Teamwork – Move on From the Old

The 11-year, 3.8 miles, $5.25 billion Panama Canal, completed in 2016, involved carving out a new 3.8-mile-long channel for a new lock which required 4.4 million cubic meters of concrete—and widened and deepened what was already there. It was to allow for the fact that ships have grown a lot over the past century, and so the world’s most famous canal must do the same to keep pace.

New York’s One World Trade Center was a scheduled for 7 years at a cost of $3.8 billion. The tallest building in the Western Hemisphere rises a symbolic 1,776 feet above New York City. The largely steel structure also includes a concrete core that provides additional security and strength. It’s almost as if there’s a second skyscraper within the first.

The 2008 Olympic Games had the Water Cube, a 340,000-square-foot box framed in steel and covered with semi-transparent, eco-efficient blue bubbles. Formally named the Beijing National Aquatics Center, the Water Cube hosted swimming and diving events, held 17,000 spectators, won prestigious engineering and design awards, and cost 10.2 billion yuan.

All 3 had huge numbers of large and small teams across many countries. It was very obvious from the outset that these would not work with only traditional project management methodologies. It required bringing together and managing multiple cross-functional, multicultural teams to collaborate.

Cloud computing, Skype, WhatsApp, push mail – we take them all for granted but when we step back, we realise how much they impact – or drive – our business habit. If you will, they are what we use but we rarely think that they direct how we work; without them we could not operate business as we do now.

The rise of consultancy is evidence of this. Regular readers here know how I feel about consultancy but I accept it for what it is. The gathering of (self-styled) experts in temporary groups to solve problems they’re encountering for the first and perhaps only time. My daughter works in critical care in a London hospital. Yes, the team knows each other but they also, in response to emergencies, are never the same group of people who are called. Experts in their field but as individuals they need to meld almost instantly to drive the objective. They solve the patient’s problem and then move on to the next – the circumstances and conditions may be immediately different but the team may be, in part or wholly, the same.

When companies need to accomplish something that hasn’t been done before, and might not be done again, traditional team structures aren’t practical. It’s just not possible to identify the right skills and knowledge in advance and to trust that circumstances will not change. Under those conditions, a leader’s emphasis has to shift from composing and managing teams to inspiring and enabling them.

Stable teams of people who have learned over time to work well together can be powerful tools. But given the speed of change, the intensity of market competition, and the unpredictability of customers’ needs, there often isn’t enough time to build that kind of team. Instead, organisations must bring together their often globally-dispersed employees from all disciplines, and align them quickly with external specialists, only to disband them when they’ve achieved their goal or when a new opportunity arises.

More and more people in nearly every industry and type of company are now working on multiple teams that vary in duration. I have knowledge of this from the increasing proportion of contractors that I write for and work with. I can only roughly guesstimate here but 5 years ago they made up perhaps 10% of my client base; now, based on my quick look at the last 12 months’ files, it’s nearer 40%. The companies these contractors join have a constantly shifting – almost transient – membership, and pursue moving targets. In the UK, for example, the 2017 and continuing, massive Crossrail London Underground extension project has ( 10 Board-level leaders, a separate 10-strong executive team, and many, many huge teams on many different workstreams (

This presents serious challenges. In fact, it can lead to chaos. But employees that embrace several project management and team leadership principles will better and more quickly acquire knowledge, skills, and networks. This in turn accelerates the delivery of current products and services while responding quickly to new opportunities. By pulling together the right people with the right combination of skills and training, and giving them time to build trust, companies can accomplish big things.

That said, there are potential and real concerns and problems. Situations such as Crossrail are complex and uncertain, full of unexpected events that require rapid changes in course. No two projects are alike, so people must get up to speed quickly on brand-new topics. Because solutions can come from anywhere, team members do, too. If you watched the recent 2-part BBC documentary on the project you will have seen project managers and teams from America, Denmark, the north of England, France and virtually every other country you could name. And most individually covered what, purely in square footage, was a tiny part of the project; yet all were vital – they brought their own skills without which the whole will never be completed.

The added complication can be – unless very tightly managed – that experts from different functions—operating with their own jargon, norms, and knowledge—often clash. They can have competing values and priorities. The documentary showed a roof being laid which had to be done in a very tight timescale or the concrete would dry incorrectly. This meant that multiple cement mixers were arriving at a central London location, already heavily congested, at 05:00 in literal to-the-minute timeslots. If that hadn’t been managed appropriately, that component would have majorly disrupted the whole project.

On global teams, time zone differences and electronic correspondence can give rise to miscommunication and logistical issues. And because the work relationships are temporary, investing the time to grow accustomed to new colleagues’ work styles, strengths, and weaknesses isn’t possible.

As Crossrail indicates, technical and interpersonal challenges abound. It therefore falls to leaders to draw on best practices of project management (to plan and execute in a complex and changing environment) and team leadership (to foster collaboration in shifting groups that will be inherently prone to conflict).

Leaders need to manage the technical issues of scoping the challenge, structuring the boundaries, and sorting tasks for execution. Seemingly counterintuitively – though it’s not and is fundamental to success – is the fact that everything a team does doesn’t have to be collaborative. Instead, input and interaction should be used as needed so that not all tasks become team encounters, which are time-consuming. Another error is subjecting highly uncertain initiatives to traditional project management tools that cope with complexity by dividing work into predictable phases such as initiation, planning, execution, completion, and monitoring. The senior manager needs to draw a line in the sand by scoping out the challenge, determining what expertise is needed, tapping collaborators, and outlining roles and responsibilities. When a team is already assembled, they can figure out what additional resources are needed.

Structure is also critical – to help the team function effectively. The Crossrail concrete roof required interdependent work carried out by a shifting mix of participants, and required the establishing of must-be-kept boundaries and targets. In the case of my daughter’s situation, fast-paced teamwork and bonding has life-or-death consequences. The team depends on one another to make good patient care decisions. More often than not, people scheduled on the same shift do not have long-standing work relationships and may not even know one another’s names. As a result, the minute-by-minute arrangements for each shift are established early on, which reduces coordination time, boosts accountability, improves operational efficiency, and shortens patient waits. Even away from a critical care emergency, my daughter’s colleagues work with an increasing large number of so-called “bank” staff – those who take one-off shifts in different hospitals. This is often accused of crippling the NHS since the payrates are much higher. That’s a different story, but its existence is a good example of almost immediate relationship-development and the necessity – not value – of solid communications.

One factor of Crossrail, and all other massive global construction projects, is that different tasks are performed sequentially by different disciplines but that all the experts come together at the beginning to brainstorm and consider the implications of various design ideas. This can lead to greater complexity and more need for coordination but also better design, less waste, quicker completion, and lower cost. If you like, does the left hand remember 2 days later what the right hand is doing; and it takes us back to our previously mentioned competing agendas.

One challenge of any kind of teamwork is that people working together are more vulnerable to the effects of others’ decisions and actions than people working independently. Stable teams overcome this by giving members time to get to know and trust one another, which makes it easier to speak up, listen closely, and interact. But constantly shifting relationships heighten the challenge. So, how do we ensure, across huge, divergent, multisite, multi-disciplined projects, that they simply work? We need to direct from the top at board/C-Suite level, absolutely. But we also need to enable each workstream to run itself. And allow every level of management to foster inclusivity and openness within their respective “layered” teams. It means allowing:

Honestly open communications – that all can communicate honestly and directly with others by asking questions, acknowledging errors, raising issues, and explaining ideas

Reflecting – consistently observing, questioning, and discussing processes and outcomes

Listening – working hard to understand the knowledge, expertise, ideas, and opinions of others

Integrating – accepting and, where possible and practical, applying different facts and points of view to create new possibilities

Mitigating conflicts – pushing all parties to consider the degree to which their positions reflect not just facts but also personal values and biases, to explain how they have arrived at their views, and to express interest in one another’s analytic journeys. In this way, people can put conflict to good use.

The biggest projects can be successful – or, as has been evidenced on countless occasions, crash and burn – only if they are led very robustly but also collaboratively and inclusively – and if that collaboration is, itself, led.

Written by

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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