When’s the last time you joined a group of people tasked with achieving a specific result? Say a parent group in your kid’s school who’s organizing the end-of-year festival, or a soccer team, or a new project team at work?
Did you ever pause to observe the process that ensues? In many cases, it goes somewhat like this:
“Testing the waters” phase. People come together for a first meeting and you can see that everyone is on best behaviour, polite, a bit expectant, reading the others and the environment.
“I don’t agree” phase - Then people start to discuss the task at hand and disagreements emerge. You can sometimes also see a subtle vye for leadership or control, or for getting hold of certain tasks. Sometimes there is that one person that seems to love to argue for the sake of argument. If this disagreement phase lasts long or becomes very antagonistic, people start to get discouraged or lose interest.
“This is how we do it” phase. Finally, something shifts and consensus starts to emerge, tasks are divided, people accept certain roles, pull up their sleeves and get to work. There is a certain beauty and harmony in this last stage when you see people working well together.
I was recently reminded of these phases when I participated in a hackathon for a health app to be used in humanitarian emergencies. Over sixty people, mostly software developers, health experts and statisticians got together to work for 48 hours on developing this app. Most of us did not know each other from before. I was in awe of the seemingly effortless way in which my team moved from the polite starting phase to the consensus and acting phase. I’ve rarely seen it going this smoothly, so I took notes!
When we are working with, or leading a team for a specific task or project, we normally wish we could skip that disagreement stage and quickly get the team to the working together stage. Here are four strategies on how to proactively manage the process to get to that working together phase faster!
Explain the task or end goal clearly
Clarity goes a long way into decreasing anxiety and smoothing the path for your team to work well together.
At the hackathon, the organizer’s did a fantastic job of creating this clarity from the beginning. We spent a couple of hours the first morning learning about the vision for this app and how it could be a game-changer to improve health in vulnerable communities (the WHAT and the WHY). This created the motivation and commitment.
Then the organizers presented how the work had been divided and what kind of tools and programming languages were being used (the HOW).
Finally, they introduced the different components and teams, and explained how you could choose your team and area of work, depending on your interests and skills. This made everybody feel included as they could see how their skills could be useful, and it allowed participants to self-select into teams according to their strengths and passions.
Ensure people are being heard
This is a critical point that many of us sometimes forget to implement. Even if you as a leader have clarity in the what, why and how of the task or goal, it is key to listen to ideas, worries and suggestions from your team members. Allow the team to brainstorm and exchange and make sure their ideas are, as much as possible, taken into account.
How do they think the tasks can be broken down into milestones? How long will each activity take? Who is best suited to take up each activity? This creates buy-in, as people start making the idea or task their own. Many times these participatory approaches also discover hidden stumbling blocks, help anticipate obstacles, or find better strategies to tackle the task ahead.
Set a deadline
A deadline helps the group move faster from the “I don’t agree” phase to the “This is how we do it” phase, as time is pressing and results need to be achieved. I’ve
seen this every time I facilitate group work. The bickering goes on and on, until you kindly remind your group that they have 30 minutes left to complete the task. All of sudden, people are able to negotiate at least a short term solution to their disagreements and get to work.
At the hackathon, the organizers used the 48 hour deadline, but also created additional deadlines by asking teams to showcase their progress every 6 hours.
Manufacture some team spirit
I recently read an article on negotiating with people who think very differently to you, which suggested to start the meeting in a room where all the chairs are scrambled and entangled in a heap in the middle. The group is forced to start by working together to disentangle the chairs in order to sit down. This can subtly establish cues for cooperation before the meeting even starts.
Team spirit can be developed by a shared task, and also by some friendly competition. Competing against others, even in a no-stakes, just-for-fun exercise, helps people in a team bond and work more efficiently together. At the hackathon, before starting work, the organizers got the teams to test out the app and compete against each other to see which team could finish sending in the health alerts faster.
You can use team meetings, particularly kick-off meetings, to create good conditions for cooperation and team spirit, by using smart ice-breakers or games that foster teamwork and competition against external teams.
In short, groups of people working together go through a natural process that takes them from disagreement to becoming an efficient team. We can use various strategies to facilitate and accelerate the process in order to get to the “this is how we do it” phase faster.
What other strategies do you use to move your team from disagreement to performance?
Share with us in the comments or on FB!
If you are having trouble with getting your team to work together efficiently, you can find more strategies in my book Build your Dream Team. Leadership based on a Passion for People.