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Teamwork: Do experience and authority still rule?

As we near the end of another turbulent year, it’s a good time to take a look at something that will be familiar to most of us…. our team.

Never has the phrase “not being able to see the wood for the trees” been so appropriate as when it is applied to the group of people with whom we spend much of our working lives. We may give our specific attention to the changed dynamics when a new person joins the team, but pretty quickly things settle back into routine and we resume a pattern of relationships that characterise a stable team.

But there is massive potential value in taking a closer, and more objective, view of our team. There could be characteristics of individuals, sub-teams and the collective whole that are hiding in plain sight, and these characteristics could be the key to unlocking better performance in the future. So how do we get past the familiar and get these new perspectives? For me there’s no better way than to get them engaged in an activity that levels the hierarchy and allows authentic performance to shine through.

When an established team are faced with a novel task, one that is equally unfamiliar and challenging to every member, then many of the conventions of team performance are no longer appropriate or useful. When a team sets to work, we are used to experience and authority being very much to the fore, so alternative ways of organising are not given any consideration. What this means is that if the team are faced with a workplace situation which is outside of their prior experience they have little by way of alternatives to the ‘tried and tested’. This is a vulnerability, so exposing the team to this kind of situation in a secure learning environment where results are not detrimental to bottom line performance has got to be a way of ameliorating risk.

Choosing the right learning tool to set up this learning experience is important if we are to get the result we need. The appropriate tool will to
some extent negate the value of direct experience, so things like in-box exercises and business simulations will usually be ineffective in giving us the learning we want. Better alternatives are learning tools that challenge conventional ways of thinking, as these will reward teams that
can generate a state of ‘thinking differently’ fast and effective results usually derive from introducing an exercise like Seeing the Point which challenges the very way that we look at the world.


Where we need to challenge the extent to which a strong sense of hierarchy within a team leads to a ‘defer to authority’ pattern we need a different type of learning tool. In order to get team members to recognise that authority has its downside as well as its upside, we need to set up a learning environment which has two inherent conditions. We need everybody to have the same lack of prior and relevant task-related information. In short, the activity needs to be equally challenging to everybody in the team. What this creates is an action phase that addresses the question “How do we do this?” in a way that involves everybody on an equal footing. Secondly, we need everybody to have equal access to information that has value in moving the team towards success. This creates a different dynamic to the usual workplace situation where access to information is imbalanced and therefore potential for contribution is more or less restricted. This type of learning tool permits the team to explore a situation where nobody has the answer, yet everybody has an equal role in finding the answer. For us an exercise such as Simbols is just about perfect in setting up just such a situation.

If we create an engaging learning environment within which we can look at a familiar set of team dynamics through these very different lenses we open up the possibility of seeing what is working in the way the team operates, and perhaps get an insight into what isn’t working. If this suggests some potential changes in team roles, systems, relationships etc., then we may just make that team that much more effective. We may also get an insight into the resilience of that team when it meets future challenges. We’ve seen them operate in an environment where we have removed the twin crutches of “unchallenged reliance on experience” and “unquestioning deferral to authority”, we’ve talked through the results; now are there any new development we’d like to see in the way that this team works?

Contact us today for expert advice on activity suggestion to help develop your team.

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