December 4, 2015
Column | basic training

Go, team, go! Win one for the Gipper!

If your future depends on how well your teams do (and it does), you've got to invest in conscious team construction, using every tool and insight you can find.

By Art van Bodegraven

As football reigns and basketballs bounce in the wings, thinking about teams is inescapable. In most all team sports, split-second and intimate interactions are paramount to success. (Baseball is a bit of an exception, with more room for the freewheeling cavorting of superstars and misfits—not mutually exclusive categories.)

In our supply chain world, opportunities and needs for team effort and collaborative solutions abound—even overwhelm: Corporate implementation of an ERP. Installation of a new warehouse management system. A process redesign in the facility's pick/pack/ship operations. A move to a new DC. Integration of automated equipment into material handling operations. And on and on.

Teams have been a fact of life in our organizations for a couple of generations now. The once-vaunted cross-functional team approach has been around long enough to become a cliché. This approach, now an anachronism, was a useful beginning in assembling a variety of functional skills for complex problem solving. But cross-functional presence alone falls far short of what it takes to make truly effective teams—and can actually create seriously suboptimized solutions.

Without denigrating the importance of having competency resident in teams, there are a few levels of planning, selection, and leadership without which teams risk falling off the edge of a cliff into an abyss of failure.

TEAM FUNCTIONS, ROLES, AND BEHAVIORS

Classical team research shows that, while the nomenclature may vary, all teams must have embedded within them specific roles that are critical to success. For instance, in management consultant Glenn Parker's work, we find:

  • Contributors: Those who typically provide the nuts-and-bolts-type functional skills and expertise
  • Communicators: Those who, along with useful functional skills, work to foster a strong sense of group interaction, mutual trust, and alignment on goals and behaviors
  • Challengers: Those who test concepts, demand consideration of alternatives, and (while appearing to obstruct progress) keep the team from disastrous outcomes
  • Collaborators: The big-picture visionaries; the forward-looking folks who are committed to reaching the Shining City on the Hill, sometimes overlooking pesky details and dismissing challenges.

Other practitioners classify team members as task-oriented, goal-directed, process-oriented, and idea-challenging. Please note that the tendency to identify four classes of team member in no way indicates that the team should be restricted to just four individuals. Teams can be large and complex, with a number of each type of player present. Of course, any team that gets to be too large runs the risk of becoming a committee—a sure kiss of death.

No matter. What is important is that the team leader recognizes the legitimacy of each role. The next step is to teach the team members about themselves, and to help them value the other members and their roles and contributions to the end objective.

Importantly, a little examination will reveal that whatever the role nomenclature, team members' preferences, styles, and behaviors will map vary closely with the sundry assessment tools that have become popular in business, industry, the military, and government in the past several decades. This recognition is vital, in that simply knowing what you've got with respect to team composition is not likely to get you where you need to go in a world that demands results.

There are many tools available to help the savvy leader to build with purpose and determination high-performing teams; merely accepting what you've been handed has worse odds of winning than a Mega Millions lottery.

TEAM BUILDING AND ASSESSMENT TOOLS

When it comes to team building and personality assessment tools, perhaps the best known is the venerable Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Dating back to WWII, this indicator classifies individuals into one of 16 boxes in a matrix, with a four-letter code to provide a shorthand description. Despite its age, it remains a useful (if imperfect) device to assess personality.

Over the years, a number of similar personality assessment tools and temperament sorters have emerged. Usually simplified versions of the MBTI, they employ comparable categorizations. David Keirsey's work in this variant is probably the best known, along with Otto Kroeger's.

Other well-known assessment methods include the DiSC tool (now proprietary to Wiley), which focuses more on communication and styles. (DiSC, which stands for Dominance, Inducement, Submission, and Compliance, slots individuals into the usual number of boxes.) Perhaps the most sophisticated of this family of tools is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, which presents a nuanced profile of the balance (or imbalance) of styles, preferences, and characteristics.

Whatever the system used, it is imperative that the leader deliberately seek out differing personality types, with the four principal team roles in mind. It's not simply a matter of balance; it takes all styles to make a complete team and to achieve an optimal result.

Also important in team construction and assessment is the employment of a tool to determine conflict resolution preferences—you've got to know how team members handle contention and differing opinions, interpretations, and perspectives. For this, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is invaluable.

You will also want to know how enthusiastic and committed team candidates are, and how they see their roles, how strongly they are motivated to lead—or to follow. You can't afford to have talented people on board who really don't care about the outcome. Nor can you afford to have two or three who are determined to drive the team bus, no matter who the preferred leader might be. Further, strong contributors might need a lower-key, calm leader, but more passive followers might do much better with a strong, even fiery, de facto floor leader. The right tool for these decisions is FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation - Behaviors). Btw, there is no such thing as FIRO-A.

Of course, there is no assurance whatever that a person with an identified style or preference is any good at using what might be inferred from the assigned nomenclature. Further, an individual might be highly skilled in the use of a style opposite his or her primary preference. All the more reason to get to know people beyond superficial levels.

READY TO THROW IN THE TOWEL YET?

This team stuff is not easy. But if your future depends on how well your teams do—and it does—you've got to invest in conscious team construction, using every tool and insight you can get your hands on. There's plenty of information online about each of these tools, and there is a multitude of skilled practitioners who can help you through the process. Tip: If you pursue any of these options, do not send one or two people to learn them and report back. Train your entire cohort in them at the same time for optimal internalization and adoption.

Maybe you can even use how well your teams, with you as ultimate leader, do to leverage your way up from logistics and supply chain management execution into a valued role at the highest levels of the enterprise. No promises, but going unarmed into the combat of corporate politics is not likely to be a winning strategy.

About the Author

Art van Bodegraven
Columnist
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven

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