It makes sense to focus on project briefs and core competencies — after all, these are what gets the job done. But what gets the job done well? Often, it’s team members’ non-core skills and experience — and their freedom to apply those capabilities to the project — that make the collaboration a real success.
This is especially the case in experimental work, where the path to the desired outcome may be unclear, and work in distributed or completely new teams. If it’s not clear how your team members should make contributions to others’ domains, or whether they’ll be valued, you’ll never get the most out of the project.
What can go wrong
Recently, I worked with a new, distributed team on a fairly experimental project. Team roles, relationships and work patterns hadn’t been clearly defined. While I knew some team members, others were new to me, and I’d never worked closely with any of them before.
As the work began, team members struggled to identify where their contributions should begin and end. We all knew what each others’ core competencies were — it was the extra stuff that got confusing.
There was overlap between team members’ areas of expertise, but the team structure and approach to collaboration — which, while supported by the appropriate tools, was loose and fairly unpredictable — caused blockages. Some team members didn’t want to step on any toes; others wondered why no one was taking responsibility for certain contributions. Few of the team knew what they could expect from their colleagues.
This project didn’t fail, but it took longer than expected, and project overhead expanded, since communication wasn’t smooth-flowing. The usual pitch-in mentality became mired in a subtle kind of confusion. Assumption took the place of inquiry and clarification, so opportunities to capitalize on each team members’ capabilities slipped past.
Welcome more than core skills
Leaders organize people into teams on the basis of their core skills, which is fine. But to really make the most of everything each team member has to offer, you’ll need to go further than simply providing a project brief and setting up a file repository.
- Evidence of a collaborative culture. Culture is particularly important for new teams, or teams that comprise people from several departments, offices or organizations. Give some thought to how you’ll evince that culture — from the way meetings are run, to the way ideas are presented, captured, discussed and actioned. What evidence says to team members that all contributions — not just core-skill offerings — will be welcomed and valued? Does your evidence translate for team members operating from other locations? Keeping that evidence consistent is also critical. It’s all very well to be open, welcoming and responsive in a meeting, but if you neglect to respond to team members’ post-meeting emails or messages for days, you’ll likely erase any goodwill you generated, and engender a culture of flakiness and irresponsibility instead.
- A clear collaboration model. Does all team work involve all team members, or are some working in smaller groups, without the leader’s input? Flat structures and easygoing reporting requirements may seem to encourage the free flow of ideas, but the reality is that groups comprised of team members who haven’t worked together before may need more guidance, encouragement and transparency, especially at first, or if the team is distributed. Leave them to their own devices and silence may well ensue. Discuss up-front the basic expectations you and your team members have for the collaboration, and how extra ideas will be treated and addressed. As you adjust the model to fit the needs and suggestions of your team, make sure everyone’s aware of the model’s evolution. Over time, the team will likely develop its own culture, and you may well be able to take more of a backseat, but be wary of doing this in the initial stages.
- Meet expectations. Once you’ve all agreed on how things will happen, fulfill those expectations for your team, and ensure that your team members do the same. If your team management, or team members, are unpredictable in the way they respond to each other and events, the result is uncertainty. That may translate to team members feeling that the project isn’t important to their colleagues, and deciding to do only what’s required — not to bother making value-add suggestions beyond their core competency. It may reduce team members’ confidence to put themselves — and their “crazy” ideas — out there. Or it may just mean that team members spend more time trying to work out what’s going on than focusing on collaboratively creating the best possible solutions. In any case, unpredictability reduces team members’ ability to focus on the work itself.
A really successful team project is, of course, fulfilling and rewarding for team members. The evolving nature of the digital space may have reduced the likelihood that individuals will be typecast into narrow roles, yet leaders may still struggle to elicit the full breadth and benefits of colleagues’ past experiences if they don’t consciously work at it.
Have you worked with teams that really valued and benefited from the contribution of non-core skills? What aspects of the team management made the project work well?