I wrote last week about the challenge of balancing collaborative and independent work on a small team. You need to get stuff done individually, but also want to leverage the collective strength of your team AND keep your team members motivated and learning. Everyone should feel like they are getting better at what they do, as well as how they do it.
In order to make this happen on my small, growing team, I take a lesson from what I coach innovation teams in my program to do: consciously focus on the learning as well as the task.
A great example from a recent program involved Seth, a participant who showed up to his team’s first meeting with what he thought was a perfect innovation opportunity. Seth’s idea involved prepaid gift cards, a product he happened to know a lot about.
After the team agreed to pursue the opportunity (via a consensus building process that I plan to write more about in the future), Seth – as the team expert and best connected – faced a continuous challenge for the duration of the program:
In the limited time the team had before they had to pitch their idea in front of the heads of the business, Seth had to decide:
- When do do things himself
- When to involve his team members
- When to hand things off
Seth did this so well that in the final presentation, the rest of the team knew so much that the audience couldn’t tell which team member was “the expert.” Of course in this context, a prime objective was for the participants to learn about other parts of their company, and the team had a coach encouraging and reinforcing that. But the impending presentation could easily have trumped those great intentions. It’s even more challenging to make this happen day-to-day.
The best teams keep up a regular flow of communication that includes not just what they are doing, but also how and why.
I see my job as the “team leader” to encourage my team members to teach one another. I do this with push and pull tactics. I push people to take the extra step when they need something done of explaining why they need it or why they want it done a certain way. I also encourage them to pull information from one another by asking questions.
On my small team, this isn’t a problem, but it’s not natural in many corporate cultures to ask people how and why they do things. It could be construed as questioning their expertise, or more likely, it’s considered an imposition on their time.
During our innovation programs, when we send participants off to do exploratory interviews seeking innovation opportunities, they are often initially hesitant to ask what they consider “stupid” questions: “How do you do that?” or “How did you make that decision?” They think these questions might be discourteous.
But most people LIKE to teach. They like to explain what they do. Contributing to team members’ professional growth is a motivator I wrote about last week.
By getting someone to walk through their thought process with you, you are opening up the possibility that:
- You could bring a fresh perspective to the task at hand
- By reflecting on their own practice, they could recognize things about it that they might want to change
- You learn not what they do, but how they do it – which is where the possibility for innovation comes
When collaboration doesn’t seem like the right move, and you’ve decided to move forward with a task individually, ask yourself these questions first:
- Would someone else on my team benefit from seeing how I do this, from participating in the conversation(s) that this includes, or from trying to do it themselves?
- How much longer would it take to include a team member?
- Is it more beneficial to my team to develop my team member by including them, or to complete the task at hand quicker by just doing it myself?