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Spring Journal

Volume 32, Issue 1

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Companies consistently create cross-functional project teams to implement technology, reengineering, product launch and other complex initiatives in the workplace. Many of us, when asked to give an example of a high point in our careers, immediately cite a major successful team effort. Yet in our constantly accelerating marketplace, we find that more and more of our time is being spent getting teams back on track or having to step in and 'do the heavy lifting' when the team does not deliver results.

What is the difference between the team that you remember as a career high point, and the one you are pulling out of the ditch today?

Often, it is the time you spend up front -- ensuring that you and the team can answer and agree on some simple questions: What is the team doing? Why? How will we accomplish the work? Who is involved?

Not doing this is the equivalent of firing before aiming.


Most teams launch into the work quickly because team members feel they know what has to be done and are probably already behind schedule. However, as you speak to each member of the team (or worse yet, must conduct the post-mortem on what went wrong), you find that they each have a very different view of 'what, why, how and who.' An Interaction Associates survey of 400 companies found that the top three internal barriers to team success are that team members:

1.Lack an approach to influence and get support from key stakeholders;
2.Fail to set appropriate goals for the team and then build and implement a plan for reaching them;
3.Don't spend enough time planning how they will work together.

How can you avoid these problems?

Focus and align the team around the answers to following key questions up-front:

'SHARED AND MEANINGFUL PURPOSE ' What is the business purpose for this team? Why is this work necessary and important and what are the consequences for the organization if we do not succeed? What is the vision of success that we believe we can accomplish?
'SPECIFIC AND CHALLENGING GOALS ' What are the measurable results that we agree to produce? What are the key deliverables and goals which must be accomplished, by when, to stay on track and achieve the vision?
'COMMON AND COLLABORATIVE APPROACH ' How will we accomplish the goals -- what is our project plan? What are the critical working agreements we need to make? What is our strategy to communicate with and involve key stakeholders?
'CLEAR ROLES ' How will responsibilities for specific team functions and tasks be distributed? What is the role of the sponsor? The team leader? Team members? How will key decisions be made and who will make them?
'COMPLEMENTARY SKILLS ' Does the team composition ensure the right combination (across team members) of knowledge, ability and experience required to perform effectively? How will we use the complementary skills to support each other? How will we address any gaps?

Answers to these questions provide the framework for effective collaboration and true cooperation among team members. For example, developing and agreeing on the details of the project plan also allows the team members to decide on the realistic, ambitious goals to which they will commit. Once a team has developed and agreed on project work-plans, it is much more confident about agreeing to project goals. Because team members have truly negotiated what they can challenge themselves to accomplish to meet the organization's important needs, they are willing to support each other and work hard to fulfill their commitments.

The alternative, which we see all too often, is the forced march - team members 'agree' to mandated goals which they do not believe they can accomplish. When they fail to achieve the results, they feel that they simply have confirmed their original belief that the goals were unrealistic.


When you and the team are in agreement on the key questions, the team is truly launched. By investing the time up front to create this clarity of purpose, goals, approach, roles and skills, the team will be able to move rapidly toward success. You will then also have a clear set of expectations that you can use to monitor and evaluate the progress of the team without needing to micro-manage.

Martin Rosenthal, a Senior Associate at Interaction Associates, helps organizations align their corporate cultures with their strategies and values. Interaction Associates' collaborative change consulting and workplace learning solutions are employed by Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations throughout the world. With offices in San Francisco, Boston, and Dallas, the company has more than 30 years experience empowering organizations to find breakthrough solutions to business challenges.