[Coaching Tips] No “I” in Team – Not Even a Team of One

Scott Berkun, whose work I generally like a lot, recently wrote a piece titled Why You Should Be a Team of One. It is a rare miss – a dud, and advice frankly which should be ignored.

Scott has written three books: all are quite good. His most recent, Confessions of a Public Speaker, is particularly good, helpful for someone like me who has 20+ years working with large group facilitation and design when I’m not doing my regular work of coaching execs and team. Scott’s posts are also well done. Rather than the frequent blogger “3 & Out” (three short, thin paragraphs with little substance followed by a question of “What do you think – I’d like your comments), Scott’s posts usually have a thought and depth which is both unusual and helpful.

In his post Why You Should Be a Team of One, Scott quotes a presentation by Leah Buley, who in the small world in which we live,  was a colleague when she and I worked together at Barclays Global Investors where I was her “business” client. Leah  now works with Adaptive Path, one of North America’s leading user interface design, product strategy and customer experience consulting firms. [Side note: BTW, it was great to work with Leah.]

The gist of Scott – and the kernel of Leah’s talk – is that to be effective people have to put on many hats – “be a team of one” – to fully understand their clients and the people with whom they work.

It’s a laudable idea, and one that I also think makes somebody effective. It’s even a nice metaphor. It’s just not a team, and it just doesn’t work that way.

And before you think this may be the opinion of one tea drinking, overly correct coaching wonk, it’s not. It’s simply the nature of teams, and how best to have different aspects provide their best input to spur better performance. (And by the way, I don’t even much care for tea, nor political correctness.)

Teams by nature involve – unless you are schizophrenic and have split personalities, or are Kobe Bryant  – involves multiples people. Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith (no relation) are arguably the foremost experts on teams, and especially high performing team, in the world today. Their book, The Wisdom of Teams, is food for the brain and organizational soul. Here’s their definition:

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

So the easy part is that a team of one is no team at all.

The second part is the thought of being able to step into the minds of clients, users, or pretend collaborators, and see your work through their eyes. Scott suggests the following:

One of the best exercises a working person can do is this: spend some time doing the jobs of the people you work with. Every manager should be required to do this once a year, even if just for a few hours.  Most of us, most of the time, work with blinders on. We naturally assume our work is harder and more important than the people we depend on, or who depend on us, and the only way to be reminded of this is to put yourself in their shoes now and then.”

It is a noble thought, but a loser.

There is a reason, for example, that it’s suggested that doctors avoid treating family members [Disclosure: my spouse is a doc – we’re proof positive of the sketchiness of self-diagnosing] – their judgement is too subjective. In working with groups and teams, there is a huge value to bring in an outsider to the group to facilitate the conversation rather than trying to do it yourself. Try as you may, you’re not going to get off your own sense of self (and point of view) with any reliability and consistency. My own work as a team coach, as one example, is that a group or team with a competent outside facilitator can cover twice the ground at much greater depth than the do-it-yourself teams.

Scott’s advice for people to spend some time in other people’s jobs is admirable, but it’s akin to eating part of the contents of  a can of Chef Boyardee and thinking that you’ve been to Italy: most insights into people’s work is over the accumulation of behaviors over a period of time, not just something shoehorned into a few hours. In my individual coaching practice I shadow clients (becoming the smallest 6’5″ you can imagine) for 2-3 days: the good data about the role is in the back side of the shadowing.

Better ways to get data are to bring in other participants and structure open ended conversations (“What do you think about. . . ?”) rather than directed (“Don’t you think. . ?”) and guided responses. Marketers, advertisers, and politicians know this which is why they run focus groups. You can do the same though it probably helps to have someone facilitate the conversation so you can listen – and not think about the next question you want to ask.

Apart from an individual client who realizes they’re a swan, not a duck, I can’t think of anything more professionally satisfying than seeing a team perform well. And it always involves the good, collaborative efforts of more than one.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.

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