Excuse me if this sounds cynical, but is anyone else tired of all the hype about teams? Maybe I’ve attended one too many team-building conferences.

Don’t get me wrong. I think teamwork is important. Doing work in teams (when they are working well) is both personally satisfying and organizationally synergistic. The problem is that so much of what is spoken about is more theoretical than practical, more inspirational than helpful.

This might not be that big of a deal if they also actually covered the most important part of teamwork. What I have learned is that the magic of teams is how the people in them behave. Teams are different from committees, departments and groups in more than just name. What makes a team effective and different is the way it operates.

For example, a team may decide that one of its operational practices will be to allow input/advice/correction from all participants regardless of their role in the company. A line worker’s perspective has the same value as the superintendent’s. This would be an unusual practice in a group where the boss always gets his or her way. So articulating the practice and giving permission for its execution is what makes the team a “real” team. People call themselves “teams” all the time, but they don’t operate differently from any other group of people — and I think that is what has made many of us so cynical.

Beating the cynicism

To beat the cynicism we have to get busy at defining our own practices. But sometimes the practices are the last thing we think about.

Early in my own leadership journey, I knew I would need to be committed to the team concept. However, after 10 years of trying to make it work without achieving a predictable outcome, I knew I was missing something. I hadn’t defined the operational practices.

I had to articulate our way of relating and our way of doing what we did. For example, I had to define what it meant to operate with looser hierarchal structures. I had to figure out how we were going to deal with problems, who would have the final say and what made that different from other (more typical) ways of conducting business. In short, I had to delineate how we would play. I knew the game we were in; I just hadn’t defined how we would play it.

Part of what made this such a valuable exercise was that we worked through the arduous process as a team ourselves and determined what would work in our unique context (Woodcrest). We asked ourselves a host of probing questions, such as:

  • What will fit our context/culture?
  • What fits our personalities?
  • And maybe most importantly, what do we personally prefer?

We discussed them for hours (actually weeks and months) and finally wrote them up as our “21 Highly Debatable Laws of Teamwork” (as a play on the supposed laws of leadership that so many authors/speakers propose as non-negotiable). Candidly, identifying the practices was harder than we thought. But what a valuable process it was.

Dr. Rod Casey, senior associate pastor at Woodcrest, might have summed it up best: “I had experienced enough failure to know I couldn’t be successful without a team approach. Now I was working on a team with some high-functioning capacity, but I wondered, ‘What are the specific practices that would make it sustainable over the long haul?’ Until we actually took the time to define our methodology as a team, we were left to our own interpretations of what teamwork meant. But once we specifically defined and vocabularized our practices, we went from working as a team to employing principles that kept our team intact and that we could teach to others. The journey has exceeded even my best hopes of what I thought might be possible. We have each known deep personal fulfillment and fulfilled a mission worthy of our best efforts. Life has far exceeded my expectations, and it’s only possible because of a great team.”

Perhaps if you are diligent in doing your own good work in this regard, you, too, will not just have the aspiration of building a great team — you might actually get to play on one.

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