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Good team working: it's all communication

I’ve worked in, built and managed a lot of teams: teams developed from scratch to deliver new functions, teams merged as the result of corporate restructures, project teams with individual members delivering varied roles, capacity and to different levels of priority, small and specialist and large cross-organisational service teams.

I’ve also been a member of charity boards, grant-giving committees and worked in a range of voluntary spaces where people come together infrequently to achieve their passions. And over the last 2 years I’ve advised and worked with people working in different sorts of teams; largely social entrepreneurs bringing together freelancers, specialists and others to collaborate, always working at a fast pace and with ambitious goals.

‘Team-working’ seems to go in and out of fashion, linked no doubt to respective levels of idolisation of the individual, and individualised talent. While I may cringe now at some of the ‘team-building’ exercises I have taken part in and inflicted on others I can say that I’ve stuck with believing in the power of great teams. Teams matter because they get things done better, can make our lives more meaningful and create more enjoyment on the way. There are after all few, if any, circumstances where one person actually achieves alone. Something our Rio medal-winning athletes have been at pains to put out and Devon Yanko, ultrarunner, puts succinctly in this film:

“Although we might be measured alone, you never get there alone.”

While the how I work with a team to support them to be great is always evolving there are some fundamental beliefs I hold about what works to realise the team potential:

  1. Shared purpose

  2. High quality decision-making

  3. Good relationships

  4. Right skills and knowledge, coupled with clear roles and responsibilities

  5. Ability to grow and learn as a team and individuals

And it has never appeared to me to be rocket science about what sits at the core of achieving these; it’s all about communication, and you have to design it in purposefully.

The science from MIT agrees that what separates great teams is not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ of their communication, specifically high-performing teams:

  • Communicate frequently

  • Talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members

  • Engage in frequent informal communication

  • Explore for ideas and information outside the group

The great news about this finding is that ‘how we communicate’ is a highly trainable skill. In fact to be successful it has to be done with teams specifically, and periodically, to ensure the particular team is in agreement about the best way to achieve these levels of communication for them and in their context. New teams that take the time to look at how they will communicate, even if they are working on a very short-term goal, will reap demonstrably visible rewards, most obviously quicker delivery to agreed standards, earlier identification of issues to be resolved and less time spent unravelling poor decision-making cycles and miscommunication.

And if I wanted to quickly check the health of how well a team communicates, I’d take a look at it (physically or its virtual space): Are they enjoying working with each other? Do they appear to want to be there? Dare I say it, do they appear to be having some fun? Simple ways to tell a lot about how well people feel listened to and engaged and a good measure of how successful a team will be.

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Happen Together CIC

For you, for your work, for social change

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