Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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Teamwork – the ultimate competitive advantage

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni states that "Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare."

I couldn’t agree more and yet wonder how we’ve got ourselves into the position where real teamwork is rare?

In its recent survey Can humans thrive in a bot economy? Australian software company Atlassian found that 75% of cross-functional teams report being dysfunctional, and increases in productivity are the lowest they’ve been in 30 years. It goes on to report that 59% of respondents identify communication as the biggest obstacle to team success.

This is never more evident than in the projects we undertake.

The best projects you or your organisation will ever work on are the result of the person that leads it or the environment they create. This has always been the case and always will be.

Despite this, projects continue to fail at an alarming rate around the world. Money is wasted on trying to force people down a ‘process path’ or on trying to achieve a high-level of consistency by getting everyone to fill in a form, in the same way.

What makes projects successful is the relationships we build and how we utilise them to collaborate with the different members of the team.

Collaboration – or teamwork as we used to call it – only works well when everyone understands why we’re doing what we’re doing, agrees on how we’ll collectively behave and then we hold each other to our promises. In short, we create a collective culture that we can all be proud of, where we don’t talk about how to work together, it just happens. This is the foundation for project success.

Teamwork takes effort

Teamwork is often taken for granted in projects. Organisations believe that they can identify people to be on a project team and magic will happen. Sometimes it does, but only if the person leading the team takes the time and effort to understand each personality and uses techniques and skills to create an environment that supports different ways of working. These project managers don't think of their needs when doing this; they think about the collective need of the people within the team.

They understand that to succeed there needs to be a shared vision, collective ownership and responsibility for progress, and a willingness to challenge each other to be better. These teams think and talk in terms of 'We' and they're led by a project manager.

It’s not about You, I or They

When project managers think and talk in terms of 'You', they are distancing themselves from the task in hand and passing responsibility across to the person receiving it. The person may also feel that they would be blamed should the task not go as planned.  

When project managers think and speak in terms of 'I', they are shouldering a lot of the responsibility themselves and there's a danger that they'll focus on the detail of the project and not their job of managing it. The team may also get the impression that the project manager is claiming responsibility for the collective success of all they achieve. The English language is the only language in the world that capitalises the word ‘I’ and we have to reduce the use of this as much as we possibly can if we’re to shift the focus onto greater teamwork.

When project managers think and talk in terms of 'They', they are distancing themselves from the team and may find themselves alienated from the very thing they need to get the job done successfully. It could create a barrier and while the team may get the work done, they'd be doing it despite the project manager. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, 'It's better to have one person working with you, than three people working for you.'

The Power of 'We' in project management

Only when project managers think and talk in terms of 'We' do they create a team with a shared purpose, responsibility, success and failure. A team that is accepting of all personalities, skills, knowledge and circumstances. A team committed to being the difference they want to see in others and to creating an experience like no other. A team that is happier and gets more done (according to the University of Warwick in the UK).

These teams are happier, feel empowered, trust each other and hold each other to account. They celebrate every success, recognise great behaviour and communication and create workspaces in which every personality can do their best work.

They create a tangible vibrancy. And you want to be part of it.

I’ve worked on and been part of creating these kinds of teams. They taught me what it means to be committed and consistent and they have given me the best work memories.

Teamwork remains the ultimate competitive advantage. What are you doing to ensure that it’s not a rare thing in your project or organisation?

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