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Leading Teams Through Change

Bob Little 

April 24, 2015

Without taking the analogy too far, there are similarities between sports teams and teams in the world of work – not least the need for their managers and leaders to manage change effectively.

Choose any team-based sport – at whatever level – and there will always be issues to be debated over team composition, team discipline, team entry and exit, as well continuing (or building) team performance. Yet, over the years, some sports teams have maintained their dominance better than others.

Manchester United is a U.K. soccer team that has not only experienced success on the pitch for more than 50 years but is now a key business brand around the world. The New Zealand rugby union team has enjoyed world dominance for at least 100 years and, since the beginnings of Test Cricket in March 1877, the Australian team has rarely been far from the top of that sport’s tree. In the U.S., too, whether its the Red Sox or the White Sox, the Patriots or the Packers, successful sporting teams go back decades.

Changes happen in teams for many reasons, some of which are unforeseen. Others are planned and introduced by leaders and stakeholders. None of them have a right to succeed. All of them must be led carefully and skilfully if the team is to continue to function – and its performance improve rather than deteriorate.

Those who’re responsible for leading, managing and facilitating the change process need to be aware of the types of team – ably categorized by Meredith Belbin – and know how to manage each of them most effectively.

Belbin’s nine team roles identify people’s behavioral strengths and weaknesses in the workplace. The underlying assumption is that a team should only be put together for a specific purpose. Each team member should be chosen to ensure that there is the correct balance of skill and behavior within it. Each team member can play two or three specific roles but also needs to learn to adapt his or her behavior to achieve the team’s objective.

In organizational life, teams are important for accomplishing large or complex tasks. So individuals tend to experience organizational change as members of them. Teams develop over time, and Bruce Tuckman‘s “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing” model is useful for understanding this process. Teams can increase their effectiveness by addressing their:

  • Mission, planning and goal setting.
  • Roles.
  • Operating processes.
  • Interpersonal relationships.
  • Relationships with other teams.

A team’s composition is a key factor in determining its success. Belbin’s team types offer a way of analysing its fitness for purpose and encouraging its members to do something about any significant gaps.

Key questions to ask before, during and after the change process are:

  • Where are the teams affected by the change process?
  • What types of team are they and how might they respond to change?
  • What do they need in order to be supported through the change process?
  • How can we best use them throughout the change process?
  • What additional types of team do we need for designing and implementing the changes?
  • What resources shall we offer the team to ensure it manages both “business as usual” and the changes?
  • How do we ensure that teams that are dispersing, forming, integrating, or realigning stay on task?
  • What organizational process is there to ensure teams understand their:
    • Mission, planning and goal setting?
    • Roles and responsibilities?
    • Operating processes?
    • Interpersonal relationships?
    • Inter-team relations?

Dave Webber, an experienced leader of organizational change, says, “I’ve found that the key to successfully changing as a team is to do it together – whether that change is introduced and led by a leader or recognized as necessary by the team itself. Belbin’s team types and other such tools are useful but they don’t necessarily get to the intangible elements that hold a team together – the laughing, crying, winning, and losing together. While the well-practiced tools for change management are important, teams need shared values and are often characterized by particular levels of openness and honesty.

“I’ve worked in teams where the team ethic has been so strong that it’s almost been seen as an end in itself – where the team had to support individuals whose performance or attitude affected its overall effectiveness. In such circumstances, the leader needs to shine a light on these issues and illustrate the need for change. Sometimes, however, such dynamics can be so powerful that an external stimulus is the only way to bring about change, maybe by changing the personnel or introducing a coach/facilitator.

“In leading teams through change, I’ve found honesty to be the most important factor – admitting I didn’t have a ready-made answer to the issues facing us and that I needed everyone’s help. This has been true even when the business need has been for us to downsize the team. On the other side of the coin, I’ve experienced leaders who weren’t able to do that – and so made themselves and the rest of the team extremely unhappy.”

The international business coach and speaker Hugo Heij, who has senior management experience in both large corporates and small and medium-sized businesses, says, “My most successful teams comprise a mix of people. A common mistake is to expect everyone in a team to do everything but, just as in soccer you’d never play a goalkeeper as a striker, you need to understand each member’s profile and play to everyone’s strengths in order to get the best out of the team.

“When it comes to change, a key question to ask before starting the change process is, ‘What do we want to achieve from the change?’ Often this question goes unasked. It’s just accepted that change is inevitable so we’d better get on with it!

“Moreover, we often underestimate the physical environment in which the team must operate to bring about the change we want. In these days of more flexible working – and global businesses – we form teams whose members are geographically separated from each other. We forget that humans need regular human interaction – and that’s the simplest, easiest and safest way to bring about controlled change.”

This is the latest of our series of discussions focusing on change. See here for earlier blogs in the series,  and come back next week for more. Meanwhile, use the comments section below to tell us: What strengths do you have in your teams that you’ve been able to harness to deliver change – or has it been more difficult than you thought?

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