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Big teams

Tony Llewellyn, Author - Team Coaching Toolkit
strategy

In fast changing world large organisations are increasingly engaged in projects and initiatives that are strategically critical. Such projects are likely to involve hundreds of people from different parts of the organisation working as cross functional groups. The success or failure of such important initiatives is likely to be heavily influenced by the extent to which leaders and managers can motivated and organise these numerous groups to come together work as a single effective ‘Big Team’.

In the modern workplace, individuals rarely work in isolation but are grouped with other colleagues into notional teams.  The degree to which these collections of individuals come together to work as an effective unit is a topic which is of significant interest both to organisations and to academics.  Given the right conditions, people working in teams can often achieve amazing outcomes. They can just as easily devolve into dysfunctional groups.  There has consequently been a great deal of research in recent years into the question as to how to build an effective team.  The attention of most of the research into team performance has tended to consider individual units of between 8 and 12 people.  Less attention has been paid to what happens when there is a need to create a very large team involving of hundreds of human beings, all focused on achieving the same outcome.

The contents of this article are based around a model derived from my research over the past seven years, both as a practicing consultant and a part time academic.  I have spent much of my career working in the construction industry where the word ‘team’ is often used to describe anyone involved at a particular moment in the development of a physical asset.  As I have expanded my research beyond the construction sector into major projects in other industries, it has been fascinating to see the consistency of the behaviours of human working in large groups.  I have found that irrespective of sector or specialisation, people working in large complex projects demonstrate the same propensity for collaborative creativity on the one hand and disruptive conflict on the other.

Teams are a ubiquitous component of all large organisations. The tasks and challenges created by the modern world require the collective skills and knowledge of different people assembled into effective units.  Humans have been adept at working cooperatively in groups for thousands of years, but are also equally capable of finding reasons to disagree and disconnect from each other.  In the last fifty years or so leaders and academics have tried to understand the factors that influence a team to achieve results beyond expectations or to fall into dysfunction.  For those interested in teamwork and team development, there is plenty of material to explore.  Most of the published research tends to concentrate on static teams working in permanent organisations where a team is regarded as a unit of the organisations structure.

There is relatively little information on another significant segment of the working population world, who live in the world of projects. Project teams have a different set of internal dynamics which can both positively and negatively affect how they function. Projects come in many shapes and sizes, some requiring the attention of perhaps a dozen or so people, whilst others may require the skills of thousands.  As we move through the change and upheaval of the 21st century, projects are growing in scale, being driven by governments upgrading a country’s infrastructure, or commercial businesses seeking to take advantage of new opportunities that may have global reach.

Projects vs Business-as-usual
It is a frequent observation in the project management literature that projects create temporary organisations which have a number of characteristics that separate them from permanent organisations, in so far as:

  • Projects usually have a limited and predefined duration which compresses the time available to develop the strong cultural norms that are needed to build trust.
  • Large projects invariably have a unique outcome and must rely on the creativity and technical knowledge within a set of participants who have only a limited time to get to know each other.
  • Project teams will often have missing hierarchies so that there are gaps or overlaps in authority.
  • Finally major projects have a high level of uncertainty, creating greater risks which in turn can reduce commitment when events do not work to plan.

This distinction between permanent and temporary organisations is important. Each of these factors create distinct challenges for those tasked with leading a project.  As complexity within the project environment increases, the limitations imposed by the temporary organisational structure become more critical to the project’s performance.

A team of teams
Before we continue it is worth exploring what I mean by a ‘Big Team’.  It is not easy to find a definition of what constitutes a ‘big or a ‘large’ team.  The word team tends to be used in the world of projects to include every person engaged on that project and often crosses organisational boundaries.  In this context, it is simply a noun used to delineate anyone who may have an active interest in the undertaking.  It is often intended to show a degree of inclusivity but the reality is that as the numbers of people engaged in a project increase, there is not a single big project team, but rather a collection of small teams.

There is an important distinction to be made between big and small teams. These simple words explain a much deeper concept. Terms like small and big are part of our  basic language. They can therefore be seen to be generic, having such a wide range of application. In the context of teams however these two words have a precise technical role which helps establish some key differences.

The small team is the unit of production within any large enterprise. Emperors and generals have historically organised their armies and administrators into manageable groups. This is not however a top down management strategy to create neatly arranged grouping on an ‘org chart’. It is actually a reflection of how humans prefer to work with each other. Groups of people naturally fall into sub groups as the numbers involved start to increase.  This is partly because we can typically maintain close engagement on a regular basis with up to ten people, but beyond that number, communication starts to become more sporadic and building close working relationships is more difficult. The point is that Big Teams do not exist as a single homogenous whole, shaped by a unitary corporate culture.  Instead, a Big Team is an organic collection of individuals and small groups whose roles and activities shift and change as the project they are engaged on progresses. Project success therefore depends upon the extent to which the leadership can enable this assembly of small teams to work effectively together as sub units which make up a single Big Team.

When working with project leaders, I frequently hear the desire to create a high performing team, but without having a clear idea as to what high-performance actually entails. For some project managers, the requirement is that every member of the team exerts themselves to the limits of their endurance. For others it just means the team works well together and meets the sponsors desired outcomes. What constitutes performance is therefore subjective, depending upon the expectations of a particular team. When working with a collection of teams that make up a Big Team however, performance must be articulated much more clearly so that there is a common understanding by everyone involved as to what is expected. The performance of a team of teams will tend to be tied to the ability of each sub-team to operate successfully

It is possible to map out a progression of activities that will enable the development of a high performance environment which has the following features:

  • Clear objectives fixed around sponsor and customer needs, giving the team a firm understanding of the desired outcome.
  • Low hierarchy allowing direct connections between leadership and other specialist teams.
  • Confidence in a low blame culture balanced with an expectation of high accountability.
  • Fluid peer to peer networks where teams are encouraged to engage directly with one another to explore solutions.
  • Strong behavioural norms which support a collaborative culture

Given the right environment, I have identified six primary elements that have been found by numerous practitioners to have a significant impact on the success or failure of a team engaged on a major project. They work in the following progression.

1. Shared Leadership
Big Teams don’t necessarily need big leaders. We understand the need to be organised and to use the particular strengths of the others in our group. In many teams, this cohesion is often been achieved by larger than life, charismatic leaders, able to align their followers behind them. Increasingly however, this individualistic ’heroic’ style of leadership is no longer applicable, not least because in most big projects the team is made up of individuals from a long and complex supply chain. All teams need some form of leadership but in Big Teams, the ability of a number of individuals to take on the various aspects of leadership at various stages is critical to success.

2: Establishing the right project culture
Few team leaders start out with a clear view as to the culture they want to create within the wider project, and yet we know that behaviours within any group or tribe will be heavily influenced by its culture. The key to success is to build a culture of alignment, but this cannot be mandated. Instead the leadership team must create the right conditions to allow the desired project culture to emerge and mature.

3: Build alignment
Large projects usually begin with a high degree of uncertainty in that whilst the desired outcome is broadly understood, the exact mechanisms required to get there have yet to be conceived. Having many small teams each trying to work out their own interpretation of what will be required it is likely to result in chaos. Big teams must therefore be able to focus on the right direction of travel even if they are not yet clear on the exact route. There are a series of practical activities that should be mandated as part of the set-up phase for each team and sub team the is to be part of a major project. These include setting a clear vision, articulating core values, building interpersonal relationships with other teams, and agreeing a set of common rules for communication.

4: Accelerated learning
A high performing environment creates the conditions in which accelerated learning can take place. I use the word accelerated to emphasise the requirement for the teams involved in the early stage of the project to acquire the habits and practices of fast iterative learning.  One of the features of complexity is the impact of too many variables, creating high levels of uncertainty.  Fast learning habits allow the teams to explore and experiment moving forward in short bursts of activity and adjusting plans as they go.  The team is in effect learning how to learn. Without this period of accelerated learning team performance will typically improve at a slow but steady pace for a period of time.  In a fast-changing environment however, they may not adjust quickly enough to the new conditions and performance or output is likely to decline.

5: Maintain engagement
Engagement is a word that can have a number of meanings, but in the context of a major project it can be defined as a state in which people and teams are completely absorbed in their particular role and are committed to the success of the enterprise.  Engagement therefore sits largely in the minds of the project participants.  Leaders cannot force their followers to be engaged. All they can do is to create the environment and anticipate the team will find their own drive and motivation.  It is this human variable that is often missing from the manuals and text books which set out the technical processes attached to project management. The core engagement activity is around communication, and the use of an aligning narrative that informs and influences the messages and stories the teams use to understand what is happening in the wider project, be it positive or negative.

6: Build team resilience
Major projects exist over an extended time period often for many years. In the complex and volatile environment, individuals and teams will find themselves in prolonged periods of pressure and stress. Team leaders should anticipate the impact of potential stressors and take steps to build resilience into the team. Team resilience differs from individual resilience in that given the right preparation, team members can learn to support each other so that they work together through periods of difficulty and even learn to thrive in pressured environments.

Summary
Team work is a fascinating and multifaceted subject. The contents of this article have hopefully given you a glimpse of the concepts, processes and structures for setting up a Big Team to give it the best opportunity to succeed.  The thinking behind the proposition comes from a wide range of research into the effectiveness of people working in teams, supplemented by my own observations and experiences.  The structure is not a radically new approach, in that all of the ideas and activities have been successfully been used by others.  The component parts of leadership, culture, team set up and team engagement are familiar to anyone who has a frequent involvement in major projects.  The framework is nevertheless novel in so far as it places the human components at the centre of project planning where as common management practice allows them to drift to the periphery.

There are, however, few short cuts in the process. Building an effective team requires an investment in time and energy, both in the planning and implementation. The reward for this investment can be significant, improving the chances of bringing the project to a successful conclusion, on time and on budget. I would encourage any leader likely to have an involvement in a complex project to make the effort to move beyond standard practice, and take the necessary steps required to build an effective Big Team.

Tony Llewellyn is the author of Big Teams: The key ingredients for successfully delivering large projects, published by Practical Inspiration Publishing.

www. teamcoachingtoolkit.com

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