Tuesday, December 29, 2015

3 Key Issues for Successful Teams

TogetherOne of the perennial challenges I come across in my work in schools and other organisations is the ability of a team to collaborate well. Put simply: to create something together. Everyone finds this difficult and none more so than in schools.

This recent piece from Harvard Business Review highlighted a bunch of issues that are related to the success of a group working together. They drew upon a range of research meta-analysis and have also raised some good questions about what is still a little unclear about group creativity.

I thought I would spend a short while exploring my take on those most related to learning.

A Compelling Vision

Teams are more innovative when members have a common understanding of team objectives and are also committed to them.

Most schools have the trifecta of a Vision, Mission and Values. They may also have the Whole School Pedagogy statement thrown in there too. But admittedly I have rarely come across a vision that is Compelling.

They shouldn’t be trophy statements that only provide us with useful brochure-ware. A vision statement is a chance to compel a group of people forwards in terms of innovation. An opportunity to challenge and create excitement about what the future might hold.

When we are excited about that future direction and we share it with others innovation and creativity is more likely to flourish. I suppose it helps us all understand the why.

Support for Innovation

Teams are more innovative when managers expect and approve of innovation, support members when their attempts to innovate are not successful, and recognize and reward new ideas and their implementation. This means encouraging risk and expecting failures.

The interesting part here is the support team members receive when things go wrong and when ideas are not successful. At first I thought this might just relate to the work of teachers as they develop new ideas for their work, but it is also an issue for students too.

Generating a bunch of ideas is one step but trying them out is another. When leaders and managers give us agency and license to mess stuff up we are much more likely to create and implement more ideas. This is linked to how High or Low stakes the learning environment is. You might ponder on that for a second and try to settle on an aggregate sense of what the wider school or organisation environment is.

When a school has a generally High stakes environment students and staff don’t feel safe enough to try things out. Failing is not seen as part of the learning process and it is likely that there is an emphasis on the end product or outcome and not the path a student takes.

As you probably can tell when we start talking about “stakes” we quickly bump up against the assessment system, process and environment in a school. If you really want to have a creative, innovative school start by looking closely at your assessment culture.

A Cohesive Team

Cohesion represents commitment to the team and a desire to be part of the team. Researchers see cohesion as creating a psychologically safe environment that enables members to challenge each other and the status quo.

Related to my previous point about creating a safe enough culture for taking a risk is this interesting definition of “cohesion”. When we are united together behind a common goal there is a degree of comfort, that comfort stems from the acceptance of others around us. It is this acceptance that creates a desire to be together in a team and commitment to work successfully together.

When we have this sort of team baseline in effect we are much more likely to challenge the world around us. This includes our propensity, within that team, to provide critique or feedback to each other. We know that feedback is a key element of the process of learning that has a significant impact. But the success of any feedback interaction relies on the cohesion of the people who create that interaction.

No surprise that cohesion is synonymous with relationships. This is especially true in the classroom and in terms of learning. A useful reminder for us all that building stronger relationships with our colleagues and students will help feedback to be more successful.

The other element referenced here by HBR is the ability of a team to challenge the status quo. I often say that “assumptions lead to mediocrity”. I have worked with teams where challenging long held beliefs within an industry is a bridge too far. It loops back to the relationships we have with those working around us and of course vertically throughout an organisation. When there is little cohesion or support for change the well worn path is a safe and predictable choice.

If we want to develop the creative capacity of our teams, our students or those we are leading we must challenge the status quo. We all did this well as 6 year olds. It would help if we enabled those around us to ask more questions and challenge the long held practices of our industries.

Re-build that individual capacity within a culture of “yeah let’s try it!”, under a compelling banner for what might lie ahead, and we all may be on to something.

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