Team Dynamics

by Billy Pittard on November 17, 2009

You can’t put a random bunch of people together and expect them to be able to successfully collaborate on a creative project. You need a few fundamental elements in place. You need the right people in the right roles, good processes that assure on-target results, and a good structure to facilitate it all.

Let’s start with the people.

First, take the time to define each role; what skills are required of each role, and what is expected of the performance of each role. Define each role specifically enough so that it meets the needs of the work, and broadly enough so that you don’t miss out on unexpected talent. Then put the most qualified person in each role. I like to think of it like casting roles in a performance.

The leader’s role is to define project goals, team roles, and then support each team member in bringing his or her abilities to the assignment. In simplest terms, the project leader gets the right people in the right roles, sets up the right conditions, and then gets out of the way and lets people do their assigned work.

Once team roles are assigned, it’s important that team members have ownership of their roles and support from management to fulfill those roles. Team members have an obligation to fulfill their roles to the best of their abilities, and management should support that. With this level of personal responsibility in place, each team member can utilize his or her own unique knowledge, skills, and experiences, while the project leader is able to remain focused on overall results rather than the details of how each person is executing his or her role. To be clear, the leader should provide ongoing feedback about the work, but that feedback should be based upon how well the work meets the brief – and not upon how the leader would have done the work himself or herself. Indeed, the execution of the work is likely to be quite different from how the leader would have done the same thing. If the team is well defined and well cast, the results should far exceed what the leader could achieve alone. Therein lies the beauty of 1+1=3.

A successful creative team has good processes.

Good processes are like good habits. They allow you to focus your attention on the special things you’re doing without having to use up resources on the mundane. For example, when you get ready to go to work in the morning, you probably aren’t even aware of the thousand little habits that help you get yourself properly groomed, dressed, and fed. Your mental resources are more likely focused on issues and opportunities at your job or some other important thing. All of those little habits that help you get ready for work free you up to use your resources for those more important things. Those habits also help keep you out of trouble – like forgetting your wallet – or your pants. Good processes are a way of institutionalizing wisdom, so that you don’t have to keep re-learning from your mistakes and successes.

That same principle applies to creative collaborations. Whatever your field is, there are going to be processes your team can use to maximize the benefit of everyone’s efforts, and keep the project from getting into trouble. At my former company, we had a set of processes that we called our Creative Process Map. It consisted of twenty-five distinct steps. We also had customized variations for each of our different disciplines such as branding, broadcast design, interactive design, and advertising design.

Here is an example of a standard set of creative processes:

  1. Identify a need.
  2. Prepare a project brief.
  3. Assign the team.
  4. Conduct a kickoff meeting with the team.
  5. Gather information, analyze it, and gain insight.
  6. Develop a broad range of possible solutions.
  7. Test those ideas and refine to a single one for implementation.
  8. Produce the work, testing and refining as you go.
  9. Deliver and/or implement the finished work.
  10. Conduct a wrap meeting to capture the learning.
  11. Archive the work elements.

Any creative process is really just a set of decisions; choosing to do this and not that – a thousand times over – by every member of the team. As a matter of fact, if you were able to make every decision instantly, you’d be able to do your work in a fraction of the time that it normally takes. Most of the time spent on a creative project is actually spent making decisions, or re-doing work where the best decisions were not made. A good structure makes it possible for everyone on the team to make better decisions faster.

The most important aspects of structure are chain of command, and who is responsible for what. If the project lacks decisive leadership, the project will suffer and so will the team. That is not to say that the leadership of the team should be making all the decisions. To the contrary, most decisions should be made by experts in their assigned roles. The leaders need to make decisions about issues that transcend individual team roles. Leaders must take the higher view that is not so visible to team members who are working on limited aspects of the project.

Everyone does a better job when they know who is in charge – and when they know that someone is in charge. It also helps if the team believes those in charge make good decisions.

A great team is made up of strong players who play well together.

Just like a sports team requires all of its players to work together in harmony, the same applies to a creative team. Sometimes you can have great people, processes and structure, and yet still have a dysfunctional team. When there is disharmony in a team it is frequently because there’s a conflict in values of those on the team. Workplace values are one of the keys to successful creative collaboration, but that is a big subject and will be the topic of a future installment.

Please leave thoughts and comments, and feel free to ask for my help.

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