“As we go around the circle, tell the group your name and something special about you.”
That kind of team builder may have been useful on the first day of kindergarten, but when you’re building a business team or putting together a team for another important project, you need to go far beyond silly icebreakers to create a cohesive group. There are hundreds of groups that offer to help you create a team out of a group of disparate employees, but you can’t really outsource team building — even if you have thousands of dollars to throw at the problem. It’s been my experiences, though, that most people and companies have much better places to put that budget. Instead, you can best build a team by working with them.
When you’re working with a group of people who have never even met before, it may seem like you need to carefully orchestrate introductions. A casual setting, a stress-free environment and so on can sound pretty good. But elaborate introductions can actually get in the way of getting your team together. Rather than one-on-one introductions, giving your team members some of the information that you let you to tap them for a particular project can give each of them a better idea of where they fit into the picture.
Having that overall sense of hierarchy can provide a surprisingly smooth transition: if you meet a bunch of people in a social setting, it’s difficult to figure out who’s operating more in a support function, who needs to crank something out, and who has the skill set to help with particular problems that come up. Such an approach has an added bonus of offering a way to jump directly into the project. Email out short bios on each time member, preferably with some sort of framework where people can interact and follow up, and you can probably skip at least the first round of awkward introductions.
Your team will probably still need some level of orientation, if only to meet internal requirements on bringing people up to speed, but you can skip the painful icebreaker session. And if you were planning to bring in food to smooth out that icebreaker, I’m sure that I speak for your team members when I say that you can make everyone feel more comfortable with a meal even if you’ve jumped straight into working on the project.
The First Project
There are a lot of arguments to introducing team members to each other in an informal environment — that is, outside of the office. But it’s not the best option when your goal is a working team. There is always time for socializing down the road, but creating a team capable of tackling big projects requires professional relationships rather than ‘best friends forever.’
When you’ve brought together the individuals you want to turn into a team, your first step should be to assign them a project. It can’t be just any project, though. The project should be short enough to require only a few days at most to complete. It should offer a chance for the team to get a glimpse of how each member works — and even a short project is enough to see where your team has problems interacting. The real benefit of a small project is there: if you see problems, you’ll be able to debrief at the end of the project and learn from them quickly. You won’t have to try to manage them in the middle of a bigger project, or have to break the work flow to discuss them.
It may seem like you don’t have enough ramp-up time to add a small project to the front-end of the larger problem you’re building a team to solve. However, you can easily call the first step of a larger project your stating point. Breaking a large project into smaller sections offers an additional opportunity for team building: if you assign different team members leadership roles for different sections, you’ll find that their continued interactions will help develop a working relationship. You can actually get to the meat of your project faster if you use even a starting element as a more efficient icebreaker. Reducing orientation only provides a chance for your team to be productive much faster.
While it’s nice if each member of your team is best buds with all the rest, that rarely happens. Problems — especially when your team is first learning to work together — are a given, no matter how many icebreakers you shoehorn into your schedule. Finding a solution for these problems is just as much a part of team building as initial introductions. Give your team members the space to come to an agreement they can live with. A leader’s attempts to help can easily be seen as taking sides and any interference from outside the team should be reserved for problems that have escalated.
Sooner or later, a problem will likely reach the point where your intervention is necessary. It’s hard to give across-the-board conflict resolution advice, but if you use tact and look for a compromise that represents the best interests of both the team and the project, you’re most likely to find a solution that everyone can live (and work) with. That, combined with a team with a working relationship rather than something based on superficial information shared at yet another introductory session, can keep you and your team working together.