You Can’t Do It Alone

Kathryn Block’s first — and perhaps most important — challenge as the newly appointed director of channel strategy and marketing for Campbell Soup in Camden, New Jersey, was finding a way to mesh 11 marketing managers with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of experience into an effective, results-driven team. “The existence of this team,” says Block, “is going to make a significant difference in the delivery of the company’s expectations over the three-year strategic horizon.”

Group thought is recognized as one of the best processes for organizational problem solving because of the diverse range of solutions offered. In fact, the use of self-directed work teams by the largest 1,000 publicly traded U.S. companies jumped from 27% in 1987 to 68% six years later, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.

“The factors that affect whether or not an organization is able to adapt effectively, improve its quality, figure out its strategy for the future, and fulfill its mission in the world is done in teams,” explains Amy Edmondson, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “[However], most of the time, we aren’t very skilled at it. We were rewarded throughout school for individual performance. Then at some point we’re thrown into a job and told ‘Now we want you to work in teams.'”

There are several ways to build an effective team:

Choose the right people. “You may have a person who, five years ago, was a great employee. [Today, however,] because demands on your business have changed, they’re not the right person anymore,” says Alonzo Walker, director of human resources at RSM McGladrey Inc., an accounting firm in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Know their strengths and shortcomings. Choose group members with specific skill sets to accomplish your goals. For Block, thought leadership was essential. “There’s a lot of diversity of talent out there, but what I care about is their ability, fundamentally, to bring new ideas to the table.”

State clear expectations. Companies whose employees understand the mission and goals enjoy a 29% greater return than other firms, according to a Watson Wyatt Work Study. Without a clear vision for team members to support, “there’s a real opportunity for people to go astray,” states Block. Emphasize personal relevance, she says, but also how their contributions add value to the company mission.

Get everyone involved. Research shows that members tend to spend more time discussing shared knowledge than privately held ideas, says Edmondson. As a result, teams can fail to leverage the unique contributions each member may bring. Leaders must engage in active inquiry, involving everyone in the group rather than assuming that team members will speak up spontaneously.

Create a climate of psychological safety. “The ability to have difficult conversations is probably the most important skill team members can have,” Edmondson explains. Without this mechanism in place, Edmondson says it will be impossible for members to engage in learning-oriented behavior, conduct valid experiments, or try innovative things. “If there’s a difference of opinion,” offers Walker, “you should not be