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Posted: 2006-04-02 / Author: Alan Hunt

Small Team Building - Why The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of The Parts

Small Team Building: When was the last time that you heard the phrase "variety is the spice of life"? In what context was it used? Was it applied to experiences? Well - it can be. Was it applied to teams? Well - it should be! And team building can help it add that spice.

My definition of a team is one in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Otherwise, it is just a collection of individuals. I find it impossible to imagine how my definition can be achieved if the team is comprised of clones os a single individual - no matter how good that individual is. Making the whole greater than the sum of the parts is about exploiting the differences between people, not the similarities.

Yet all too often, the differences become weaknesses instead of the strengths they should be. What is the key symptom of this? Unproductive conflict within the team. What is the usual remedy for this? Those in conflict keep apart - either on their own initiative or because they management steps in and enforces the distance.

I see this as a waste. Difference is good. It leads to more options, better decisions and higher performance. If it can be channelled. The hard part is in recognising the value. Without seeing the potential, what's left are problems.

Why are even fundamental differences between individuals in the same team collectively a positive characteristic? Let's take an example.

Suppose Sam is an energetic "up and at 'em" kind of character. Sam likes new things, enjoys a challenge and is naturally extrovert. Sam doesn't care much for detail and always wants things done now. A colleague, Pat, is a much quieter and infinitely more diligent individual. Pat believes that there is a place for everything and everything should be in its place. Attention to detail is amongst Pat's greatest strengths and Pat doesn't like to start something without all the resources necessary to complete it being at hand.

Sam thinks Pat is too slow and far too pedantic. Pat thinks Sam is slapdash and a show off. They don't much like one another. Their relationship is a source of tension in the team.

Enter Sam and Pat's manager. What does he or she do?

Option one is to keep them apart. Put them on different projects if possible. Move them to opposite sides of the department, maybe. And never, ever feed them after midnight. With luck, the disruption to the team's achievements will be kept to a minimum.

Option two is a harder decision for the manager - but isn't that what he or she is paid for? While their natures provide all the ingredients necessary for gunpowder in the right proportions, Sam and Pat actually have highly complementary skill sets. If the manager wants something done well when time is not of the essence, Pat will surely get the job. If it is new or needs to be done quickly, Sam will be first choice.

Of course, what usually happens is that the manager needs it done both quickly and well. A mix of the two is what is needed. Combine Sam's natural ability to rise to a challenge quickly with Pat's diligence and attention to detail and the ideal combination is available. If Sam and Pat can be helped to appreciate one another's strengths and work with one another effectively.

That's what we call team building. A manager may choose to blend team members into a genuinely effective team in a number of ways and real team building doesn't have to be done during an away day session. However, such a session is a great way of tackling such issues in a less emotive and independent environment and well worth considering.

Carefully choosing activities that require people with diametrically opposed personalities to work together using all their strengths to good effect. Creating that safe environment to explore the benefits of such collaboration and using a structured debriefing process to ensure that the learning points get documented - and get transferred back to the workplace. That really is team building.

Variety may or may not be the spice of life. But it surely is the basis for improved team performance.

About the Author: Alan is Managing Director of Sandstone, a leading UK team building company. He enjoys creating innovative activities that combine fun with genuine team development. In his spare time, he does voluntary work for the RNIB. http://www.sandstone.co.uk


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