Team Building Without Time Wasting: A Case Study

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. copyright 2007

In the book, Coaching for Leadership: How the World's Greatest Coaches Help Leaders Learn, Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan describe a practical team building approach that is effective, empowering and highly focused. Called, Team Building Without Time Wasting (TBWTW), their approach offers the specific steps and the insights needed to use them. Over a two year period I put their principles to work as I coached a ten-member leadership team of a global Fortune 500 Company, and what follows is a case study of my use of their tools, the changes I made to fit my team’s situations, and an outline of the effectiveness of this approach for the team members, their organization, and for myself as their leadership coach.

As a business psychologist and an experienced executive coach with over twenty-five years of unwavering interest in research-based, motivational, and performance enhancement technologies, I can tell you that the best approaches are those that don’t bog the team members down with time consuming, confusing, or complicated systems. TBWTW does none of that, instead it brings greater balance to the organization as a whole by extending responsibility for the team's success to each member and aiding in accountability by stressing the importance of giving and receiving clear, constructive, and direct feedback.

TBWTW is an approach that uses focused feedback and follow-up to help team members develop behaviors that promote cooperation and collaboration. It helps them develop self-awareness, determine what they, in their particular situation, need to do to work more successfully together, and then provides them with a process to learn and practice new, more effective behaviors that can easily be measured.  It is an approach that helps leaders build teamwork and it does so in a rapid and flexible way that is both cost effective and incredibly time efficient.

Click the following link to access the Goldsmith/Morgan TBWTW procedure article - TBWTW (doc)

The Building Blocks

It is the nature of people that makes interpersonal relationships so dynamic and fluid, and even the best-laid plans and processes often need to be adjusted to fit the needs of the particular group.  My ten-member leadership team was made up of one Senior Vice President and engineers, some of whom had Ph.Ds.  As many engineers are, they were unfairly burdened with the stereotype of being “engineers,” meaning not extremely interpersonally adept, but for the most part, the individuals on this team valued being good managers or “people persons.”  They were all well educated and trained in management theory, better trained in fact than many senior executives with whom I’ve worked in the past; a benefit of their working for a large company that boasted an internal management development training program.  The team did, however, have some significant problems working together that they could not resolve on their own.  As one of the executives put into high relief for me during my introductory meeting with the entire team, he said, “Carl, have you read the book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team?  Well we have seven!”

I conducted my own independent assessment of the situation for informational purposes by interviewing all of the members of the team separately as well as several key stakeholders and observers outside of the team.  As I’ve frequently found in similar situations everyone plays a part to some degree or another in any dysfunction.  There was, however, in this team a common theme around a fundamental lack of trust.   Furthermore, one specific team member was labeled as particularly untrustworthy and this exacerbated the dysfunctional condition of the group.  Every member of the team complained that this one individual would say one thing and do another and that he notoriously put his agenda ahead of the team’s success.  The SVP admitted that he had never had any problems with this individual himself, but he had heard these complaints frequently from direct subordinates.

The SVP was frustrated because this subordinate (I’ll call him George) was a loyal long-term employee who reliably “got things done.” However, the SVP understood that he was spending too much time dealing with the complaints about George, and observed the negative impact on the organization as a whole.  He was not ready, however, to fire George.  He wanted to give George a chance to change. 

One of the interesting things I learned in the assessment process was that no one had ever confronted George about his behavior; they just complained about it instead.  When I asked each team member why he hadn’t confronted George directly, each told me that they believed the problem behaviors of their co-worker would remain unchanged even if confronted. Unsurprisingly in my interview with George it was apparent that he was clueless that people distrusted and disliked him so much; a combination of lack of effective feedback from his coworkers and him being too caught up in his own world to notice.

So why not just provide George with coaching instead of making this a group process?  The simple answer was that although George was the current focal point of the group, everyone on the team, including the SVP, also recognized and owned up to the fact that they were other problems with cohesiveness and collaboration within the team, and their lack of dealing effectively with George was just a symptom of the entire collection of their issues.   Therefore, they were ripe for TBWTW.

Building a Team from the Ground Up

We scheduled an offsite meeting for the TBWTW process.  In preparation for the meeting, I gave every member of the team a copy of the TBWTW article to read and asked them to call me with any questions or concerns they had prior to our first the offsite meeting. Several of the other team members were already working with executive coaches, including George, so I planed to bring the coaches into the loop by explaining what I would be doing and enlist their help in reinforcing what their clients would be learning. 

Over the next two weeks I spoke with all of the team members and besides dealing with general anxiety about the process itself, one common request emerged and has since become a standard step in my facilitation of the TBWTW process.  It is especially important in situations where there has been significant interpersonal conflict resulting in collateral relationship damage to not just focus on what’s gone wrong and needs to change in the individuals on the team, we also focus on one or two things that each team-member does well within the team framework.

At the offsite, we began by setting the boundaries and confidentiality rules for our work together.  We agreed that the content of our discussions at the offsite was to be confidential but for the process to be effective, the team and individual commitments would be shared with others who support the team (key stakeholders, subordinates, etc.) and to help them be accountable. As Marshall Goldsmith has noted in other articles, his research, and my experience also supports, conducting improvements in an open environment where others can provide ongoing feedback and support is critical to reinforcing the process and moving it forward.

“Many team-building processes degenerate because team members are primarily focused on solving someone else’s problems. This process works because it encourages team members to focus primarily on solving their own problems!” ~ Marshall Goldsmith

Group discussions began with developing an understanding of how teams evolve and how a high performing team functions based on the available research. For example, we talked about Tuchman’s four-stage model of team development: forming, storming, norming and performing.  I also referenced Howard Guttman’s When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organizationii.  My intent was to reduce the volume of self-depreciating thoughts among the group so that they were free to energize each other to make the necessary corrective changes by understanding that conflict is inevitable in any group of assertive bright people and that the trick is to learn how to navigate that conflict better.
 
Following the TBWTW model, I asked the group members to rate how well they were doing as a team on a scale of 1 – 10.   Again, there was much discussion on the subject and they asked to alter the question. They wanted to ask instead:  (1) On a 1 to 10 scale, how effective are we at achieving results? (2) On a 1 to 10 scale, how efficient are we at achieving our goals? (3) On a 1 to 10 scale how well do we need to be doing in terms of working together as a team?   For this group of engineers, talking about “results” and team “efficiency” resonated better and provided a clearer definition of team effectiveness.  Their request seemed reasonable to me especially since their answers to the questions would further reinforce the need for the process and create a stronger desire for positive outcomes.

For question 1, achieving our goals, they rated themselves at 6.9. For question 2, team efficiency they rated themselves 3.5.  Their response to question 3, how well do we need to be was 8.0.  As before, they didn’t want to just highlight how poorly they were doing, they wanted to give themselves credit for achieving results in spite of how poorly they functioned as a team.  The upshot was that they all concluded that they needed to change and were all on board to proceed with the rest of the TBWTW process.

I then asked the group what their team would look and act like if it were functioning at a higher level. Before moving on we recorded their response to use later in the day to develop a Code of Team Conduct.  

As we moved through the next steps in the process the group members decided to focus on the following two team commitments:

  1. We will all exercise an ongoing process of prioritizing our goals and align our individual actions to them.
  2. We will spend time together as a team to discuss crucial issues and drive commitment to deliver on our priorities.

Step five of the TBWTW process took twice as long for this group than outlined in the Goldsmith and Morgan article for two primary reasons: Per group request we added an additional question: Describe two behaviors that you do that contributes to team effectiveness and efficiency, and the group asked clarifying questions.
 
I added two additional requirements to the step six of reviewing behavioral changes and choosing the two that seem most important by asking them to provide me with each of their full list of suggestions they would give to each other and the full list that they received.  I did this to accommodate a fair amount of expressed cynicism about George’s participation in the process.  Several team members told me during my private interviews that they doubted that he would pick the behaviors they thought he should work on. They felt that if he knew I was overseeing the tallying that he would be sure to focus on their concerns. Again, to help them feel that the process would net valid results, I accommodated their request.  To further support this, I suggested that each member pick the two suggested behavioral changes that received the most mention from their peers. 

My ten-member team was scattered at multiple sites across the continent so it was necessary to alter the next step, step seven, to fit our situation. Instead of asking them to ask for brief five-minute monthly reports on their effectiveness, I asked them to ask four of their teammates to be their “change partners” and to conduct the brief (five-minute), monthly progress reports with them.
 
The remainder of the offsite time was devoted to developing a Code of Team Conduct which was the offshoot of step three mentioned earlier.  Their Code of Team Conduct follows:

  • No triangulation – engage each other
  • Actively support each other
  • Do what you say you are going to do
  • No hidden agendas – be up front
  • Informal climate
  • Proactive inclusiveness – keep track of each other – keep each other informed
  • Tenet of respect
  • Align and keep our priorities up to date
  • Align individual actions to the group goals and objectives
  • We spend time together as a team on crucial issues
  • We seek commitment from the team before seeking business commitment
  • We establish and follow meeting etiquette
  • We take our goals seriously – professional pride.

When we concluded the offsite meeting time the real work began.  Of note, all of the executives informed their immediate subordinates of their personal behavioral change goals and asked for their support in achieving these goals.  Their heartfelt rationale for doing so was expressed quite well by one individual, “If our boss (the SVP) is willing to bare his soul to us and ask for our support in his growth, why shouldn’t we do the same.”

During the next four months, I worked with the SVP as his executive coach and met, when requested, with the other non-coached executives to provide support and coaching. I participated in weekly leadership meetings to observe how these individuals worked together, to support them in following through with their code of team conduct, and to provide real-time advice and guidance to improve how they conducted, and interacted during, meetings.    

Four months later I initiated the “mini-survey” process suggested in steps eight and nine by preparing mini-surveys for each executive, I distributed them to their respective change partners, and tallied the results (see addendum – sample mini-survey). 
 
We held a follow-up offsite meeting to work on steps ten and eleven and to review the results of this first survey. Individual dialogues helped each group member to refine and reinforce the team building process.  Everyone on the team made excellent progress toward achieving increased effectiveness in demonstrating the desired behaviors (average rating of  +2 or better on a -3 to +3 scale – please see the sample mini-survey addendum) except George; he showed no change.  Not too long after this meeting, based on a number of other factors including general performance related issues, the SVP decided to move George out of his role and placed him elsewhere in the company with the hope of his being more effective.

The remaining team members continued to work on their individual and team commitments and at the conclusion of four additional month’s time we initiated another mini-survey.  We held another offsite meeting to review the results, and refine and define next steps.  Everyone continued to make excellent progress. In addition to the formal ratings that showed continued progress we did a qualitative temperature check. I asked all of the participants how they felt they were doing as a team.  The executive who initially expressed the most doubt about the TBWTW process summed it up best when he said, “It’s a world of difference, the energy of our group is much higher, I feel that I’m supported by the group and I’m excited by our prospects.” 

Roughly 12 months after we initiated the TBWTW process, we conducted another offset meeting, the last steps of Marshall and Morgan’s learning progression, and everyone concluded that they had made excellent progress and could concentrate on new successes.  The SVP surprised his team by telling them that corporate-wide they were now considered to be the poster children for how a functional team should work. 

In conclusion, I did more than just follow Marshall’s and Morgan’s Team Building Without Time Wasting plan step by step, but their method was the primary overt vehicle used to work with this ten-member executive team. It made working with them easier because it was systematic in nature and appealed to their engineering mindset, as well as allowing time for me to work behind the scenes coaching the SVP and a couple of key stakeholders as well. I wanted the members of the team to both own their individual part in the dynamics of their group and to help them learn how to behave differently and more effectively. I was able to train them in real time to give constructive feedback to their team members.  In the adult learning model people learn best when they learn using real-time situations and get to practice the skills and this process is designed to encourage practice asking for feedback at regular intervals. 

Since, I have successfully used the basic steps outlined in the TBWTW article, and included my modifications, with several different teams and have continued to see the same levels of success.

I’d like to reiterate Marshall and Morgan’s challenge to you as a team leader: “Try it! The “downside” is very low. The process takes little time and the first mini-survey will quickly show whether progress is being made. The “upside” can be very high. As effective teamwork becomes more and more important, the brief amount of time that you invest in this process may produce a great return for your team and an even greater return for you organization.”

Summary of changes to the TBWTW processes and some lessons learned:

  1. I included in Step Five some version of the following - Describe two behaviors that I do that contribute to team effectiveness.
  2. Allow extra time for participants to ask clarifying questions.
  3. When working with a large team, have the participants select a subset of “change partners” who will complete the mini-surveys for them. This will increase the likelihood that they will check in more frequently for feedback and much needed reinforcement.
  4. Consider requesting that the participants provide you with the list of suggested behavioral changes to ensure that they pick those of high value.
  5. Be flexible and allow the group to put their own stamp on the process.  You’ll get better buy-in.

Carl Robinson, Ph.D., Advanced Leadership Consulting, www.leadershipconsulting.com, carl@leadershipconsulting.com, t: 206.545.1990

Addendum: Mini – Survey Sample