In any organisation the question of how best to get stuff done together exercises many, especially leaders, much of the time. It brings with it a Pandora’s box of further questions:

  • what is our mission
  • what kind of organisation do we want to be, and need to be, and are those aligned
  • what should we do and how do we know if it’s the right thing
  • what skills do we need, and how many people, and how do we organise them
  • what processes should we have
  • how can we motivate individuals and monitor their performance
  • how do we measure success?

 

We tend to stay focused on these questions because they lend themselves to the kinds of abstract thinking modern workplaces value. We can model, and theorise and predict and analyse. Teams are cogs in the organisational machine, people are cogs in the team. We just need to figure out the right arrangement of cogs.

But perhaps we focus so much on these for another, simpler reason? Like every human being before us, we are highly attuned to threats, to danger. The unknown represents the deepest well of threat and danger we can imagine. What is more unknown to us than other people?

In the workplace we often instrumentalise each other in order to contain that fear of the others. We understand each other as functional parts of the organisation and use performance measures, pay grades, job titles, to explain those (frightening) others to ourselves. We understand teams not as a collection of living, breathing, messy human lives but as collections of skills to be applied to tasks and measured against performance metrics. After all, how else are we to achieve our goals, deliver on our mission, honour our vision?

And yet… despite the miles of books written on teams and team working, the endless TED Talks and Harvard Business Review articles, for most of us the daily experience of team sits on a spectrum of vaguely ok but insecure and unsatisfactory at some existential level through to downright awful.

Having worked for over 30 years in a huge range of different organisations and roles, I decided to look back at specific, detailed moments of times when I felt truly happy in a team and the team was successful. Not at the experience of team x or team y across time, just at particular moments when the idea of getting stuff done together seemed to be most fully and happily realised for me and the team.  As I reflected I noticed a pattern in the times that popped into mind, illustrated in this account of one of those moments.

The sun was happily turning my pale Scots skin a shade of red to rival the dusty red ground of the UN base in Split, Croatia. The convoy of lorries that had set off a few days earlier from Edinburgh was waiting for us. Tools, generators, water pumps, all manner of heavy goods were soaking up the heat. A small band of us were there to get the goods onto the lorries that would take them to their final destination – Tuzla in Northern Bosnia.  A team of us from the aid organisation I worked for was supplemented by a few others. I don’t remember where they came from though I think a couple might have been from other aid organisations we hung out with, and perhaps some of the squaddies we had all got to know. (Our leader Magnus Wolfe Murray was, and still is, one of those people with the ability to inspire people to help regardless of their connection to an organisation or task.)

We didn’t have much time to move the goods, negotiating their passage through Croatian customs had been tricky and we were wary of any delays. Winter in northern Bosnia is fierce and displaced people streaming out of nearby Sarajevo would need winter proof shelter if they were to survive.  So as we stood in that fierce midday sun it didn’t occur to me to ask why we were doing this in the hottest part of the day. Just as the truly herculean task ahead (we had no special lifting gear available, this was to be a manual transfer) was simply a given, not be questioned or worried about. We started.

It didn’t take long for sweat to start pouring , muscles to start aching, blisters to start stinging. We naturally fell into roles that suited us, though they bore little resemblance to any previously labelled roles. The heavy lifters taking time over the larger challenges, the sprinters who could move smaller items monotonously quickly, the organisers checking inventories and customs paperwork and seeking the optimal final securing of items. Time slipped from view as task after task after task was achieved. We had a clear end point to get to, a timeframe which was less comfortable than ideally it might have been, and a set of circumstances which aggravated rather than ameliorated our challenge. I do remember a steady stream of feelings of satisfaction – another task achieved, another piece of the puzzle placed.

Suddenly and without fanfare we were done. In every sense – task, strength, heat exhaustion. Magnus suggested a river in the forested hills above us. We jumped into a jeep and headed off with no discussion. There is nothing as cool and welcome as a forest after a herculean task in the heat of midday. Eyes bathed in the dappled light, skin delighted at the cooling shade, exhausted muscles dangled in the cold mountain river. A little cafe (in previous times, and probably again now, this was a tourist destination) served up wine and bread and cheese. Everything about this was designed to delight our senses. We ate, swam in the river, laughed at the madness of our task, and gradually fell quiet. The job was done. We had done it.

There are a number of key elements of this story that I find in many of my best experiences of getting stuff done together.

Knowing What Needs Done
There was a shared clear sense of the endpoint, the goal. We knew what needed to be and the bigger picture our task was part of.

And Knowing Why It Matters
For each of us that work was clearly and directly connected to our wider mission – to help ensure the the Tuzla area was habitable for locals and displaced persons during the Balkans War. Nothing in the work felt contrary to or distant from that mission.

Goals Ahead of Roles
Though we all had nominal ‘official roles’ we also had a strong sense of each other – our strengths and weaknesses – and a trust that we would all adopt the role best suited to getting the task done together and not the role best suited to us as individuals or the role suggested by a job title.

Porous Boundaries and Flexible Roles
As in almost all my best team moments the team was not in its ‘usual formation’. There were co-opted team members around. As the day wore on people flexed roles in order to accommodate needs and abilities. As people became exhausted they would take the breaks they needed or take up a role that allowed them to recover.

A Leader Who Protects
Protection comes in many forms. Knowing when to find extra help, knowing when to organise versus when to step back, and knowing how to help teams recover from intense periods.  Team leaders are often encouraged to focus on individuals – helping, rewarding, developing. But that day Magnus exhibited a rarer and less valued ability – to protect individuals by protecting the team as a whole.

Team and Not Individual Achievement
Going to the forest together as a team allowed us to quietly acknowledge to each other that we had achieved something, and that it had been hard for us. There was no singling out, no special praise. The reward was for the team as the team had achieved the goal.

I started this post by suggesting that team thinking in organisations could benefit from stepping back from the abstracted view of team members as ‘parts of the machine’. But when I look back at my warmest memories of team work ‘I’ seem to be in the background and team in the foreground. So what is the point I am trying to make?

Well, it goes back to the idea of the messiness of life and people. Anthropology, music, art, literature all exist to flesh out what accounts of human beings as rational, functional, organisable entities miss out. The reason accounts of the actual lived experience of work are so much longer and more confusing than process models and organograms is adaptation. If there is one thing that human beings are, it’s adaptable.

We flex, and fudge, and massage our way through life everyday. We have too. The world is too unpredictable, our knowing too limited, our ability to forecast too faulty for any fixed, formal system to work. ‘I’ disappeared in that experience in Split, and in my account of it now, because of that very adaptability. Though the conditions of that task seemed unfavourable, that was only from the point of view of the fixed and formal work world. In the messy real work world, we had almost perfect conditions to unleash our natural instincts to work together in adaptable ways:

  1. A goal that stretched us as individuals and as a team
  2. A good reason for the task (tight connection with mission)
  3. Adversity – enough to make it tough, not so much as to make it impossible
  4. Familiarity plus – a core that knew each other well enough and a few others
  5. Good leadership – protected the team, rewarded the team (not individuals)
  6. No organogram to answer to – freed from the need to account for ourselves against a fixed model only, or the need to single out individual contributions.

 

As the parent of any small child born in the last 20 plus years in the UK will know, “Can We Do It? Yes We Can!” is the cry of any team that has ever had to step beyond the organogram to get stuff done together. The challenge I have for any organisation is – do you support the Adaptable Team or the Organogram Team?