If Your L&D Efforts Focus on Skills, You May Have a Problem

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Sep 13, 2021

If you’ve ever led a cross-functional team at work, chances are you can commiserate with the following scenario:

Susana is the leader of a highly experienced communications team for a fast-growing organization that provides social-service programs. She was assigned to form a new cross-functional team of eight seasoned employees (all with between 10 and 25 years of experience) for a high-profile new initiative that would provide integrated services across multiple different agencies. It was a critically important project, and Susana believed she had the right team in place. 

However, six months into the initiative, Susana found herself frustrated with a project that seemed to be going off the rails. Her “crack team,” who collectively had decades of experience and were familiar with one another, floundered in trying to communicate effectively with each other. They felt rudderless, with little ability to “move the ball forward” on the project. They missed multiple project milestones, which resulted in Susana’s boss questioning whether she was the right person to lead the team.

That experience is far from unusual. In fact, it can be the norm among organizations where learning and development efforts have been primarily focused on the development of hard/technical skills. Too often, the critical elements of team effectiveness (which can be learned like any skill) are left unaddressed and under-appreciated. 

It’s no wonder that even the most highly competent individuals can struggle when brought into a team environment without the right guidance. Even people in individual-contributor roles almost never operate in complete isolation. The reality is that we work in team-based environments; yet many organizations are not adequately training employees on how to work effectively in teams. 

How Teams Stumble

Let’s dissect the example above. How exactly did Susana’s team fall apart?

  • The team’s composition was not made clear from the beginning. In other words, there was confusion as to who was actually on the team and who was not, as some people floated in and out of the effort. That created uncertainty regarding who was responsible for what, and who could be depended on for being “all in” to get the job done.
  • Several team members had differing ideas of what the team’s collective purpose even was. Why did they exist? What were their specific goals? That had not been established and clearly communicated to the team from the outset.
  • The team had not agreed on an operating structure and communications cadence between them. For example, there was no consensus on when the team would meet, how they would meet, and who would lead the preparation and facilitation of those meetings. Also, there was no agreement about how the team would communicate with each other and their stakeholders, which resulted in overlapping and conflicting communications.
  • The team found it difficult to work productively when they came together because they had not agreed on some basic team norms. With so many smart, ambitious personalities in the room, the team struggled to debate critical aspects of their project, commit to decisions that were made in meetings, and to take unified action on those decisions when they left the meeting. Susana’s team was a collection of A-players, but not functioning as an A-team.

A Myopic Focus on Tasks

The frustrating paradox here is that most of these people had worked with each other in the past, sometimes for many years, so they were familiar with each other, perhaps even friends. Individually, everyone was committed to the success of the project, which had the potential to drastically expand the services offered to a community in need. Still, they were frustrated by their inability to work effectively in their new team structure and deliver on the collective work that was critical to the success of the overall project. 

Did Susana share some of the blame? Sure, she could have identified and communicated clear objectives and expectations from the start. But it shouldn’t all fall on her. 

I also argue that there was a role for this organization’s L&D team to provide the fundamental training and guidance to set this team off on the right foot. Too often L&D departments focus on the task and not the team. That results in highly competent and technically skilled individuals who are woefully ill-equipped to work with one another in a coordinated fashion. 

So what can L&D leaders do to shift their focus toward equipping teams for success? Consider the following:

  • Train your team leaders to clearly define and communicate the team’s purpose, particularly with time-limited, finite teams that exist to tackle a specific issue or opportunity. What are they doing, for whom, by when, and what are the success metrics? Everyone should be crystal clear on the answers to those fundamental questions.
  • Identify and clarify the team’s operating and communications expectations. How often do they meet and for what reasons? How and how often will they communicate with each other and key stakeholders? Who owns those communications? Once again, there should be no ambiguity among the team.
  • Define team norms and expectations for how the members will behave and work together. We often conduct an exercise with teams to establish “red card” and “green card” behaviors. The idea comes from the cards that are handed out by referees in soccer matches. The process of having a team consciously and intentionally define those behaviors that improve the team’s ability to work together, and those that impede that ability, can help a new team collectively focus on establishing productive group habits and norms. Even small teams have a “culture,” and everyone should be clear on what that culture is.
  • Adopt a mentality of continuous improvement. Many smaller cross-functional teams move fast, and in doing so they can sometimes miss the opportunity to learn from their experiences as they go. A simple way to solve this is to incorporate an “after-action review” for the team after each meaningful milestone. This debriefing and learning tool was developed in the military and offers an easy and flexible structure for helping a team assess what happened, how it compared to what they expected to occur, and identify steps that will help people perform better in the future. 

As the author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan says: “In the hyper-technical and skills-obsessed work world of today, it can be easy to forget that companies don’t have ideas; only people do. And what motivates people to share and develop those ideas are the bonds of loyalty and trust that develop between team members,” not simply respect for their individual hard skills. 

The social capital from high-functioning teams is what gives organizations momentum. It’s what makes companies innovative leaders in their industries. 

To quote author Will Durant, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” L&D leaders can have a big impact on how well the teams in their organization function by offering programs to train employees on how to be effective team members and team leaders, so that those behaviors become a habit of excellence.

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