What does it take for us to work as a team?


Copernicus has been name-checked in a fair few articles I’ve read lately.  Good thing too.  Working with a client a couple years ago, we illustrated the concept of “shifting consciousness” with a story about Copernicus, our point being that to get to “WE”, to really get to WE, a shift in consciousness is required.  We humans can be a little hit and miss when it comes to cooperating, so something more than behaviour change, something more profound, something related to mindset, will help us to really get to a mode of being and a way of viewing the world that is truly cooperative.

Steve Denning in a recent article wrote that the “revolutionary new kind of organisation…focuses on delighting customers profitably, enabling self-organizing teams and networks, coordinating work in iterative cycles and communicating interactively. The shifts in behavior, attitudes and skills needed to implement it are significant and will have effects as profound and revolutionary as the Copernican Revolution in astronomy.”

These things that Denning lists are inextricably linked and I believe that we need to undergo a deep shift in mindset as to how we do our work and how our workplaces are governed.  I believe that we can be more effective at delighting customers when we are working as a unit, coordinating our own work and interacting with each other in a conflict-capable and honest fashion. I believe that because I was once part of a team that worked in just that way…and man, were we great.  But how do we get there?  It’s not going to happen in a one-off seminar about “teamwork” and it’s certainly not going to happen because of a memo or directive from the CEO that we need to work as a team.

Denning goes on to say, and I agree, that acquiring the skills and capabilities to implement the shifts in how organisations operate will not be quick or easy.  Getting to teamness is a thing which I believe requires conscious effort; it is not a result of happenstance.  Denning mentions self-organising teams, which brings me to mind of  “The Cosmic Blueprint” by Paul Davies.  In his book, Davies discusses the latest discoveries around the emergence of complexity and organisation in the universe.  I see a number of parallels in how humans in groups self-organise.  He says these discoveries about the universe are informing not just science and astronomy, but also challenging the very foundations of management and organisational thought.  In his book, he describes the cosmos as a never-ending, unfolding process; never finished, never complete, yet at the same time, a full and perfect idea.  His narrative resonated with me as apt descriptors of teams and human groups: full and perfect ideas, yet always in beta, always unfolding.

As my attention is currently on the area of teams and how they function, I am considering the things that one particular team I’m working with seek for themselves, in order to make concrete the vision they have of and for themselves.  Already highly capable, already highly professional and competent as individuals, seeking to develop more teamness.  They make the connection between working as a unit and being more ably of service to their clients.

Growing teamness is not about playing about with feel-good exercises or coming up with a list of “teamwork values”.  They don’t necessarily create the kind of fundamental shifts in how people relate with each other and their work.  To paraphrase Benjamin Bratton, the new thing we are trying to create is not merely a dressing up of the old.  It is fundamental; at the fundament.

One enormous benefit of getting to teamness is also borne out in something else Bratton has to say: that to view solutions to our problems as a puzzle misses the point entirely.  If they were puzzles, the pieces would be here and it would be a simple re-arrangement of those.  It is not and they are not.  We need, in business, in our communities, in the world, to come up with solutions that we haven’t yet found.  We will be able to do that when we grow a sense of WE and we begin to grapple with challenges together.  To innovate together.  If we can achieve genuine co-working, genuine cooperation and it’s done at a fundamental level, we have the opportunity to actually co-create a new status quo.  Not by each of us trying to work it out on our own and then trying to enlist others in our solutions; by catalysing novel solutions together.

Much deeper than learning new capabilities is the mindset that we each operate out of.  Any new skills or capabilities we seed will flourish much greater when they are planted in a fertile environment.  This is linked to the way we relate to power and authority.  In our predominantly command-and-control organisations, despite the best efforts of individual teams and working groups to consciously develop cooperative working practices, the over-riding structures can scupper their hard work.  Line management, centralisation of power, all memes which can cut across a team’s hard work.

There is something incredibly potent about the culture of dependency which is created when command-and-control hierarchies remain in place.  It is deep in the organisation’s hard wiring. For a team to develop teamness, there needs to be a culture of mutuality, not dependence.  Each member of the team needs to feel a sense of empowerment and agency in their working lives.  When people defer less to managers (Parent-Child in TA parlance) and refer to each other as authorities in their work (Adult-Adult in TA parlance), a culture of mutuality can begin to flourish.  Mutual accountability, mutual learning, mutual problem-solving and innovation.

Sociometry is a human technology which assists us to develop this mutuality.  Think of Sociometry as “team hacking”.  Applied Sociometry uncovers the connections that exist between people, shines a light on where connections are weak and could be strengthened and forges new connections, allowing a team to redefine itself so that it can become more productive at what it does.  To move from a culture of dependency to mutuality, we need to know more about each other: who we are, what our strengths are, what we don’t do as well as we’d like.  This grows trust, a core component of high-performing teams.  Unless we, the members of a group or team, engage our will and take up responsibility for ourselves, we remain in the default setting of dependency, an unspoken mindset that pervades how we govern ourselves, allow ourselves to be governed and make decisions about our work.  Who else is better placed to make decisions about how we serve customers than those of us who directly touch our customers?

The purpose of Sociometry is to facilitate group task effectiveness and satisfaction of participants by bringing about greater degrees of mutuality amongst people and greater authenticity in relationships.  Applied Sociometry is “an action method, an action practice”.  (Moreno, 1953).  When using Applied Sociometry, the people whose connections and networks are being studied have real time access to the social mappings and are active participants in the shifting and development of social linkages.  To repeat: allowing a team to redefine itself.  Not something done TO the team by managers using an analysis tool, but something done interactively WITH the team or group.  It is a highly participative process which allows people within a system to explore the connections they have and make decisions about where connections could be forged and deepened.  In my experience applying Sociometry, making the covert, overt, assists people to begin to uncover their systems blindness.  Hacking into our conserved ways of seeing workplace relationships and power structures lets people begin to see where they fit in the system and how their actions (and non-actions) impact on others.  When we have increased group perceptiveness, we can become aware of the forces at work on us as individuals and teams; from there, we can all participate in our own team development.

Sociometry is inherently about shifting mindsets.  When we begin to really see, we start to see how we see.  Once seen, it is hard to un-see….if you see what I mean.  A WE consciousness comes about over time, as I’ve written previously.  We can devote ourselves to the practice and discipline of being a WE.  We have the technology.


6 thoughts on “What does it take for us to work as a team?

  1. I think that one of the interesting things about the genius of Copernicus is the fact that he was operating in a social order where the Earth had to be at the centre of the universe. Not only did he have his insights based on physical observation, but he was able to break out of this extremely powerful social conditioning. There are similar forces in management today, which is still really keeping leaders chained to the old order of thinking. Thanks also for the notes about Sociometry. I had not come across this before – very interesting. Cheers.

    1. Yes, thanks for adding in Simon. Your point about breaking out of convention is apt. I’m fascinated by the languaging that people use and have recently been struck by how people can describe something they think is ground-breaking, but is in fact, part of the same old paradigm. In such situations, I’m reminded of Hamel’s quote, “We are prisoners of the familiar.” So true, that.

  2. In regard to ‘being a WE’, as Amitai Etizone so insightfully noted, ‘the I’s need We to be’. What keeps us from becoming a We? The ‘what’s in it for Me’ doesn’t allow the development necessary for the ‘I’ that we each are to see and understand our very deep interconnectedness.

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