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StrategyFeb 22, 2012

Team Discipline: Lessons from Shakespeare, Tennis & Chemistry

Credera Team

The page is tattered and faded now. It seems like just yesterday it was crisp and white; one of the many quote pages in my pre-match mental prep binder. “We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” Hamlet, Scene 4, Act 5. I remember sitting in the locker room and looking at my teammates. It was game day… time to lay it all on the line. We knew what we were, a team that spent hours in preparation and intensive training, but what would we be tonight? Only time and the test of competition would tell. The line from Shakespeare’s play simply and eloquently reveals truth: teams must be unified and disciplined in determining and shaping their purpose… rooted in who they are. But what they will be? I’m here to argue that remarkable outcomes are available and waiting for teams with the right discipline, framework and commitment.

In my last blog, “Cultivating Teams: A Lesson from the Jungle Book”, I discussed what kind of company culture can foster collaborative teams. In this post I want to focus on specific project team discipline and chemistry. Simply what makes a team successful? In the HBR article, The Discipline of Teams, Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith discuss five characteristics that are essential to establishing team discipline. To illustrate the article’s principles I will use examples from my past experience on the court and in the office while dusting off my high school chemistry book to draw parallels with scientific terminology:

1. Create a meaningful common purpose (CATALYST).

A majority of teams are formed as a result of outside mandates or initial assignments. My college team was formed by our coach and the mandate to “WIN” was set by the athletic director. Once a team is formed, it is imperative that the team develop a meaningful common purpose that they can “own”. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that accelerates a reaction. This shared purpose is that substance,  the mission that ignites the team.  Yes our team wanted to win, but we also wanted to be the best team in school history (and we were that year with a Big 12 Championship and Sweet 16 berth). A project team must communicate and ‘buy in’ to their purpose. Solidify your purpose and make very sure that everyone is invested. Write it out and display it. We had it posted in the locker room above our lucky horseshoe, write it on the whiteboard in a team room or make it your desktop background. Keep everyone focused on the mission and the ‘why’ behind it.

2. Recruit a mix of complementary skills (ELEMENTS).

Elements are the building blocks of matter. People and their skills are the elements that make up the team’s uniqueness and capability. Our tennis team was built up of players with a variety of tennis skills. Our coach recruited those that excelled in doubles strategy, those that thrived in singles, those that had un-paralleled mental toughness and those that had exceptional technique. On project teams, it is critical that a mixture of both hard and soft skills be present: technical and functional proficiency, problem-solving, decision-making ability and interpersonal skills. The HBR article notes that, “Successful teams rarely have all the needed skills at the outset – they develop them as they learn what the challenge requires.”

It is no secret that one’s attitude can have a major impact on behavior and results. How will the group react to change, criticism, or problems?  Zig Zigler is known for saying, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you, we are in charge of our attitudes.”

My current project director used a creative and appropriate technique (adapted from Dan Roam’s book Back of the Napkin) for introducing our new team to each other in a kick-off meeting. He explained that the client loved when he used pictures to illustrate ideas and concepts, therefore our team needed to hone our drawing skills. Instead of going around the horn and giving a mundane 2-3 sentence spiel, we had to draw our experience and skills on the whiteboard. It was a fun yet productive way to learn a new skill and learn about the skills of our teammates.

3. Set specific performance goals (ENERGY).

In chemistry, energy is defined as power which may be translated into motion, overcoming resistance, or effecting physical change. If the common purpose is a mission that ignites, then performance goals are the energy that propels the team (the elements) into action. Goals must be inspiring and challenging, yet measurable and attainable.  Every January, before the season started, my team went on a weekend retreat. The purpose of the weekend was to set our specific goals for the year. We set process goals (daily and weekly goals), performance goals (milestones) and outcome goals (the final desired result). On project teams, goals have a leveling effect compelling members to shift their focus to the collective effort rather than on titles or position. Tracking goals may be as straight forward as checking off milestones in a project plan, or evaluating progress and completion in weekly meetings. It is also important for team members to set individual goals for the project and have their personal performance reviewed formally and informally by their project director/manager. Project directors take heed! Make sure to celebrate your team’s accomplishments  along the journey. Examples could include recognition at project team meetings or company meetings, team lunches or dinners, or other special events.

4. Work hard, work smart and help each other (INTERACTION).

Interactions are the reactions and transformations that are studied in chemistry. Team members must interact constructively in order to perform efficiently, and transform ideas into action. On our tennis team the “work” was done in practice. Our practice mantra was this, “True greatness comes from being great in the little things. You can do a little more each day than you think you possibly can.” The practice court was where the process goals were strived for day in and day out. Challenge your team to be attentive in managing the details of the project, the little things. A team must be disciplined and committed to all aspects and stages of the journey, taking nothing for granted, to ensure a successful outcome.

To be effective, team members must also assume the appropriate roles, and develop norms (i.e., align expectations). Roles must be clearly defined and everyone must be collectively committed to completing assigned tasks. Project norms may be tactical: be early to meetings, submit detailed status reports on time or document project deliverables using approved templates and level of detail. However, they can also have a social bent:  everyone sits in the same chair though seats are not assigned, we go out for sushi every Wednesday or everyone wears a red tie on Thursday.

5. Develop a sense of mutual accountability (ATTRACTION).

Creating mutual accountability among team members is paramount; however, fostering this discipline takes time. Team members must first feel respected and appreciated. Respect and appreciation by the individual builds trust and commitment to the team. Trust and commitment  generates an attraction to one’s team, and this attraction breeds accountability. Attraction is the force acting mutually between particles of matter, tending to draw them together, and resisting their separation. On the practice court we held each other fiercely accountable to our “great in the little things” mantra. We collectively “resisted the separation” of those that had a tendency to slack off.  If teams feel mutually accountable for their successes or failures then they are drawn to helping each other solve problems or improve their backhands. It is important to remember that no one on the team is above being held accountable. Not the project director or the coach. The word “mutual” is the key to this discipline. Everyone must be held to a set of standards and be open to constructive criticism.

So know who you are as a team. Define your purpose and goals, combine and develop the appropriate skills, be unified in how the work will be done and hold each other accountable. Be disciplined. Be rooted.

Now that we know what we are, it’s back to The Bard for the question “what we may be?”  Well, that’s up to you now, isn’t it?  Make Shakespeare and your company proud …