Chicago Chronicles: Workshop #3 Team Selection and Dynamics

A recent conversation with my 12-year-old son, Max:

Max:  “Hey Mom, you know how people say there’s no ‘I’ in team?”
Me:  “Yes!  That’s so true.  A team is a group of people working together towards a common goal.” (feeling quite proud that Max had internalized an important life lesson)
Max:  “Well, I figured something out…there may not be an ‘I,’ but there is a ‘me’ in team.” (followed by a smug chuckle)
Me:  (Sighing) “Yes, I suppose that is true.”

Max’s comments reminded me of a few things.  First, even the most powerful and poignant adage can be reduced to a groan by a clever young man looking to make his own point.  Secondly, lots of grown up, mature people (yes, even professionals!) subscribe to and emulate Max’s way of thinking; not everyone understands or appreciates the value of a great team.  And lastly, very often the teams we create have at least one team member who manages to remind everyone else on the team that yes, in fact, there is a “me” in team.

This workshop was all about teams and the human dimension of innovation.  Having the right strategy for innovation is critically important, but the best plan is only as good as the people and process you put in place to get the work done.

What Makes an Effective Team?

We first spent time discussing the concept of teams and when they are useful, and sharing thoughts and experiences related to key characteristics of high performing teams.

The group agreed that effective teams have a clear, common goal which typically involves a complex or challenging task.  A team isn’t necessarily called for when the task at hand is something that can be easily solved or managed by one person.  Other key ingredients included:

  • Clearly defined roles and assignments: everyone on the team knows why he/she is present and how to contribute to the team.
  • Represent and participate: team members agree to participate in the process fully and to represent diverse perspectives, and not just their personal views.
  • Welcome conflict: the team encourages questions and challenges to assumptions and responds positively when questions are raised.
  • Respect for each other and the process: team members are expected to disagree but not to be disagreeable.
  • Leadership: teams need someone to facilitate, synthesize ideas and keep the team moving forward.  However, the leadership role can be shared.  It doesn’t have to be just one person or the same person all the time.
  • Not too many cooks in the kitchen: Although every organization is different, teams occasionally can become too large and unwieldy.  Most people in the group had their best team experiences when working with groups of fewer than 10 people.

Categorizing and Assigning Team Roles

We also explored the various roles needed to create a high performing team.  This section of the workshop introduced the work of Meredith Belbin, whose research showed that success of a team has more to do with behavior preferences of team members, as opposed to intellect or personality traits.  Belbin’s research led to the development of 9 distinct team roles.

Belbin Team Role Summary Descriptions

In advance of the workshop, I was one of several participants invited to complete the Belbin assessment tool.  We were each provided with a complete report outlining our individual team role preferences.  For example, my highest weighted role is “Plant.”  Not the green kind, with leaves and roots, but rather in reference to someone who contributes creativity, imagination, and free-thinking.  “Plants” tend to prefer generating ideas and solving difficult problems.  This assessment resonated with me as I do tend to prefer thinking about the big picture and talking about the big ideas.  Details, on the other hand, are not my strength.

We “Plants” definitely have our shortcomings  – or “allowable weaknesses,” as Belbin refers to them – meaning no single behavior preference is perfect.  As a “Plant,” my potential weakness may be that I am apt to ignore incidentals (like I said, details aren’t my strength!) and that I may be too preoccupied to communicate effectively.

The Ladder of Inference

The last portion of the workshop was focused on techniques for promoting effective team communication.  We learned about the “Ladder of Inference,” which is an illustrative tool for understanding how people think, process information and make conclusions.  Moving up from “observable data and experiences” at the bottom of the ladder, each successive rung represents the various steps in this process.

Ladder of Influence

It’s easy to see how resorting to comfortable but faulty assumptions can quickly lead to making bad decisions.  In the workshop, we learned to be aware of this human tendency, and to challenge ourselves to think differently.  In the future, we can enlist the help of others to challenge our assumptions and to seek greater understanding before taking action.

Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry

Once we were made aware of our natural tendencies to jump to conclusions, we discussed techniques for ensuring more effective communication within teams.  Specifically, we discussed the importance of balancing advocacy (our tendency to promote our own ideas, opinions and goals) and inquiry (posing meaningful questions to gain a better understanding of others’ ideas).  This was an incredibly timely subject in the middle of election season.  The bipartisan polarization of America and the constant drone of political wonks everywhere were powerful reminders of just how far “out of whack” most political discussions had become.  Where was the balance between advocacy and inquiry in the 2012 election?  Non-existent, as far as I could tell.

This sad societal fact was further illuminated during a recent episode of “This American Life,” one of my favorite public radio programs (produced by Chicago’s WBEZ).  During the program, numerous stories were told about the ruin of relationship after relationship, due to differing opinions about who should be the next President of the United States.  There were serious stories about life-long friendships dissolving in the wake of the election and more ridiculous moments, such as an account of a man who withheld his famous barbecue from his brother-in-law in a last ditch effort to convince him to vote for the “right” candidate!  The program reflected the reality of the politicized world we are living in, and left me feeling mostly disillusioned and wondering why we had lost our collective ability to engage in respectful, meaningful dialogue.

The program also featured the authors of a recently released book titled, “You’re not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).”  Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess (the authors of the book) are both political science experts, but one holds very conservative views, and the other is very liberal.  Yet the two of them were able to come together, engage in political discourse, and ultimately write a best-selling book promoting successful communication techniques.

Then I thought, “Oh my gosh!  This is exactly what we were talking about in the New Pathways workshop!”  The authors’ ideas about communication reflected the very technique of balancing advocacy with inquiry that we discussed.  Promoting your own beliefs and views while also making room in a conversation for thoughtful questions – in an effort to better understand the ideas and viewpoints being presented by others – is indeed a tricky and delicate dance.  This approach isn’t easy, but it does lead to true discourse and more meaningful dialogue.  It requires all parties to share fully and to consider with an open mind ideas that are contrary to their own.  It does not require anyone to change their position or adopt opposing views, but it does make increased understanding and break-through moments possible and much more likely.

Through the discussion and activities in the workshop, and with reinforcement from a message in a particular episode of “This American Life,” I was reminded how useful and productive it can be to balance advocacy and inquiry in any number of situations: promoting effective team communication, encouraging healthy discourse with friends and family members regarding sensitive topics, and fostering open and caring dialogue with the three teenagers who call me “Mom.”  Good communication doesn’t just happen; it takes skill, thoughtfulness and a balanced approach.

Rachel Bergren is Lincoln Park Zoo's Vice President for Education.