fairly limited due to wearing out of materials, so eventually - the wall falls down! Bricklayer is competent enough, as long as the bricks match and he has an ongoing supply of mortar and the time to effect repairs.

Bricks = Individuals and their skills
Mortar = support from Team Leader and Human resources (competencies, assessments etc)
Bricklayer = Team leader

Problems often start at the recruitment stage. The recruiter ( Team leader or manager ) tends to put together an all-encompassing job description, instead of isolating specific individual EXPERT skills that are required for the project and are very unlikely to all be expert skills for one person. You only have to look at the average recruitment advert to see the types of skill lists that people ask for from one delegate! Human resources then compile a list of required competencies based on this information that ALL delegates have to fit into - and we are well on the way to selecting our almost identical bricks.

What tends to happen now is that you have a team of good 'all rounders' but few people with exciting expert skills in any one thing. So what you get is a team that is competent but not outstanding and this has become the normal model that people tend to have become used to. This type of team conforms to all of the standard corporate 'norms' and is much easier to deal with for a 'team leader' that is also possibly not a truly expert and exciting 'leader'.

Remember - 'if you do what you have always done - you get what you have always got!' Over the years I have experienced too many of these types of teams ( and team leaders ) and I know it can be done much better!

The problem is then compounded by the fashion for 'competencies' and 'Annual assessments'. Managers and team leaders are told to assess their team members annually and to concentrate on improving their 'weaknesses'! WHY?

Firstly - any team leader that waits a year to point out a problem to one of their team should not be doing the job! Communication and feedback between the leader and all team members should be continuous and open at all times.

Next - why concentrate on improving their weaknesses - all you are going to do is end up with a collection of 'cloned' bricks again! What you should be doing is emphasising the team members' positives and constantly improving their strengths - the very skills you hired them for in the first place. If you have someone who is a brilliant programmer, then you want to help them be an even better programmer for the sake of the project and the team - someone else in the team probably has good report writing skills or whatever. Different people are good at different things - use it, don't suppress it!

3. The alternative model - not new but it works!

Visualise a 'dry stone wall' of the type often used for field boundaries. Stones are all different shapes and sizes - they are selected from what is available, in the right order so that they overlap and fit with each other perfectly to provide a solid fit.

This means that no stone is the 'wrong' size as long as you find others to fit around it. It doesn't matter if all the stones are perfectly aligned as long as they all mesh together to give the wall stability.

There is no mortar used in the wall, it's all down to the skill of the bricklayer selecting the correct stones in the first place so that the individual stones all support each other in the complete wall. The wall doesn't fall down for centuries!

The wall doesn't look as uniform and pretty as the brick wall on the surface but actually performs its' task far better. The bricklayer has to have a real skill in selecting the right shaped stones to make sure they all fit together well in the first place, but once he has done that, maintenance is minimal!

Stones = Individuals and their skills
Mortar = support from Team Leader and Human resources (competencies, assessments etc)
Bricklayer = Team leader

The first thing that is needed before you can recruit and build a team for you project is an expert 'brick layer' or REAL Team LEADER! ( Not a manager/coordinator or facilitator). This doesn't mean someone who happens to have been in the company the longest and is thought due for promotion. It doesn't mean someone who can write good reports and do all the administration properly - it means someone who can LEAD PEOPLE! This is someone who can control, cajole, coerce and do anything necessary to get people to perform at their own best whenever it is required, at the same time gaining respect from those around them that they have to deal with. They don't bully, shout or 'use their position' to get things done, people respond to them naturally and TRUST them. It's NOT a promotion, it's another type of skill and you should look for this type of person in all levels of the organisation.

You can teach anyone to play the piano, but not everyone can be a top concert pianist - it is just a skill that some people have and not others. Leadership is exactly the same - you can send someone on a 'Team Leaders' course and they will be able to go through the motions of team leading, but what you should look for is a 'natural' - someone who has the ability to really LEAD people.

If no one of your present employees stands out as having this ability - look outside for someone. It is not worth compromising on this all important position - remember you need someone to put that wall together effectively to get the best results!

The team leader should then be tasked with putting together the team - selecting the strengths that are needed from individual people and making sure that their weaknesses are covered by other people in the team, so that you are putting together the 'stone wall' with all the members supporting each other. As the team is growing, all of the team members should take part in the recruitment and interviewing process - after all they will have a feel for how someone will fit in with the rest of them. Giving everybody some responsibility for how the team is put together gives them all a stake in its success.

From the start there should be honest and open communication between all of the team members and the team leader. There should be no need for 'Annual assessments'. The Team leader should be aware at all times how their team members are performing in various areas, and in an honest and open environment the team members themselves should be aware of any shortcomings and work towards solving them. A good team actually need very little maintenance input from the Team Leader and should very quickly become self-supporting, just like the stone wall.


So, if you are considering building a new team, try approaching it in a different light. Think of the people, the skills you want individuals to have - not the skills they don't have, the overall skills that you want the whole team to have and how they all fit together to give you a solid foundation. Choose a proper 'Team LEADER' to maintain it and put contemporary ideas of 'assessments' and 'competencies' behind you! (Don't tell your HR manager this, unless they are lying down in a darkened room!)

Team Building part 2 - Honesty is the Key! Will focus on the running of the team once it is built and will be published shortly

Adapted from an original article by John Roberts, freelance training consultant, Director of JayrConsulting Ltd. www.jayrconsulting.co.uk This article may be freely reproduced / modified and used in any way, providing this acknowledgement is left in its entirety.

John Roberts is a Freelance Training Consultant and Director of JayrConsulting Ltd. http://www.jayrconsulting.co.uk


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