This year I started teaching a new course at the university. It was aimed to the third-year students with the intention to teach them basic abilities to work in group and develop good communication skills. We briefed them to develop a complex project in groups, formerly defined, and gave them almost five months to complete the specification. After this year, it’s worth talking of high performing teams.
With the groups defined, and the projects assigned, we set up a competition. There were at least two groups working on each project. Only the best could have a chance to be used.
Some of my students started comparing the teams. Instinctively, they looked at their strengths and weaknesses compared to the others. Looking only at technical skills, there was one team that was objectively superior to the others. Some of its members were top students with experience in developing projects and with knowledge of technology and programming.
Following our instructions, they started working, defining roles and product sprints. As expected, only this team created a detailed product and sprint backlogs; also, defined some roles. The rest of teams navigated the first few weeks with a lot of uncertainty, without a clear picture of what to do and how to do it.
If someone had asked me at the time, I would have bet on that team to win the competition. They had everything to become one of those high performing teams.
A few weeks later, this group of students began to have many difficulties. Communication and coordination became daily problems. And they began to lose motivation. Although each of them was focused on doing their part, they later realized that the most important thing was to be coordinated and focused on what the project as a whole needed.
In the end, one of them said to me, “We have built the structure of a palace, but there are no rooms, no roof, and no basic services. With more time, it could be; now it’s nothing. We lost sight of what we had to do.”
The problem was that they were much more comfortable dealing with technical issues than coordinating, leading, or resolving conflict. Without proper teamwork, they had almost all the pieces, but couldn’t put the puzzle together.
A team of stars vs. an all-star team
They really were a team of stars, but they didn’t manage to become an all-star team. Although they worked on improving their communication and developed some strategies for dealing with conflict, lack of commitment and discouragement played a role.
The first and biggest lesson from this experience, and the one I hope they learned, is that we need to spend time building the team. We will fail unless we increase our sense of belonging and learn how to communicate and manage conflict.
No matter how good we are at what we do. A high performing team always outperforms an individual.