A few years ago, I was participating in a team development seminar. The facilitator was talking about teams being the ultimate competitive advantage because of their ability to outperform individuals. To make this point, the facilitator had everyone in the room get out of their chairs and stand on the edges of the room. He then selected three volunteers to compete in a challenge against a singular individual.
The challenge was for the team of three to outperform the individual person in creating the tallest stack of chairs within a three-minute timeframe. The facilitator gave no time for planning and instantly said “go” once the objective was shared.
Each person started frantically stacking chairs. Within seconds, the team of three started shouting commands and requests across the room to one another as they tried to get their own stacks established. The team took strategic pauses to try and get on the same page. All the while, the individual person competing against them was creating a taller and taller stack. By the end of the challenge, the individual competitor had actually won the challenge. His stack of chairs was taller than the team’s stack.
I, along with other observers, was humorously shocked at how the individual person had outperformed the team in such a simple task. Even the facilitator was shocked. You would think that this should have been such an easy win for the team.
Two Critical Components of a Healthy Team
After the event, I was dialoguing with a peer of mine regarding what we thought of that situation. The team should have won. Why didn’t they? This may seem like a simple conclusion to some of you, but we determined that teams don’t outperform individuals every time. But healthy teams do.
What this experiential case study showed us is that you can’t just throw people together and expect them to be healthy and perform well. They will struggle, a lot! They will succumb to dysfunction and underperform when there is no intentional time allotted for team development. Dysfunctional teams spend their time and energy doing their own thing, blaming others for underperformance, and living an unfulfilling life within the team.
As my good friend Rusty Chadwick says, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” Healthy teams can be a reality, but that reality cannot happen by simply throwing people together and telling them to be successful.
Healthy teams have two overarching realities that are present within the unit. They have a healthy culture and an aligned strategy.
The Impact of a Healthy Team
Management guru Peter Drucker is known for his statement, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While I love the spirit of this idea, I think we all have experienced the struggles of both poor strategy and unhealthy culture. I don’t think it’s an issue of one being more important or better than the other. They are both vital to building healthy teams. I like to look at it this way: culture is the heart and strategy is the brain, and you can’t live without either one.
It’s true, if you have the best strategy in the world and a dysfunctional culture you will fail. But the alternative is also true. You can have a healthy culture and a disjointed strategy and you will also fail. In both of these situations, you have an unhealthy team. Health is not just cultural, it’s also strategic.
We need the heart (culture) and the brain (strategy) working together to build a healthy body (team).
Healthy teams make simple tasks, like stacking chairs, fun and easy. It creates an environment where people love what they do, who they do it with, and they outperform individuals and unhealthy teams. Teams can be the ultimate advantage, but they can also be the ultimate disadvantage. Healthy teams outperform the sum of their parts. Unhealthy teams underperform the sum of their parts – just as our chair stacking example proved.
4 Ways to Create a Healthier Team Culture & Strategy
Here are simple, yet very intentional, rhythms leaders and team members can practice to improve the health within your team:
1. Dialogue Daily
Heart – Create time and space to talk, relationally. This can be time to talk about hope, hobbies, interests, or about the Atlanta Braves being the World Champions! This is time to ask both superficial and deeply meaningful questions. This is undirected time to simply allow team members to connect on what matters to them.
Brain – Just like with culture building, acting strategically requires daily communication. This may be in short team meet-ups, emails, one-on-one check-ins, or real-time dialogue when executing tasks. No matter what the communication methods are, you have to dialogue daily to act strategically.
2. Meet One-on-One Weekly & Train Monthly
Heart – Take time once a week (could be a lunch break) to invest in building relationships with one team member. Having the daily time to shoot the breeze and have leisure dialogue is important, but an intentional, one-on-one with a team member to really get to know them is the next step in building healthy relationships.
Brain – Provide training that equips the individual and the team for strategic action. Some growth requires simple practice, other growth requires new capabilities. Give yourself and/or your team the time and resources to learn new things.
3. Plan & Adjust Quarterly
Heart – Dedicate intentional time to team outings, team development, and/or recreational time as an entire team. Building team culture is different than building personal relationships. Communal relational skills are different than one-on-one relational skills. Invest in team time to learn and build your team’s personality and behaviors.
Brain – Organizations and teams must be dynamic with their plans. Things change. Emerging opportunities present themselves. Reviewing your plans and approaches on a quarterly basis provides adequate time to assess reality and make the adjustments needed to do what’s best, not just what was planned.
4. Retreat Annually
Heart – Go on a trip. Get away from your normal environment. Do something that WOWs your team. Dedicate multiple days to:
- Connect with the vision
- Experience adventure
- Grow personally (self-awareness)
- Grow collectively (team awareness)
Brain – Commit multiple days to intensive planning. Go somewhere that inspires creativity and forward-thinking. Gather the right voices who can adequately represent all areas of the organization or team to build your annual plans. During this time:
- Review the vision
- Establish priorities
- Set goals
- Identify needed resources
Don’t make the mistake of thinking one is more important than the other. We may have seasons of focusing more on culture than strategy, or vice versa. But we have to recognize that this only happens in seasons. We must continually be growing our cultural and strategic capacities. The health of our organizations and teams depends on both being valued and both being fostered.