"Building the team is not a social involves very clear-cut skills...woven into the current real work of the agency...."


By Penny L. Ciaburri

"Team building" is a very popular concept. We hear it tossed around quite frequently and oftentimes, it is seen as the company response for dealing with the problems and pitfalls of the organization. Although interpretations vary widely, many tend to view this as a "getting to know each other a little better" activity which will, in some elusive way, improve the performance of the organization. Translated, "if we could appreciate each other's styles, interests and needs" through a shared experience, our organizational matters would be resolved.

This has led to a misguided approach to training and development which has inappropriately focused on socially-influenced and simulation-based events. Carried further, it helps to explain why so many companies have planned retreats, "get togethers," and other company gatherings as a strategy for dealing with the predictable dilemmas which are part of any organization. Not only are results from these kinds of activities dismal, but many employees will tell you that they dread the experience and know ahead of time there will be little or no bearing on the productivity and performance of the organization. I frequently am greeted with a huge collective sigh of relief when I announce to the groups we are training, some of the things we won't be doing include: being lost at sea, surviving on the moon, making fudge or working in the widget factory.

These obviously all are simulations intended to set the team up for a positive discussion and problem-solving session. Correspondingly, when we talk about what we will be doing--real work and real skills--the interest level, commitment and "buy-in" peaks, as most people are able to immediately attach value.

Building the Team

Remember... "white water rafting produces skills for white water rafting." Perhaps on the surface, this does not sound especially provocative, but examined carefully it creates the rationale for Building the Team. This concept is defined as: Equipping the people of the organization with the necessary information, skills and competencies to leverage their collective think power.

Recently, the Julius Kraft Company, Inc., an Auburn, New York-based safety equipment distributor and safety consulting company with branch offices in Massachusetts and North Carolina, created a design intended to build the team. All work units in the areas of sales, customer services, warehouse, purchasing and accounting were trained in the specific skill sets for working efficiently together, discussing issues, identifying problems and creating solutions. The Julius Kraft Company Team Handbook, created for this purpose, served as a guide.

Employees, including all managers and the company president, were introduced to problem-solving tools such as brainstorming, weighted voting, cause/effect analysis, the roles of leader, facilitator, and timekeeper for use during meetings as well as a number of other techniques for managing efficient discussions. Additionally, the company announced four key company initiatives (called the Four-Point Program) which served as a target for work units.

The result? It is now very typical to walk into the company boardroom and see newsprint from a cross-functional team (two or more departments together) on the wall with a cause/effect diagram analyzing a company issue. The true power of people working together.

The point being, as a result of building the team, or in this case, the entire company, Julius Kraft is positioned to benefit from the expertise that lies within.

The combination of "real work" and "real skills" is powerful. Yes, it is "double duty" as we are asking participants during training to learn skills as they are resolving issues, but I will forever defend the combination. Participants no longer need to be convinced, led or pushed into the event, as is often the case with team building. They are immediately able to see the utility of activity.

Building the team produces tangible end-results. People are able to identify strategies for addressing agency issues and opportunities in addition to having realized solutions during the training itself. The kind of tangible results that can be achieved are exemplified by one of our clients in the construction field that sent its people to similar training. As a group of field personnel at this company were discussing a schedule/delivery problem, someone stepped up and said, "Okay, let's clearly define the issue, analyze why it's occurring and then we will get everyone's input for a course of action. We have 20 minutes."

Sound basic? It is. But, behind that language is embedded the six steps of the company-wide problem-solving process (PSP) which every employee is mandated to take within one year of employment.

It works for insurance agencies too. One example is the Mayville-Tremaine-Westfield Agency which has offices in the western region of New York State. The agency has instituted "Key Quarterly Opportunities" which addresses successfully resolved issues by a department or combination of work units. Teams may come up with ideas related to reducing paperwork, serving customers, increasing sales, streamlining operations, etc. Employees are responsible for using the skills and competencies they have been trained in for presenting best ideas/best solutions on a quarterly basis. The entire organization, twice a year, at its Town Meeting shares and celebrates results.

This is yet another example of what happens when "real work" meets "real skills" through building the team. People are prepared and become highly enthusiastic about achieving. Individuals and the entire organization win.

The requirements? Picture this as a set of building blocks. There are certain critical components which must be in place. Returning to the Julius Kraft Company initiative, their Team Handbook Table of Contents page comprehensively outlines the skills needed by people and teams to engage in the activities which will truly benefit the productivity of the organization.

At a minimum, the following interactive communication skills are critical: sending clear messages, disagreeing objectively, and managing conflict along with the sequential steps of problem solving and supporting tools.

The Flanders Group, a highly successful insurance agency, based in Rochester, New York (a four-time recipient of honor on the Rochester Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies and 1996 Rough Notes Marketing Agency of the Year) successfully designed and recently instituted an internal Code of Conduct. Because this company too has taken the time and energy to build the team, they were able to, in a short period of time, launch the initiative, get complete company input, and publish the Code.

The benefit? A company that already excels in customer service and per person production now has clarified ground rules which will further enhance the ability of internal customers of Flanders to serve each other well, on the path to serving external customers.

Hopefully, the difference is now clear. Building the team is not a social event nor does it include "generic playing." It involves very clear-cut skills, which, when woven into the current real work of the agency by a skilled facilitator, produces high-impact results. That is, everyone is placed carefully in a premier position to fully leverage all of what they know to create an effective, productive and very solid organization.

So the next time some trainer proposes "...For purposes of this next exercise, we are working together in the XYZ Widget Factory..." maybe, you could remind him/her (respectfully!) that the business you're in has nothing to do with widgets. *

©COPYRIGHT: The Rough Notes Magazine, 1998