4 quick & inexpensive tools to accelerate team development

In the creative industries, teams frequently need to get from zero to sixty almost instantly. This is typical in film & TV, where production crews are routinely shotgunned together and required to make audiovisual magic in as little as thirty days (sometimes less). These high expectations may be unrealistic but they aren’t impossible, usually because the more seasoned veterans can turn on a high level of professionalism like flicking a switch. The early break-in period can also be greatly reduced if some crew members have worked together on previous projects.

But not everyone on a team has a shared history, pleasant or otherwise, and few crews are exclusively comprised of battle-hardened pros. Creative teams, no matter how short-lived, are still subject to the same process of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning (or “mourning”) as any other. So how do you accelerate them through Tuckman’s stages of development when you simply haven’t got the time or budget to send everyone on a team-building retreat? While there are many things leaders can do to shorten the team development process, this post will focus on  four readily accessible tools that can be used to help teams through the first crucial phase.

In brief, the Formation stage is characterized by (among other things) a general lack of prior history and unfamiliarity with other team members; concomitant low levels of trust; a steep learning curve with lots of checking each other out; and few, if any, established norms for communication, handling conflict, and other behaviours. Therefore, the kind of tools that are appropriate at this stage are those that are not only quick and cost-effective but can also help the team get to know each other without being too in-your-face and personal. Ideally they will also surface ideas about how to manage essentials like communication and conflict. It’s a tall order, but here are four that fit the bill:

Arguably the best-known of the personality inventories is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) which, according to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, aims to “make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people's lives.” The MTBI assesses preferences along four dimensions: Extraversion/Introversion, which is the extent to which individuals focus on their external or interior worlds; Sensing/Intuition, or how we relate to incoming information and the extent to which we interpret and add meaning; Thinking/Feeling, how we make decisions by focusing either on pure logic or whether we take emotions into account; and Judging/Perceiving, which is about how we structure our relationship with and make sense of the outside world. Knowing how we differ in the ways we relate to the world through our sensory, analytical, perceptual and emotional mechanisms can help us be more patient and tolerant – not just with others but with ourselves as well. It can, for example, be helpful in matching an individual’s natural inclinations with appropriate career options.  In the case of hastily-assembled teams, it offers members a way to get to know each other without having to reveal anything too personal in nature and taking them too far outside their comfort zones. It  encourages bonding by identifying similarities among team members and enables teams to establish norms to respect the differences.

Merrill & Reid’s social styles theory, as its name suggests, offers insight into our social interactions. It identifies four main archetypes (Analytic, Driver, Amiable, and Expressive) and their respective sub-types based on a two-dimensional matrix of social Assertiveness and Responsiveness. The Assertiveness continuum is the extent to which we are more comfortable asking or telling in a social context, mainly as it pertains to expressing individual needs. Responsiveness is the extent to which we react to others by empathizing or openly emoting, or whether we are more likely to rein in our feelings. Awareness of relative ease or discomfort when asserting individual needs and desires, for example, can allow us to see past the stereotypes we might otherwise apply (“bully” vs. “wimp,” etc.) and communicate more sympathetically, allowing for variations in social styles.

Both of these models have been in use for many years, providing valuable insights into how people behave, and why, under most normal circumstances. There are, however, two more tools that offer more specific, situational insights that I have found particularly useful in creative and business environments:

Based on the work of Dr. Meredith Belbin, Team Role theory identifies nine basic roles that we all unconsciously adopt, to varying degrees, when operating in a team environment. When allowed to flourish, each of these natural roles – as opposed to any formally assigned team roles – makes a unique and valuable contribution to the team. They also come with concomitant allowable weaknesses. Knowledge of team roles can allow for more strategic and effective team formation; conversely it can help avoid team dysfunction or outright conflict inevitable when team roles are over- or underrepresented on a given team. Even in film & TV production, where formal crew roles, hierarchies and workflows are very clearly defined, this is still applicable.

The five Conflict Response Roles – Loner, Decision-maker, Moderator, Diplomat, and Friend – describe the clusters of behaviours we tend to adopt when in conflict. These roles vary according to the extent to which the individual naturally focuses on the self, the task, and/or the facts of the matter in a conflict situation; and the extent to which the focus is on the other, the relationship(s) involved, and the feelings of the people in the conflict. The Conflict Response Roles (CR2I) self-assessment instrument has been used successfully for over a decade to identify common escalation triggers; needs that are being protected in a conflict; conflict behavioural patterns, both helpful and potentially destructive; and other key characteristics. This increased self-knowledge can help individuals make the necessary adjustments so that conflict situations are prevented, or at least managed earlier and more skillfully, in a conflict situation.

Of course there are further tests and inventories that can be used, alone or in combination, to assess and analyze everything from individual decision-making preferences to leadership styles and other aspects of our personal and professional selves. As in every situation, it's important to match the right tool for the right job. Note too that the purpose of these tools is not merely to categorize or classify people; it’s imperative to avoid lazy assumptions based on handy generalizations. Reducing individuals to labels and objectifying them makes it far too easy to demonize and see them as “other,” which defeats the whole team-building purpose. And while these tools can help speed the team’s formative stage, they are by no means a panacea.

Still, when used wisely these mental models can help us appreciate what makes each other tick, and see how and why we behave the way we do in certain situations. They can be invaluable for establishing a solid foundation for more effective and durable working relationships. Teams may not always achieve unanimous agreement, but they can always achieve greater understanding and empathy. And they even can do it more quickly and cheaply when time and money are in short supply.