What I’ve learnt about teamwork

Posted by matthew on Apr 11, 2005 in teamwork

Through my involvement in project management in my job, being involved in organising MLX, and in helping to start a dance troupe, I’ve given a fair bit of thought to the area of teamwork. Sometime during 2004 I was exposed to the ideas of the British leadership and management expert John Adair. Now, I am normally downright hostile when someone presents me with a model of management doublspeak. Just about everything I see on the topic makes me feel physically ill. So I was surprised when I started reading his stuff and finding practical tips and ways of seeing things that made life simpler for me. So I thought I would write a little bit about it here.

First of all, the most important idea for me that Adair talks about is summarised in his diagram on the right. Adair says that to have successful teamwork, you need to keep three things in focus at all times: task needs, team needs, and individual needs. These things overlap in various ways, of course, but the important thing is that no one element dominates and none should be left out.

When you start to break these categories down into real items for a given situation, the message is really compelling. I’ll try to give some examples here.

The first one that springs to mind involves the use of this model in revising the way that the MLX teams were organised. MLX is a national event, but in the early days the organisation of it was fairly ad hoc. I had an idea about how other exchanges were run, and had been to some big Lindy Hop events like Herrang and Lismore, but running one was a different matter. I found a lot of useful stuff from other people who had organised exchanges (notably Lindy Exchanges for Dummies), but almost all of the stuff I found was related to tasks. That is, when to do things, and what to do. But not really how to do them, and certainly nothing much on the successful coordination of teams.

For MLX 2001, I had another obstacle which was that hardly anyone in Australia had ever heard of an exchange, let alone knew how to run one. A very small number of people had run workshops or dances, and most of them had either left the scene entirely or weren’t aware of the growing desire in more experienced dancers for an event that had social events as a primary focus.

All of this meant that I needed to recruit a team, explain the idea of an exchange, as well as plan all of the events that went into it. It was, I realise now, an unrealistic expectation. Naturally enough, I had plenty of friends who were keen to encourage me to do it, including lots of people who enthusiastically volunteered to help organise. That first year turned into an amazingly uplifting experience I think for just about everyone involved. The unexpected success in terms of numbers of attendees seemed to galvanise everyone, and we all just ran on the rising energy of the moment.

Once it was all over, we did an evaluation of the attendees and a fairly reasonable postmortem with the volunteers as well. There was a lot of positive feedback and lots of goodwill. Looking back on it now I realise that there was almost nothing in the way of criticism of the way it was run, and I must have had hundreds of people contact me in person or by email to tell me that we needed to do the same thing next year.

I probably should have realised a couple of things at that point. Firstly, being the main organiser with nodbody else involved in actual management, there was really nobody among the group who was able to see the organisation of the whole thing in perspective. I should also have realised that this could not be maintained if the event expanded.

In 2002, it did just that. I estimated that it almost doubled in terms of attendance that year. As a result, we had to put on a second stream of workshop classes, and we had international dancers to organise all of a sudden. It was logistically much more difficult in 2002. The management structure had not changed significantly, except for the fact that I now had Lotte around as a confidant and a huge help, and I had introduced the idea of certain volunteers taking on responsibility for certain areas. As a result, a significant proportion of the volunteer team (around 30 people as I recall) was in crisis mode for much of the time. For me, things hadn’t changed all that much, because I am mostly in problem-solving mode when organising MLX anyway, but for about 5 or 6 of the volunteers who did a lot of work, their weekend was not fun. Not all of these people were official “managers” — they were just the ones who had decided to jump in when things were not working well and sacrificed their time.

A lot of soul-searching resulted. I got sick. A couple of friendships were bruised, which is still a cause of anguish for me today. Lotte and I spent many months talking about how to improve things for the following year. In the end, Lotte’s input was invaluable. She decided that she would rather help solve the management problems herself than watch me get stressed out and sick again. Together we came up with the idea that we needed to define the new role of Volunteer Manager, and that Lotte would fill it.

The short story is that MLX 2003 was a much happier experience for the volunteers. The areas that we were able to address, I realise now, were related to the two circles in Adair’s diagram that I had neglected to some extent: building and maintaining the team and (moreso) identifying and serving individuals’ needs. There was still too much strain on Lotte and myself, and I got sick after MLX again (quite badly this time). But we had learnt an important lesson about how to manage a fairly large team (around 50 volunteers by this stage).

MLX 2004 is when we came really close to getting the formula right. First of all I had now discovered Adair’s stuff and begun to make use of it in my work, so I was now able to communicate the ideas we’d been discovering by trial and error with some clarity. For the first time, we conducted a training session for our managers, and we used the Adair principles to do it. We told them about what we’d discovered. We also gave them practical advice on how to run an event — putting together running sheets and managing small teams.

MLX 2004 was amazing because it was by far the most ambitious timetable of events we had taken on, mainly because we were taking on two major international events along with it: SwingCity and the Hellzapoppin’ World Championships. But guess what? I didn’t get sick, and I had a really, really, good time. And everyone was happy, including the managers. Friendships were built and strengthened. Volunteers gained valuable experience and skills. It was a very positive endorsement of the model above, I have to say.