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Tony Nicholls

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Just how can you quickly spin up teams on the fly and make them more efficiently?

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In response to today’s rapidly changing contexts, businesses are regularly reviewing their lists of projects, closing down some and kick-starting others.

With this constant flux, building teams on the fly and expecting quick results is becoming a common occurrence in modern organisations.

What type of leader is best suited to build them and what should they focus on to make them a success?

Counter-intuitive leadership

Despite the need for quick results, leaders tasked with building teams on the fly do well to focus first on the people and then on the task.

This could appear counter-intuitive with results probably being foremost in the sponsors’ minds, deadlines being tight and risks high.

Results matter, of course, but not getting the people element right first risks a much harder delivery phase.

Having impact as a leader when there isn't time to allow relationships to build over time, requires the leader to be people-centric.

Despite the need for quick results, leaders tasked with building teams on the fly do well to focus first on the people and then on the task.

This starts with them being genuinely interested in meeting and working with new people.

If the leader isn't excited at the prospect of meeting new people, getting to know them and learning from their collective experiences, they probably aren't the best person for the role.

New team members will quickly warm to someone who is genuinely interested in them as individuals and not just on getting the job done.

Three hats

The leader also needs to understand that they wear three hats in this people-centric space. They are leader, manager and facilitator. Expertise in all three is critical.

The leadership hat allows for strategic thinking and clear, motivational articulation of the task in hand. It also focuses on the people, their needs and how they can benefit from being part of the team.

New team members will quickly warm to someone who is genuinely interested in them as individuals.

Leadership ensures everyone’s skills are developed and careers enhanced through being part of this team, no matter how short the duration.

The management hat ensures the task gets done. Management moves the team to action quickly, but with adequate risk mitigation in place.

Technical expertise may be needed, depending on the task in hand, but it may not if the team is sufficiently skilled.

Expertise is definitely needed in the management tools that support effective delivery. These might include programme oversight, risk mitigation and budget control.

Critically important in the management space is a sense of accountability for delivery, balanced with skills in effective delegation.

Nothing will slow delivery down and stifle creativity and quality of output more, than a command and control management style.

Critically important in the management space is a sense of accountability for delivery, balanced with skills in effective delegation.

This is especially so with team members who have come together only recently. For trust to build quickly, their skills need to be equally quickly recognised and utilised to their full potential.

The facilitation hat is rarely recognised as a need in these circumstance.

It is the skill that will allow all team members to feel valued and heard. Facilitation is needed as the task progresses to ensure all voices are heard in designing solutions and decision making.

When the pressure is on for results and the risks are high, there is a tendency for extroverts to take the lion’s share of air space.

Facilitation of conversations and team dynamics is essential to ensure a balanced perspective is achieved that also includes the voice of the introverts.

Somewhere to call 'home'

Additional responsibilities for the leader are seen in those areas that so often get overlooked when building teams on the fly.

Building team identity is helped if the team members have somewhere they can call home.

When the pressure is on for results and the risks are high, there is a tendency for extroverts to take the lion’s share of air space.

Taking over storage rooms, claiming a corner of the open plan office, decamping to a rented space or meeting in the local coffee shop can all offer the opportunity to create a sense of home.

If the team is geographically spread and meeting time is limited, social media, secure intranet platforms and the ubiquitous conference call can substitute for a lack of physical space.

The important thing is to meet, whether face to face or virtually, on a regular basis.

Critically, there are two times when face to face meetings are essential.

These are for conversations at the start and end of the team’s life. Putting faces to names, getting to know each other and building a shared sense of purpose are important elements of the first face to face meeting.

If time allows, other elements can include agreeing work streams of activity and assigning responsibilities.

For the last meeting, review, celebration and saying goodbye are the focus.

Critically, there are two times when face-to-face meetings are essential. These are for conversations at the start and end of the team’s life.

Deep bonds can form over the short life of a temporary team. It is important to recognise this and allow people to part with all the usual ceremony that permanent teams display when a long-standing member leaves.

Those same team members may form part of the next team our leader is asked to put together on the fly. Disbanding the current team with an opportunity to reflect and celebrate will leave them more inclined to engage in the next project and in the leader.

In between meetings or calls, there can be pressured, lonely times for individual team members. It is essential the leader stays in touch with all team members through regular check-in calls.

These calls should always remain people-centred. The team member’s needs come first, task-related issues second.

Horses for courses

Not everyone is suited to being a member of a team built on the fly, especially when they are expected to deliver results quickly.

Some need the certainty of a fixed desk with somewhere to put their family photos and memorabilia. Meeting new people is a challenge for others. Uncertainty and intense pressure can also be a challenge for some.

The leader needs to choose carefully and quickly swap out people at the first sign things are not working.

Not everyone is suited to being a member of a team built on the fly, especially when they are expected to deliver results quickly.

This challenge to find team members suited to teams built on the fly is going to become a huge focus for organisations.

Those same changing contexts that require rapid changes to projects and project teams, also require organisations to regularly review workforce numbers, organisation structures and working practices.

All this means that many teams are going to find themselves in an almost constant state of flux. They are going to be forming, growing, shrinking, merging or being disbanded at an alarming rate.

This unsettling situation is a real risk given that teams are the bedrock of successful  business activities.

Trust and camaraderie lie at the heart of great team work. These take time to build. 

It isn’t the lone, talented few that deliver in the long term, it is groups of individuals, of varying capabilities, working together towards a common goal. Their ways of working are honed after time spent together getting to know each other and their collective strengths and weaknesses.

Trust and camaraderie lie at the heart of great team work. These take time to build. 

Future leaders

Building teams on the fly takes a special kind of leader. A focus on the people is vital. Honed skills in leadership, management and facilitation are required, as is a focus on building team identity, quickly.

As organisation structures and ways of working change more often, it won't just be leaders building teams at short notice that need these capabilities.

It will be incumbent on all managers to recognise the need and be able to deliver quality team building on the fly. 

One Response

  1. I found this article enriched
    I found this article enriched and inspiring.
    It has many good and strong points which I can commit to.

    But I must disagree on one.
    By saying: “The leader needs to choose carefully and quickly swap out people at the first sign things are not working.” it can quickly lead to the thought that people are disposable. That no effort must be made to make each one of the members feel that home feeling, that either everything flows from minute one or they are off, all their other skills have no value, no use. And it can lead to a very unease feeling among the rest of the members, because when rushing, you can easily overlook essential information and maybe even make you -as leader- pick the wrong member, the wrong interpretation of things.
    And it is not aligned with a previous statement where it says: “Facilitation of conversations and team dynamics is essential to ensure a balanced perspective is achieved that also includes the voice of the introverts.”

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Tony Nicholls

Management Thinker & Change Authority

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