How to fix a team

Many people never learn how to work on a team.

The reason many projects fail has little to do with expertise or intelligence. Instead it’s the inability to trust other people. Playing well with others’ is something few adults learn, or remember to practice.

If you discover you are the leader of a team in trouble, here’s the simplest playbook:

  1. Build a theory of what’s wrong. The superficial reasons a project is struggling are rarely the important ones. We notice symptoms first, not the causes. Racing to fix symptoms often just creates other symptoms (And cultures that always operate in panic mode have a culture prone to dysfunctional teams). Instead, go into detective mode for an afternoon or a day, which means listening to other people on the team’s theories about what’s wrong. Talk to people in private, offer confidentiality, and shut up and listen. What are the common frustrations you hear? (If none of them involve you, you haven’t heard the whole truth yet).
  2. There are four major reasons: lack of trust, old wounds, conflicting priorities, or poorly defined goals. I’ve yet to encounter a struggling team that didn’t suffer from two or more of these issues.  As you talk to people one on one, let them help you translate their complaints into those reasons. If they don’t fit ask them to offer another bucket. Be patient. Pay attention to their language. Ask questions. Listen and look.
  3. The team leader may be the entire problem. If the team doesn’t trust it’s leader it’s very hard to trust anyone else. if you’re the leader you have an existential crisis to examine: the problem may be you. Trust is grown slowly over time and if are seen as incompetent or unreliable your teammates will hold back, weakening how the team works.
  4. Identify people interested in change, enlist their help (Assets). In talking to your team, you’ll learn who is most interested in helping change happen. They might be the angriest, most critical people at first – but once they’ve vented, are they most passionate and willing to invest energy in working differently? Among them, who has the most respect of their peers? These are the people you need to involve in reviewing your assessment of the situation. Make a list of the issues you’ve heard, and work with them to rank the issues in terms of severity.
  5. Identify people least likely to follow, and treat them with respect (Liabilities). Some people will resist change, even if they are miserable. This includes powerful people.  Despite their resistance they can be just as useful as the positive folks. Explain what you see as the problems, offer your strawman for fixing them, and ask for their feedback. See if there’s a way, even if the plan has to change,  to get them on board. If you can’t get their support, make sure to get their acknowledgment. “Ok Fred. I realize you don’t like this plan. And I understand your reservations. But I’m going forward, starting with those interested in change. But I want to make sure we continue talking about this as I go.”  Don’t fall into the trap of ignoring people who don’t agree with you: a great person, sufficiently upset, over enough miserable months, will be indistinguishable from a bad seed. They may come back around if the climate improves.
  6. Pick a small, easy thing to fix.  Morale and trust operate on momentum. If the team has been struggling for some time, it’s very hard to turn it around all at once. You need to identify one single point of pain that is small, but real and fixable. The first tiny shinny star, undeniable in it’s contrast to the dark night sky, can change people’s minds about what’s possible.  Let everyone know what you are going to solve first. Then ask them for their help in doing it. Once it has been fixed, report back. Ask for feedback? Is this better? If yes, you’ve now earned a small piece of trust that you can mortgage to solve the next problem. Go back and re-evaluate your assets and liabilities. Who is on board now? What feedback do they have?

Sometimes the right move is to take big action: reorganizing the team, stopping the project, or dramatically change the goals.  It’s true some problems can only be solved with big moves, but most aren’t this way. If you believe in the long term health of a team, you have to be willing to grow and build it over time, and resist the temptation for the mythical complete and easy fix.

Some organizations make big changes regularly (e.g. your standard bi-annual big company re-org), but they’re so confused as to what the problem was, or how it could be fixed, they never fix anything. They just keep making big changes, masking their ignorance of what’s wrong and why.

There are dozens of factors that might lead me to work outside this playbook. But all things equal, this is where I’d start.

(If you want more, read the free chapter on what to do when things go wrong from  Making Things Happen).

13 Responses to “How to fix a team”

  1. Mursil Sayed

    This is good stuff. People want quick results. They want to fix the problems quickly without realizing that relationships and trust requires time. Trust cannot be build quickly, relationship cannot be fixed immediately. It always requires consistency.

    Reply
  2. Cristian

    Good article!
    There are some things however that cannot be solved, no matter what you do. It might be the case that one of the team members has a very shallow understanding and practice of the job bus somehow he/she ended up as part of the team. Unless you bring that person up to speed on the professional scale, you’re efforts won’t be rewarded. The tricky question is Do you affort, financially and from the timeplan point of view to do that?
    I’d personally put more emphasis on the last action item, Pick a small, easy thing to fix. It’s important that you know whatthe disfunctionalities are, but even more important what you do about it.
    There are no simple silver bullets in addressing the problems and one may find out that not all things can be changed. There are situations when none of the problems can be solved. What do you do then?

    I guess is up to the project manager’s ability to secure the best persons in the team and look beyond what’s written in their resumes. The PM could have a good starting point by knowing what roles he wants to have in the team (Adize’s PAEI roles: Producer, Administrator, Entrepreneur, Integrator) and observing early in the project the mismanagement styles (Lone Ranger; Bureaucrat; Arsonist; Super Follower).
    Of course, one can say that not all team members are managers, but here I come and say that Yes, they all are, it’s just that they manage something else (be it time, a phase in a project etc).

    Reply
  3. Howy

    This is precisely why all employers, while interviewing a new potential employee, inquire about whether or not he is capable of working in a team. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link”

    Reply
  4. Kapil

    Thanks for such a nice article. Totally agree that without fixing team’s problem work cannot be done properly. Always feel that everyone wants to contribute but some ego clashes with the colleagues. So keep these thing in your mind while fixing team’s problem that ‘You cannot keep everyone happy’ and ‘You cannot ignore your team members’.

    Cheers,
    Kapil

    Reply
  5. Mike Nitabach

    Maybe this is part of what you mean by “trust”, but my experience is that the single most important leadership quality is confidence. If the team is confident in the leader’s ability to lead, then all the other team dynamics stuff takes care of itself.

    Reply
    1. Mike Rodbell

      Wouldn’t trust be at the core of confidence? In your note, you imply that the team must have confidence in its leader. Maybe so, although I think that may be one of many team qualities needed for success.

      Reply
  6. Elisabeth Bucci

    It’s articles like this that make me realize that I must not neglect your blog in my Reader for too long. Excellent!

    PS *shhh* It’s “the first tiny shiny star” in the “Pick a small, easy thing to fix” paragraph. But I hate to nitpick in what is such a great blog post! :)

    Reply

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