Have you ever wondered why some teams are able to achieve so much, while others struggle to get even the most basic tasks completed? I have, and the other day I was thinking, maybe it’s because most of us just don’t have teaming skills!?

What fungi have I consumed from my backyard you ponder? Allow me to clarificate (hold off leaving a teachers comment, I made that word up) ;)

Let’s start with some basic biology. Humans have two eyes, which are at the front of our faces, and are better at looking forward than to the sides or behind. We also have limbs, but again, these are better suited for frontal mechanical movement rather than reverse movement (for example, it’s easier to catch something while you are running forward with your arms forward than the reverse).

So with that in mind, most of us are internally wired to operate in a forward motion using our immediate articles (eyes, arms, legs, mind, etc). The problem is, in team based operations, you need to intentionally modify your behaviour. Unless you played some kind of team sport as a child (and continued this throughout your life), you probably have not developed the learned behaviour that is essential to operating as the part of a whole, rather than the whole itself.

And this is why I believe teams of people don’t always achieve team results. It’s what I’m calling “compound effort” or “compound effect”; the ability for a number of people to multiply their energy rather than dissipate it.

The analogy I use again harks back to my time on the field, where if you wanted to execute a play, you take 11 players, give them each an assignment and rely on collective force to achieve the objective. On to my top 5 elements of team effectiveness -

  1. Trust: Don’t worry about someone else’s responsibility. Worry about your own, and trust the people next to you will do their part. If you worry about someone else, and try to cover them, then who is covering you?
  2. Single point of focus: Everyone is focused on the one objective. Whether it’s to advance the ball 10 yards, or stop the offence from throwing the ball, everyone is thinking about the single point of focus. You think as a team, you execute individually.
  3. Advance to small forward positions: Don’t try and win the game in one move. It’s a series of well thought out, well executed movements that advance your team forward towards your final objective. That is why I like Agile Software Development, because it’s about advancing forward in small steps, adjusting on a regular basis to account for conditional change.
  4. Mental conditioning: This is the most important aspect. If you don’t think critically about how to execute as a team, in a team environment, then you will never be an effective team player. You need to mentally condition yourself to interpret, adjust and execute within the team consciousness.
  5. Serial is better than Parallel Execution: Huh!? It’s not about 5 people doing 5 things in parallel. It’s about 5 people executing 5 serial tasks concurrently. Think of it as instead of 5 completely isolated tasks being done at the same point of time, think of 5 inter-related tasks that when executed at the same time, actually multiply the effect of each other when all are completed. The analogy I use is think of a S.W.A.T team (my experience is based purely on my tireless efforts in playing the game S.W.A.T, not some wondrous previous life as a officer of the law) trying to enter a building, which has a front door, 3 windows and a sky roof. The point is not to get 5 people into the building at the same time, it’s to control the building using 5 people. So instead of each person picking an entry point and going through it at the same time, they each assume a role and all go through the one entry point. So someone will breach the door, someone will be ready to deploy the flash bang, two others are on the ready to enter and cover the blind spots and the final person covers the spine (the perfect middle of the area).

And finally, practice is the key. You’re not going to perfect your team skills unless you practice the techniques of high performance teams and try them out in simulated scenarios. That way, when you come to the real thing, it will be second nature.

And the funny thing, this applies to just about everything, especially software development. Too often you see teams who are given a tasks, which is just a reduction of the overall problem, and simply execute as an individual. Where is the interrelation? Where is the concentrated effort? It’s been dissipated by breaking a big tasks into smaller individual tasks, rather than a series of team tasks.

So start thinking team, and you’ll find those big problems toppling quicker than ever before.