Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Problem with Team Building Initiatives

I think creating good teamwork is a misunderstood problem.  People are messy, but smart folks try to come up with fancy ideas to say it's easy for people to work together.  One of the more interesting books I've read recently is Tony Hsieh's Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.  It's his personal story of how he founded two companies, drastically failed at creating a good culture in the first venture, despite creating a multi-million dollar success.  He learned his lesson and made creating a good culture the #1 priority at the second venture, which became a billion dollar success.  He wanted to help make his employees happy, theorizing that happy employees serve customers better, work more productively, and ultimately contribute to the bottom line better.  He made Zappos what it is today, and that company is often lauded as the benchmark for quality customer service, even though it now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary under Amazon.

As I read the book, I could not help but think that I could never work there.  It gave me the impression that Zappos tries to fill all the holes in your life and give you a sense of community.  All your work life and your non-work life was one.  Your colleagues at work were your main friends outside of work.  None of this is really unusual, as many people experience the same thing nowadays.  What felt different as I read the book was that this phenomenon felt required at Zappos, while it seems optional at other companies.  At many other companies, you can easily have an independent life outside of work.  Whether intended or not, the effect seemed to be exacerbated when they decided to move all their operations to Las Vegas to focus on growth.  70 of 90 employees decided to move with the company.
Although it seems obvious in retrospect, probably the biggest benefit of moving to Vegas was that nobody had any friends outside of Zappos, so we were all sort of forced to hang out with each other outside the office.  It was an exciting time.  We were all beginning a new chapter of our lives together and forming a new social network.  We worked together and hung out together during almost all of our waking hours.
In San Francisco, we had always said that culture was important to the company, mostly because we didn't want to make the same mistake that I had made back during my LinkExchange days, when the company culture went completely downhill.
Now that we were in Vegas with nobody else to lean on except each other, culture became our number one priority, even more important than customer service.  We thought that if we got the culture right, then building our brand to be about the very best customer service would happen naturally on its own.
To keep our culture strong, we wanted to make sure that we only hired people who we would also enjoy hanging out with outside the office.  As it turned out, many of the best ideas came about while having drinks at a local bar .
Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh.  Chapter 5
To be fair to Hsieh, the move to Vegas was logical.  They wanted to make customer service their core competency and key differentiator.  But in an expensive city like San Francisco, it was hard to find people who viewed customer service as the highest calling in their life.  Working in a call centre just didn't pay the big bills, and most people viewed call centre work as a temporary gig while they went to school, were in between jobs, etc.  They had some discussion and believed that Vegas was the best alternative.  But the more I read the book, the more a single word was deeply impressed into my mind: cult.

Seriously, stuck with these people all the time in a large organization where many people don't touch each other, but still say they're part of one big happy family that shares awesome core values and makes people's lives meaningful without doubt?  Most big corporations claim they do that, but Zappos actually seemed to be accomplishing it.  But it was scary because there seemed to be a subliminal message that it wasn't optional.  It felt like these guys were the Borg without any sense of individuality that could result in differing opinions or *gasp* conflict.  They didn't seem like they were simply a good team.  They seemed like they were a cult where groupthink could thrive and eventually become their downfall.  That reeks of the kind of place where fake happiness can eventually take hold and taint things, without management realizing it until it's too late.

Fact is, people are messy and you need to be a certain type of person to be able to fit into a culture so carefully sculpted.  Many people are not like that.  Others just already have communities outside of work, whether a church, sports team, volunteer organisation, etc, and they don't want to give those things up; if you always go do your own thing in a culture where hanging out with co-workers outside of work is extremely valued, honestly, what does that say about your desire to be part of the team?  Correspondingly, what effect does that have on your prospects for promotions, raises, etc?  Fortunately for those of us who can't assimilate so easily into the Borg, organisations need diversity to innovate and thrive.

I find that team building initiatives and events have similar unsatisfying undertones.  Going out for a dinner together, working to clean up a beach together, or going through an obstacle course is fun, yes.  It's like primary school all over again, outings are the highlight of many a kid's year.  But I am skeptical as to whether these events actually build teams.

Ultimately, you know your team is working well when people are delivering good results together with little complaint.  People are both happy and productive.  Most noticeably, there's a sense of camaraderie.  People trust each other to get things done.  Don't get me wrong, I think team building efforts can have their place.

But I see people often thinking that one-off team building events alone can build the team.  That's not my experience.  Even in the example given by Rands, it's not the card game itself that built the teamwork.  The card game was an ongoing icebreaker through which the bickering guys could get to link minds and get comfortable with each other.  It's the intellectual and strategic communication inherently required by the card game that developed that level of comfort, and it required time.

In my experience, there really are only three things required for building quality teams:

  1. Shared experiences
  2. Shared goals
  3. Ongoing effort

Shared Experiences
This can be difficult in certain organisations.  Many organisations these days operate as matrix organisations, meaning they have a functional head to which they report, but also a project (or projects) on which they're working.  So a group of analysts may all be part of the same team because they have the same skills, but they never work with each other because they're all assigned to different projects.  There are two types of teams here, the functional team and the project team.  Depending on the nature of the project, they may never interact with other project team members all that much.  And depending on the nature of the organisation, they may never interact with fellow analysts all that much.  So where's the teamwork?  Well, bring on a team-building event, some gurus will say.

Team building events are fun outings, but they don't deliver any reason why one guy should be willing or able to work with another guy at work.  Honestly, the fact that this guy can hit a baseball out of the park, how does that reflect at all on his ability to write high-quality Python code?  If I think he's slow and his work sucks, it doesn't matter how many home runs he hits at our baseball outing.  If we're lucky, those home runs maybe become an ice breaker to giving him constructive criticism and helpful advice on how to improve his skills.  But that is rare in my experience.  It seems that once you're back at the office, it's back to the status quo, especially if the event was a one-off experience.  This is especially true in toxic work environments.

Teams are built through shared experiences.  Camaraderie and the ability to trust each other is sculpted and cemented in crisis situations stewarded by strong leadership.  You don't get any other situation where you can truly prove to each other that you can depend on each other.  In project teams, the camaraderie is developed because you are actually working together on the same thing.  "Dude, if it weren't for you, we would have totally lost that account.  I am so glad you're a part of this.  You and me, Batman and Robin, baby.  But you're Batman."  In functional teams, the camaraderie is developed because you're all experiencing the same challenges and can teach lessons to each other.  "Man, I can't believe those finance guys keep rejecting our capital requests, what the heck is going on here?  Ah, you know my pain?  Whoah, that's an awesome idea, thanks so much!  Hey, it worked!  You're fantastic!"

Shared experiences enable you and your comrades to share in triumphs and failures, complaints about common enemies, and develop the secret handshakes.  There is camaraderie because there is empathy.  There is empathy because there are shared experiences, especially on those days where it feels like it's you against the world, and the only people who have your back are your comrades.

Shared Goals
It is logically more easy to align people to work together or support each other when they have common goals.  In project teams, the goal is readily apparent: get the project done.  In functional teams, goals need to be set by the manager, and it's the manager's job to align the team.  Under a good manager, team members will keep their eye on the ball and urge each other on, even though they never work on the same project.

It's like team members of any individual sport.  Skiers will always race as individuals, but during training and competition, you see the ski team members supporting each other and pushing each other to get better.  The main thing driving them is that they have a shared goal.  Without overarching shared goals, there is nothing towards which a functional team can strive.  A lack of goals is a lack of leadership.  In that void, chaos can grab a foothold, which is horrible for morale because it can induce bickering instead of teamwork.  People will be motivated by selfish reasons that matter to themselves, rather than selfless reasons that matter to the team (if they are able to motivate themselves at all).

The shared goals could be anything.  Help the company to survive the year.  Get new customers.  Get ready for Day 1 of the World Cup, even though you're all assigned to different stadiums.  Win your government seat for the sake of the political party's platform and campaign, and for the future of the country.  Graduate from this darn stupid school.  But the goals must be defined and stewarded by whoever is the overall leader.

Ongoing Effort
This is perhaps the most important item, and the thing that the team-building events get the most wrong.  Team building cannot be a one-off effort, especially among teams where a lack of trust has built up over time.  Team building is necessarily a hard long slog because if extensive time is not invested into the effort, there is no opportunity for light to stumble upon the weeds of distrust, for people to carefully pull out the roots of that distrust, and for seeds of new trust to sprout.

As one manager once told me, it's like a marriage.  You have to commit to teamwork and you sometimes have to sacrifice to make it work.  No matter how fancy or fun your outing was, it adds no value if things go back to the status quo once back at the office.  Close one-to-one relationships are not instantaneous, so it should be logical that tight-knit, productive, and healthy teamwork, where the relationships are many-to-many, is also not instantaneous.

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