93. Three important steps in building teams

I have spent my adult life building teams. Bringing people together (or being brought together by others) and creating communities. It’s a huge part of my work and is something I care deeply about.

I’ve come to recognise three distinct steps for making team members work well together. Not that this isn’t about their skills or their personalities or anything like that. No, it’s simply a matter of their relation to each other, in a team context. It can be for professional teams or for volunteer teams. No different there.

Note: For my examples, I use animal names. This is because I don’t want to give them real names, and A, B and C are just not as cool as Lion, Monkey and Elephant.

Step One: Awareness

Before Tiger considers asking Hippo for assistance, Tiger needs to know that Hippo can/should assist. This is crucial and often overlooked. What happens is that Tiger asks Monkey (who’s the boss) for assistance, and Monkey says “You should ask Hippo instead”. Tiger didn’t know this, so Tiger didn’t ask. Next time Tiger knows, and will ask Hippo directly. At least in theory!

Step Two: Comfort

It’s naive to think that it ends with awareness. It also takes time and effort to get comfortable with each other. Just because Elephant knows that Cobra can produce snazzy graphics for a new marketing poster, doesn’t mean that asking is natural. One thing is knowing; doing it is the next step. It gets a lot easier with practice, though.

Step Three: Relation

Once people have gotten used to dealing with each other, things run a lot smoother. Until they don’t. Cooperation causes friction and conflicts happen. Mediating between people comes with the project leader hat, and while it’s sometimes easy, it often isn’t. However, once people have developed a strong relation, they learn how to do this on their own. And that’s worth a lot — both for you as the leader and for them as team members working together.

What does it mean?

There it is. One. Two. Three. It’s not rocket science, but it does take time and effort for people to get there. Realising that it’s a journey makes it easier, and the more I look at organisational challenges through this lens, the more I see that this way of thinking about it is relevant.

So what do you do?

You do your best to create an environment, where people move through these steps. First, they get to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and areas of responsibility and competence. Then, they get to know each other and get comfortable without having you in the loop. And finally, they spend time together and learn to trust each other, even when things go south.

It sounds simple. Trust me, it’s not. But it’s worth striving for.

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