In high school, my favorite shirt was a black crew-neck with the words “teamwork makes the dreamwork” printed across the front. It should be noted that I had had this shirt since middle school, so it was faded and frayed from overuse and a few sizes too small. Yet, I loved the shirt for two key reasons. First, those words, “teamwork makes the dreamwork,” had become my motto. Second, the shirt itself was part of my uniform for early morning Saturday practices with my synchronized skating team, which represented the nation as Team USA. Each week as we stepped onto the ice at 5:30am sharp and prepared for a grueling four-hour practice. Despite the exhaustion and intensity we would face that morning, my teammates and I always wore smiles on our faces and infected one another with enthusiasm and excitement. In the ratty old shirt, at 5:30am each Saturday morning, surrounded by 19 of the most esteemed figure skaters in the country, I first learned the value of a team.
My experiences with teamwork have since moved from athletics to academia and professional life. I constantly find myself working in both formal and informal groups, uniting with others for a common goal. Thus, I have had tremendous time to ponder the elements and characteristics that lead to the most effective teams, which I intend to detail in the remainder of this post.
To begin, the creation of teams is nothing short of a puzzle. The leader must find individuals with varied experiences and backgrounds, yet equally motivated to pursue a common goal. Crafting the optimal blend of diversity and commonality often takes weeks of interviews and brainstorming. But if this effort is put in on the front end, it promises large payoffs in the long run.
Once the members are chosen, however, it takes time and effort to turn them into a team. For me, this is perhaps the most perplexing yet rewarding challenge for leaders. While leaders must establish expectations, they must also appear approachable and welcoming. Likewise, a certain degree of professionalism and formality must be paired with an ease and informality that encourages participation and conversation. In my experience, the most effective way to create this team spirit is not through team building exercises or ice-breakers, but rather through informal discussion; by including five to ten minutes in the meeting agenda for unrelated, casual conversation, team members feel relaxed and comfortable sharing details about their personal lives. Through these interactions, we can learn about one another outside of work, finding common ground in areas we least expected with individuals whose backgrounds differ entirely from our own. Moreover, by accounting for these “productive unproductive” minutes, leaders set an agenda that achieves all the meeting’s objectives while also fostering the dialogue that builds a sense of team.
As the project progresses, this sense of team will begin to pay off, transforming those “productive unproductive” minutes into ingredients for unparalleled deliverables. Behavioral scientists have proven that sharing personal details about ourselves and learning those of others create a sense of comfort within a group. By finding that mysterious balance between formality and informality, meeting minutes foster the collaboration and participation that leads to the most successful outcomes. When team members feel comfortable sharing any thoughts they might have, unique ideas are brought to the table. Although they may not be applicable in their initial form, collaborative teams can build upon and tweak them, blending diverse ideas to create a single strategy or course of action. Likewise, when we feel comfortable respectfully disagreeing with others’ ideas, and are not offended when others disagree with ours, group conflict is mitigated and transformed into productive dialogue. The best teams, it seems, become a family. Meeting minutes begin to resemble dinner table discussions, whereby team members enthusiastically present the research and analysis they have conducted just as family members share the highs and lows of their days.
The creation of teams and the facilitation of teamwork is by no means easy. It requires careful consideration and open dialogue. Yet, when teams achieve the unity and comfort of a family unit, teamwork really does make the dreamwork. It results in project deliverables that bridge unconventional ideas to create a unique and innovative strategies. At Hilltop Consultants, such teams are ubiquitous; diverse backgrounds, strong leadership, and empowered team members unite to build not only superior solutions for clients, but also a sense of family and comfort within the organization.