Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Forging a Team Identity

For a group of coworkers to have a chance of becoming a team, they must share a common sense of purpose or identity.  Dave Logan in Tribal Leadership calls this a “Noble Cause.”  On small teams this often comes naturally.  Everyone is working on the same project or related set of features.  As teams become larger, their goals become more dissimilar and team identity becomes harder to forge.  It is up to the leader to forge this team identity.

Having a unifying cause (whether noble or not) is important to get the most out of a team.  If people are all working toward a common goal, they will make the right compromises to do what is best for the team as a whole.  If there is no unifying cause, people will be working to optimize locally which is usually at odds with global optimization.  Each person will be trying their hardest, but if they are pulling is different directions, some of their effort will cancel out the effort of others.  Having a unifying cause does not guarantee that people work in concert, but it is certainly a prerequisite.

How does one go about finding a unifying cause?  First look at the obvious candidates.  If the whole team is working on a particular product or feature area, just use that.  In my past I have unified teams around the concept of working on audio in Windows or on being the video team.  Sometimes there is no single feature to focus on.  In my last position I had 3 teams working for me.  Each had a distinct area to work on.  We were all part of the Windows organization, but we were such a small part that we couldn’t take that as our identity.  Each team even had its own identity, but as a group of leads, we didn’t.  What Joe was working on didn’t relate much to what Jane was working on.  I was convicted by Tribal Leadership and Good to Great that we needed a point of unification, but there wasn’t a product we has in common.  It was time to forge an identity rather than find one.

The unifying principal I chose was becoming better managers together.  This is something we all had in common, being managers, and something we could help each other with.  Even if the technologies we were working on didn’t form a conceptual whole, our positions did.  Toward this end we made sure to have a lot of discussions about managing people.  We would discuss situations and how to handle them.  We started a weekly “book club” where we would read a chapter of a book each week and discuss it in our leads meeting (more on this in a future post).  It worked well.  The team began to gel work work together.  People began forming triad relationships rather than being dyadic.  That is, they started helping each other rather than merely reporting everything to me.

It is important that a team, whether it be a team of ICs all working on the same feature or a group of leads reporting to a manager, have some common identity.  This in turns requires a goal or a unifying principal.  If there are no obvious candidates to be found, identity should be forged from something less obvious.  In the second case, it is easy to operate without a unifying goal, but things will run less smoothly.  Be intentional about ensuring each team has a common identity.