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Book review: Building better teams

Go Team! Take Your Team To The Next Level

By Ken Blanchard, Alan Randolph and Peter Grazier

(Berrett Koehler Publishers, Inc. $18.95)

I’m trying my best to be a better team player but it’s not easy.

First, I’m a GenXer. We’re predisposed to working solo and cringe at the prospect of group hugs and playing organizational reindeer games.

Best to leave us be and let us do our own thing.

And then there’s my childhood. While other kids played team sports, I played classical guitar alone in my bedroom. Why, I have no idea. I never expressed an interest or showed any sign that I was the second coming of Liona Boyd, the first lady of classical guitar. And it’s not as if the branches on our family tree were laden with musical prodigies. The only sign of talent came from a great grandfather who brought out his accordion every Dec. 24 and performed a room-clearing medley of Christmas carols from the old country.

So instead of a coach teaching essential life skills in team-building, I had a weekly sit-down with a chain-smoking and world-weary music teacher who was off the wagon more times than he was on. When he unexpectedly left for what my parents called an extra-long vacation, I got a new, sober and less manic teacher who was even more introverted than me and had the hairiest arms and hands of anyone I’d ever met.

After seven long years of plodding through the classics, I quit. But not before my folks bought a new guitar apparently handcrafted from the world’s most expensive tree.

I’ve been playing catch-up ever since on the teamwork front although most of you aren’t that much further ahead. Seems it has been all talk and little action when it comes to doing better by working together.

Instead of teams, most of us are toiling away in traditional work groups.

"In a work group, the centre of activity is the supervisor. The supervisor sets goals, plans the work, controls the workflow, determines staffing, evaluates group and individual performance, makes decisions for the group, resolves conflicts and conducts meetings," say authors Blanchard, Randolph and Grazier.

Old-school work groups may be OK if the benevolent supervisor has superhuman stamina and staffers are comfortable parking their brains at the door.

But the times, they are a-changin. Everyone needs to step up and contribute and no one person has all the right answers. "The ability to operate successfully in a team environment is rapidly moving to the forefront of required business skills."

What’s needed are next-level teams. These teams open the books and readily share information to build high levels of trust and responsibility. There are few, if any, secrets on the assumption that everyone’s an adult and can handle the truth. Clear and wide boundaries are set to give everyone the permission and freedom to make fast and smart decisions and get the work done. The best use is made of everyone’s time and talents. And everyone on the team feels valued, is responsible, looks out for each other and is fully engaged.

Next-level teams take time to build and there’s a forced march through the ominous sounding valley of discouragement. Supervisors will grapple with control issues. Staffers will balk at taking on added responsibility. Nothing will happen as fast as anyone wants. And everyone will worry about the team coming off the rails in a horrible career-killing screw-up.

You may also have to wade into the bizarre world of organizational policies and procedures. High on the authors’ hit list are performance appraisals that evaluate and reward individual achievement. If those much-loved appraisals aren’t measuring collaboration and teamwork, mixed signals are getting sent.

But the payoff for bravely soldiering through is huge and the authors helpfully outline the essential skills and the three steps all teams must take to get to the next level.

At the end of the day, it’s all about trading self-interest, dependency and control for partnership, responsibility and commitment. And who wouldn’t want to make that deal?

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