I had a conversation today, one that happens a lot to me when I’ve been teaching about creating Real Teams. A colleague or student says “Maybe teams are more successful when the membership is stable. But in a rapidly changing, dynamic, and uncertain world, teams just aren’t stable. So what do you do for teams with a lot of turnover?” I have a range of responses to that, some of which I admit can be a little snarky, especially if I’m talking to a leader who has the authority and ability to keep his team memberships stable and chooses not to for “efficiency” reasons. If you keep your teams together, the payoff is huge. Teams that have the chance to learn how to work together effectively, to develop and maintain meaningful shared norms of conduct, have substantially lower error rates and higher performance than unstable teams. We’ve seen it in industries like commercial aviation and health care, where team errors have enormous consequences. We talk about this work in this week’s podcast.
But another answer I give is this: what we mean by “stable” is not “permanent.” “Stable” means together long enough to complete something significant together (e.g., to see that patient through to her departure home, to experience the client’s excitement about what the team designed), long enough to learn how to work together with excellence. How long that requires can depend a lot on the work the team does. But I spend a lot of time with teams of many kinds, and I don’t think it’s at all impossible to keep teams together. Often, the team members don’t have a choice: the way they are scheduled, the work they are asked to do, moves them through different configurations of people frequently, as in many frontline health care teams and many consulting and project teams. They don’t have the authority to say “yes or “no” to that…but their managers do.
What I want managers to think about is this: Every time you change team memberships, the shared understanding of purpose, the tacit learning about who knows how to do what, the well-earned lessons about what works and doesn’t, gets eroded. Every time you shift around memberships, you are undermining your team members and making them start some things over. Can that be avoided? Have you really taken team stability seriously?
Teams do change, of course, and if it has to happen, it’s good to have a great “Relaunch” practice in your toolkit. Relaunching is taking time to convene the new “us” and help them get off on an excellent trajectory. It is even a helpful practice to use when you realize your team has been struggling with the wrong task, the wrong people, not enough resources. We find in our work with teams that a great relaunch, with an enhanced team design, can be an energizing, positive restart of a newly configured team. When teams begin working together, they are especially open to, and in need of, interventions that help get them engaged and motivated, and oriented to their purpose and what success will look like for them. We shared a “Fast Team Formation” protocol in this blog which is one way of getting a team off to an excellent start under serious time pressure. Under less pressing circumstances, take an hour give the team a chance to (1) address their team purposes, (2) grapple with the challenges they are facing, (3) learn about each other’s particular talents, values, and experiences, and (4) affirm the norms and work practices members believe will be needed to be successful together. Those are the four basic ingredients of a good team Relaunch, and if you have them at your fingertips you can help all your teams refresh, reorient, and re-engage.