One of the most common complaints I hear from managers is, "I want to re-energize our team. We used to be cohesive and enjoy working together. Now everyone is focused on their own piece, and we're so busy we hardly have time to talk with each other anymore."
I've experienced this myself. Many years ago, I was delighted to be invited to join the board of a non-profit agency in our community. When I first joined, the board meetings were fun, highly charged, with intense debate and dialogue. At the end of my six-year term, as I reflected on my reluctance to sign up for another term, I realized that over the years the meetings had become less interesting, the board members had become less engaged, and the original energy that had attracted me had dissipated. Because this had happened so gradually, I hadn't noticed how much we had drifted until I was confronted with the decision on whether to sign up for another term.
Since that time, I've observed this same phenomenon in numerous other settings including entertainment, sports and business.
What is this phenomenon? Why isn't it noticed sooner?
We've all heard stories of individuals who wake up one morning and wonder how they ended up where they were, so far from their original hopes and dreams. Maybe it's happened to you, or someone you know. The same thing happens to groups — teams, boards, even organizations, but usually they don't wake up and realize it. They just slowly continue to drift off course, not even aware of what's happened.
Team drift occurs as a result of a series of small things, each insignificant on its own, the total of which have a cumulative impact. Over time, a formerly high-performing team can lose its focus and capabilities without team members recognizing what is happening. Teams only realize they're off course when sometime big occurs, like when a new manager is assigned to the team or when a key team member leaves.
Team drift can occur for a variety of reasons. Team members can get trapped by their own success. They stop taking risks, unwilling to lose what they have accumulated. The gradual replacement of older team members can allow a team to become unmoored from its history and original purpose. Sometimes drift occurs because members shift to a short-term focus. Individuals begin to focus solely on their own piece and lose the perspective of what's best for the entire team.
Has your team begun to drift? Watch out for these warning signs:
- You leave meetings feeling like they've been a waste of time, or you decide to stop having team meetings because they're not productive.
- You have to re-do work or discover there's been duplication of efforts.
- There is increasing interpersonal conflicts within the team.
- Team members don't have access to the information they need to do the job right and end up having to redo work.
- You are inundated with day-to-day demands. Everything is a priority.
- Crisis management has become a way of life. As soon as one problem is solved, another appears.
- Your team is not getting the recognition and respect it deserves from the rest of the organization.
If this describes your team, look to sports for a way to address the problem. What does the coach or quarterback do when the team is losing focus? They call a time out. Anyone can call a time out — the leader or a team member. Taking a time out to regroup and refocus is the most powerful way to get your team back on track.
Do some thinking about the situation on your own first; then pull your team together for a huddle. Take these four steps:
- First describe what you have observed and the effect it has had on you in a non-judgmental way. This will set the tone for an open, honest and non-defensive conversation.
- Then, open up the conversation by asking others what they are experiencing. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak and be heard. It's important that all viewpoints are recognized as valid.
- Next, revisit your vision: I define vision as knowing who you are, where you're going, and what will guide your journey. Who you are is your purpose. As a team, come to agreement on questions like, "Why do we exist?" "What purpose do we serve?" and "What is the greater good that we provide to the organization?" Where you're going is the picture of what it looks like when you are fulfilling your purpose. Discuss what the team would look like if it were operating at full force. What would relationships look like between team members? How would the team be viewed by the rest of the organization? What will guide your journey are your shared values. Agree on the operating guidelines that guide how you work together.
- Last, move to problem-solving. What's the best way to get back on track? What goals will move your team toward your shared vision? Do you need to change about the way you work together? It's important not to jump to problem solving before you have re-established your shared vision or the tail will be wagging the dog.
Taking a "time out" to pull your team together, to regroup and refocus on your vision, will allow you to easily set a new trajectory that will get you where you want to go.
Have you experienced team drift? Did you recognize it at the time? What was your experience and how did your team address it?
Thanks to Jesse Lyn Stoner / Blogs HBR / Harvard Business School Publishing