There are a lot of feel good clichés about teamwork. Most have little impact on team members and organizations because they remain clichés and never materialize into anything real and tangible. They also don’t account for the challenging times when teamwork is essential, but erodes because of the pressures and circumstances of a situation. Real teamwork is being able to stay together when forces are trying to pull the team apart.
I’ve been thinking more about how teams connect and the importance of teams connecting in a meaningful way for desirable outcomes.
I was chatting with a friend recently who’s company emerged from bankruptcy by being acquired by a Private Equity firm. The company is now performing well and when I asked her what the biggest difference was, she said, “The silos are gone. The floors actually interact and collaborate now.” This is how fragile and important team connectedness is. Pre-bankruptcy the company was so siloed that different operating departments, physically separated on different floors, rarely interacted across department or floor. Second floor people never went to third floor, third floorers never to the fourth and so on. She said, “It was a dysfunctional mess that was intended to drive departmental and business unit focus but drove unintended wedges between the departments and business units causing a lot of inefficiency and animosity.” She went on to say, “When things were fine the teams could be siloed in their departments and there wasn’t any negative impact. But when things weren’t fine, the separation of the teams causes problems to get out of control because we didn’t know how to work together.”
In soccer, teams form lines on the field to work together and to stay connected offensively and defensively. The number of lines and number of players will vary by team and approach, but typically there are four lines of field players. Field players meaning the goalkeeper isn’t included in the lines. Starting from the back and going forward there are the defense, defensive midfielders, offensive midfielders and forwards. Teams will adjust their formation and lines in games as needed for competitive advantage with the outside defenders often joining the offensive midfielders as an offensive attack is taking place. These lines in soccer are not new and have been part of the game since its inception, yet I repeatedly see teams whose lines aren’t connected while they are playing. Commentators will call it out and chastise a team and coaches for a team’s line being too far apart, too close together, or not working in unison.
In the example of the company that intentionally created silos it is easy to see and understand why their team(s) weren’t connected and working together. The structure didn’t support and honor connectedness. In fact, it did the opposite. This is all too common inside of companies, teams, and organizations. Strategy, structure, and systems meant to accomplish certain objectives have worse impact in other areas that make any positive gains irrelevant. Even with the proper strategy, structure, and systems in place, team connectedness is still incredibly hard to achieve and maintain. Having those things in place just gives you a chance to have a connected and cohesive team, but doesn’t guarantee it.
Such is the case with the soccer teams that have been training, practicing, and playing with the line’s strategy and formation for their entire careers, and yet sometimes it breaks down. The breakdown is not intentional it just happens inside the dynamics of a game. Sometimes it starts with one player becoming undisciplined which causes others to react to cover for them. This can lead to an entire team becoming out of sync because of what the other team is doing as part of the game. Watching a soccer team move and shift dynamically as one organism as the team builds an attack or responds defensively to thwart an opponent’s attack is a thing of beauty. Conversely when a soccer team doesn’t stay connected and their lines breakdown it is ugly to watch. Chaos reigns.
Leaders of companies, organizations, and teams of any size and mission need to set their team(s) up to be connected and successful by implementing the right strategy, structure, and systems to foster connectivity. They also need to coach their teams to stay connected and to support each other when the dynamics of the situation cause the lines of connectivity to fracture and for individualism to takeover, or worse, chaos. Leaders need to create and foster an environment of teamwork and ensure that team members are being coached and trained to remain together even during the harshest of circumstances and environments. Environments where things are mostly good, most of the time, don’t prepare teams for the difficult times when their connectedness gets challenged. Teams that develop a mentality of coasting will likely be unprepared and will fracture when difficult times confront them. We don’t want our teams to be in constant battle mode, but great leaders find ways to continue to challenge their team’s connectedness and don’t take it for granted. The best leaders challenge their teams to prepare for the what if’s.
Even with intentional awareness and preparedness, it is easy for teams to forget the coaching and training when things start going off script. That’s when leaders among the team must step up to provide the continuity between what has been learned and the realities of what is happening. The in-action leaders are the glue between the theoretical and the practical. They sense when their team is fracturing, and they bring them back together.
Connected teams are the teams that win in business and sports more often than any other factor. More than the most talented and skilled for sure. Connected teams know their individual roles and how they contribute to the team performing well. Each team member does their job which in turns supports every other team member in doing their job. Connected teams are ameba-like in that they bend and flex based on the circumstances, but they don’t break. Connected teams have to be humble and empathetic. Each team member putting the interest of the team ahead of their own so everyone is better, and the team can succeed.
The best leaders foster conditions and an environment where all team members understand their roles, are valued, and can perform at their best. No divas allowed. Only teammates who have each other’s backs so when things aren’t ideal and aren’t going as planned every team member knows how to stay connected with the rest of the team.