blogging about DIRECT LEADERSHIP

Realtime Team Building

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At times, people like me who grew up in Scandinavia, studied in Europe and spent most of my adult life working with people of shared backgrounds think that just telling people to collaborate in solving a given task will make it happen. And end up wondering why it didn’t.

When my grandniece, Felicia, was about four, she and her grandmother (my sister) came to visit. Felicia knew there was a beach and she could go bathing in the sea. As it turned out the weather was cold so nobody else wanted to go. But Felicia was insistent, and eventually my sister and I went along down to the beach and watched while the girl tiptoed into the ice-cold water. Come on “throw yourself into the water” shouted my sister (so that we could get it over with and go home). But then the girl turned round and asked, “How does one throw oneself …?”

This morning I took part in a meeting that turned out to contain an inspiring example of doing day-to-day team building among a group of Chinese employees. However, while my discussion partner’s story was particularly interesting from the viewpoint of Scandinavians maneuvering in a Chinese workplace it is also a generic example of the fact that team building is a day-to-day responsibility that requires a long-term perspective.

My discussion partner – let’s call him Jon – used to lead a small staff, whose members were all quite reluctant to collaborate. Instead they would hold their cards close to their vests and not share any information with each other. Not an uncommon situation in China, where competitiveness and personal ambition often lead employees to put more emphasis into doing exactly what the superior wants than to collaborate to achieve the best solution.

Anyway, Jon was determined to demonstrate to a group of three people that there was value to be gained in collaborating, so he took a series of steps. At first, he asked two people to produce individual proposals on how to solve a particular task. Upon receiving the two proposals he held a meeting with both and asked them to identify the good ideas from the other person’s proposal that would improve their own proposal if added to it. Then, he invited a third person to join the party. First by making his own proposal, then by having the former two look at it and look for potential improvements and vice versa (let the third person look at what the two had made and select the things he himself could use to improve his own work.

Only now, when he had demonstrated to each of the three that there was value to be gained from adding more brains to the task than just one did he ask them to create a joint proposal, and eventually, when they had created their team proposal, he asked them to jointly assess if their proposal would meet the clients needs, and if not to adjust it accordingly.

The result?  A well thought out proposal and a staff who had experienced the value of teamwork. Not in a training session, building things out of bricks and wood, but in real-time in the real world.

Sometimes a little girl of 4 needs to be shown how to “throw herself into the water”, sometimes people who are used to work alone need to be shown how to collaborate.



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