Like much of the country’s school-aged kids, my teenagers have been engaged in distance learning for nearly a year now. I’ve been amazed and impressed at the creativity of our educators in surmounting huge obstacles in order to continue providing at least some semblance of an education to their students during this challenging time. But the limitations of this arrangement came into stark view one day last quarter when my daughter came to me, panicked and crying, overtaken by anxiety at the realization that her team was unlikely to meet their deadline on a group project.
The conversation went something like this:
N (daughter): “I don’t think we’re ready!”
Me: “Well, what is left to do?”
N: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Then you should contact the other members to find out.”
N: “I can’t. I don’t have their emails or phone numbers.”
Me: “Well who’s the group leader?”
N: “We don’t have one.”
Me: “Ok, well have you at least completed your part of the project?”
N: “I’m not sure what my part is.”
Me: “Haven’t you had team meetings to discuss who’s responsible for doing what?”
N: “We’ve had meetings, but we never talked about any of that.”
Me: “What did you talk about then?”
N: “We didn’t talk about anything. Everyone just sat there. No one said anything.”
Me: [Thud as my head hits the table]
As unbelievable as it all sounded, it dawned on me that because their “meetings” occurred in online breakout sessions, outside the teacher’s view (unlike in a regular, in-person classroom), the teacher was unaware that this team was struggling to make an initial connection with one another and lacked pretty much all of the other key elements of effective teamwork. It was, however, a golden opportunity to teach my daughter some essential skills that will carry her through life. After all, wasn’t that supposed to be the point of all those dreaded group projects everybody hated in school? Usually one or two people on the team ended up doing all the work because it was easier for them to complete the project on time the way they thought it should be done than it was to figure out how to work effectively as a team. The end result may have been an “A”, but it was accompanied by feelings of frustration, resentment, confusion, and even more dread at the mere prospect of facing future group projects.
The old adage “many hands make light work” is true only when those hands are working together in sync. An effective team is more than just a collection of individuals working toward a common outcome. Real teamwork requires communication, organization, delegation/designation, evaluation, problem-solving, efficiency, and mutual respect. But what do those look like?
Communication - Completing a project without good communication is like trying to have a phone conversation without a signal. Solid communication means everyone is clear on the expectations and responsibilities of each team member, that the frequency and method of communicating works for everyone, and that there is agreement on not only the ultimate goal but also the plan to achieve it.
Organization - Once a communication framework has been laid out, determining an execution plan comes next. You wouldn’t build a doghouse without a blueprint. Tackling a group project of any sort without a plan will only lead to confusion, miscommunication, and wasted effort. Organizing your team begins with defining each team member’s role and responsibilities and selecting a leader (or leaders) to keep everyone on track. Prioritizing, creating a timeline and interim deadlines, facilitating communication, and evaluating progress along the way are all key components of keeping your team organized.
Delegation/Designation - Successful teamwork should flow like beautiful orchestral music, with each member’s perfectly-tuned instrument playing his notes in perfect time and harmony with those around him, always aware of the whole sound and attentive to the direction of his conductor. When each member plays to his own strengths while observing others to learn and improve upon individual areas of weakness, everyone comes away having learned something new. You wouldn’t ask the violinist to play the drums, but he will develop a keener sense of the rhythm by listening to the drummer. And as with any orchestra, your team needs a guiding force, a conductor. Select someone with natural leadership abilities to head the team. Remember that not everyone is suited to that role, and talented players to take his direction are equally important, lest the orchestra remain silent...or worse!
Evaluation - A few months ago, the scientists at Pfizer unveiled a remarkable achievement when they introduced a Covid vaccine developed in record time. Only after months of testing the vaccine on thousands of willing participants was it ready for widespread distribution to the public at large. Without meticulous evaluation of the vaccine’s effects along the way, the citizens of the world would have been at great risk of serious consequences or even death from receiving the vaccine! Waiting until hundreds of millions of doses had been administered to discover a major flaw in the vaccine’s efficacy would have been disastrous on so many levels. The long-term success of any project depends on careful evaluation of your team’s efforts all along the way so that it’s easier to back up and correct course when results are skewing in the wrong direction. Consider up front what tools and methods you will use to evaluate your team’s performance? Who will determine the benchmarks used to measure your success? When will you measure? And how and at what intervals will the findings be communicated to the rest of the team?
Problem-solving - The biggest test you will face as a team is your ability to regroup when the plan goes awry. First, agree not to panic. Seek input from each member and listen to all suggestions with an open mind. Think outside the box. Share past experiences. Perhaps you can adapt a previous problem’s solution to this situation.
Efficiency - Finding the sweet spot in balancing quality of output against the expenditure of time and effort is crucial to reaching the objective by the deadline with satisfying results. An efficient team remains focused on the goal, omits the unnecessary, and stays attentive to the results of self-evaluation in order to correct course when needed. Avoiding conflicts or resolving them quickly minimizes disruption and keeps things humming along. A nimble team adapts and evolves, learning and perfecting as it goes.
Mutual Respect - Have you ever been surprised to learn that your favorite TV show cast members actually dislike each other in real life? Chances are if the show continued successfully for many seasons, it’s because they made a good team despite their personal feelings. Real teamwork doesn’t require friendship, but it does require enough mutual respect to be able to continue working together effectively...to communicate, organize, delegate/designate, evaluate, problem-solve and work efficiently despite your personality differences. Honesty, empathy and kindness, when used together, foster respect. Listen as much as you contribute and remain open to constructive criticism and willing to learn. Focusing on the talents and abilities each teammate brings to the table instead of on their individual quirks or annoyances can generate mutual respect, even between the most viscous of adversaries.
Whether you find yourself forced to work with others, or voluntarily choose teamwork to lighten your load, making the time and effort to ensure these elements are in place first will yield better results and a more positive experience than rushing in headlong, pushing your own personal vision. Teamwork is a valuable tool...when it’s wielded correctly.
The title of this blog is only the first, better-known part of Maxwell’s quote. The rest is, “...but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.”
With these seven key elements, joined by a spirit of unity, even building a dream team will be easy peasy.
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Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.