CHICAGO––Have some sort of team-building exercise planned for your credit union’s staff? It’s probably a waste of time, according to one person, who says true collaboration really comes from something else.
Carlos Valdes-Dapena, CEO of Corporate Collaboration Resources and the author of Lessons from Mars: How One Global Company Cracked the Code on High Performance Collaboration and Teamwork, said that based on his more than 25 years of research and practice in the field of team effectiveness—including 17 at Mars, Inc.–off-site team-building exercises such as bowling nights or ropes courses actually do little to build a collaborative culture.
Hired an Orchestra, But…
“Mars was not immune to the conventional wisdom,” wrote Valdes-Dapena. “Before making the commitment to study collaboration intensively, we also did things like this. Once, we spent thousands of dollars to hire an orchestra to spend an hour with a group of senior leaders at an offsite retreat and help them work together in harmony. It was a nice metaphor and an interesting experience. It did nothing, though, to change how that group of leaders worked together.”
While such events may help staff to feel closer for a short period of time or even strengthen emotional bonds, none of that really holds up under the day-to-day pressures of an organization focused on delivering results, said Valdes-Dapena.
“In 2011 senior HR leaders at Mars decided that we would study our global workforce and try to crack the code of how to maximize team effectiveness,” noted Valdes-Dapena. “The resulting research, which I led, revealed that most of what we — and others — thought about team building was wrong. Most important, we learned that quality collaboration does not begin with relationships and trust; it starts with a focus on individual motivation.
“Our research drew on data from 125 teams. It included questionnaires and interviews with hundreds of team members. We asked, among other things, how clear people were about the teams’ priorities, what their own and others’ objectives were, and what they felt most confident about and most worried about,” Valdes-Dapena continued. “If there was one dominant theme from the interviews, it is summarized in this remarkable sentiment: ‘I really like and value my teammates. And I know we should collaborate more. We just don’t.’”
What the questionnaires revealed, said Valdes-Dapena , was that team members felt the most clarity about their individual objectives, and felt a strong sense of ownership for the work they were accountable for.
“To further investigate, we turned to another source and analyzed several years of data from Mars’s 360-degree leadership surveys,” he said. “The two top strengths identified in those surveys were ‘action orientation’ and ‘results focus.’ The picture was getting clearer: Mars was full of people who loved to get busy on tasks and responsibilities that had their names next to them. It was work they could do exceedingly well, producing results without collaborating. On top of that, they were being affirmed for those results by their bosses and the performance rating system.”
Ultimately, what was recognized, said Valdes-Dapena, was the irony that failure to collaborate was a function of employees excelling at the jobs they were hired to do and of management reinforcing that excellence.
“Collaboration, on the other hand, was an idealized but vague goal with no concrete terms or rules,” he said. “What’s more, collaboration was perceived as messy. It diluted accountability and offered few tangible rewards.”
Two Questions to Ask
As a result, Mars developed a framework to make collaboration clear, specific, and compelling — to make collaboration something to be achieved. At the core of the framework, according to Valdes-Dapena , are two questions to pose to any team. The first: Why is their collaboration essential to achieving their business results? And second: What work, which specific tasks, would require collaboration to deliver those results?
“We had a chance to test our framework in early 2012 with the Mars Petcare China leadership team,” wrote Valdes-Dapena. “Over two days we posed our questions and hashed out specifics. We spent the entire first day wrestling with the answers to our two questions. Initial reactions were bemusement and frustration: What did I mean by ‘essential to business results’? We restated the question as: Why is your working together, as a team, more valuable than just the sum of your individual efforts? That got the conversation going, and we spent three hours discussing and debating what we called their ‘team purpose.’ They finally agreed that their purpose would center on people development and deployment of their new strategy throughout the business.
“The second question, the one about which specific pieces of work required collaboration, was more contentious,” continued Valdes-Dapena . “One leader in particular felt that he needed to be left alone, that none of the work he was responsible for should include any of his peers. The debate became heated, but eventually his peers won him over. Eventually we were able to sort our list of projects into those that could be handled by individuals and those that really would be improved by collaboration.”
The second day of the meeting focused on accountability.
What happened? Over the next year Mars Petcare China experienced a whopping 33% growth overall. — a stunning achievement.
“At Mars, we learned that to get people to work together, we had to let them figure out how that would actually improve results,” said Valdes-Dapena. “Strong relationships and trust do matter to collaboration, but they are not the starting point. They are the outcomes of dedicated people striving together. Connecting collaboration to the motives of success-minded team members is what unlocks productive teamwork.”.