TEAMING WITH TALENT - In business as in sport, we all want a team greater than the sum of its individual players. Chances are your dream team is sitting around the office. All you have to do is fit them into nine defined roles. Jim White tells how to pick a winning side.
When the celebrations were over, the silverware safely in the trophy cabinet and the winning bonuses paid into bank accounts, there was one thing everyone agreed on regarding the Manchester United side that won the first recorded football Treble. They were not the best players there have ever been.
Indeed, only a couple of them would have been selected for a side of the best of their contemporaries. Several may not even have flourished with another Premiership club. However, as a unit they were contenders for the best sporting team this country has ever produced.
This was a team in the proper sense of the word. There was something about the way they worked as a group that added up to a sum greater than the individual parts - a collective spirit, a managerial alchemy that made them such a force.
Responsibility for a team rests with its leader - in this case Sir Alex Ferguson, a man with an instinctive grasp of what makes a team function. For the millions watching his side complete the Treble - United fans or otherwise - one question will have lingered: if they can do it, can we?
Is there some secret that can be gleaned from this triumph that could be applied to our work life? Could the United way have anything to teach those of us engaged in accountancy, the law, retailing or government? If the collective works so well for Manchester United, could it pay dividends for us?
The answer is unequivocally yes, according to Tracey Edwards, the yachtswoman who skippered the first women's crew to circumnavigate the globe. 'We are a pack animal,' she says. 'From earliest times we have used the strength of the group to overcome the weakness of the individual. And that applies as much to business as to sport.' She should know. When she is not hoisting a mainsail or splicing a brace, Edwards is a management consultant.
Her company, Tracey Edwards Associates Motivation (the acronym is a hefty hint about its philosophy) runs dozens of seminars a year in which leading sports practitioners explain how to build teams. Her experience draws heavily from taking a team of women on the world's most gruelling yacht races lasting up to 90 days - and more often than not beating male opponents.
'There are so many parallels between sport and business,' says Edwards. 'For team leaders it is all about motivating and sustaining the group effort, and about setting goals. A manager has to understand that at times they have to listen, at times they have to lead. And most importantly, they have to remain self-motivated.'
But when it comes to building teams, constructing them from scratch, sport may not always be the most helpful role model for business people. Sport sets its own boundaries and rhythms. Build a football team and you know you will require someone to stop opponents scoring goals, and someone to score them for you. Construct a rugby team and you know you will need quick, lithe athletes in the back, strong men not easily intimidated by physical violence for the pack, plus a couple of blokes the height of telegraph poles for the line-out. Moreover, these are specialists - the number eight could no more play full-back than the winger could play hooker. Their roles are already pre-determined and half your job is done; you simply need to find the best available option in each position.
Even if you are happy to accept that the group effort is always better than individuals working in isolation, how do you set about constructing a team when your business is that of designing and selling computer software? Or if you are the chief executive of a local authority? Or if you are responsible for reviving a failing school? Twenty years ago, Dr Meredith Belbin began a decade of research at the Henley Management Centre into team dynamics and discovered there is a formula that works across business disciplines. He (and, naturally enough, his team) identified eight characteristics of workers (later research uncovered a ninth) which, when brought together, create the perfect team alchemy.
'It was incredible,' remembers Bill Hartston, a mathematician and chess grandmaster who was a member of Belbin's research operation. 'We would get a group of people together and ask them to self-select what they considered to be the best team. They would invariably choose the best set of individuals. We would then select the remnants according to the Belbin formula. We would set a few tasks, anything from role-playing to a complicated business game lasting several days. The Belbin-formula team would always win. Wipe the floor with them.'
The nine character types (as described in the boxes) range from the extrovert and the domineering through to the neurotic and the creatively flighty. We have all worked with them. We know them all.
Personally, I have had arguments with at least four of them, ignored at least two and have tried to get off with the others. What most of us don't realise is, put them together and they cover every base. This lot have the collective capability of solving every business problem.
'Fundamentally,' says Hartston, 'our attitude was that people have innate characteristics which are perfect for something. The role of the manager is to identify what those characteristics are, and to what job they are best suited.' It may sound as if it has a hopelessly optimistic belief in people but, according to Hartston, it works.
The idea behind the Belbin method is to build jobs around people. Define a job only by its core requirements (obviously artists need to be able to draw, computer programmers to log on and, to a lesser extent, accountants to count). Then, using this minimum specification, look at the person.
'The important thing is not to come at a job with a pre-conceived template,' says Hartston. 'Think not what the job can do for them but what they can do for the job.' Taking that as the starting point, the method is very similar to selecting a sports side. Just as the winning rugby team requires quick backs and strong forwards, so for every business team to function it will need the natural leader, the born organiser, the scatty creative. Or to use the jargon, the 'co-ordinator', the 'shaper' and the 'plant'. Even the sad anorak in the corner of the office, the one incapable of seeing the wood for the trees, the one so bogged down in paperclips he or she hasn't noticed that there's a real world out there, can play a vital role in the Belbin team. They are the 'finishers', the ones who make sure the task is seen through and completed, mainly by dint of worrying themselves sick about it.
So, since it is now 10 years since the Belbin research was finalised, has Britain seen a revolution in the workplace, a buzz of teamwork that has elevated our management systems into the best on the planet?
'I'd have to say that in the 10 years since I've been observing businesses, most are woefully unaware of how to build teams and make use of the talents of their employees,' says Hartston. 'I think one of the problems is that our system was egalitarian and wouldn't fit easily into existing business hierarchies. One of the things we found is that the natural team leader will emerge, who is often not the guy nominally at the top. And businesses will always prefer to retain their structures rather than get the most from their staff.' Most of us can empathise with that observation.
But what about those companies, like St Luke's advertising agency, which have consigned hierarchies to the past and operate management systems such as hot-desking and open-plan offices? Are these the team-working way forward?
'Just tricksy,' says Hartston. 'Like all these role-playing and games weekends where you spend hours playing team-building exercises, when the best place to build teams is in the workplace.
Plus, a lack of structure can become just as rigid a straitjacket as structure does, in the end. What you have to do is look to your staff and let them evolve into their natural hierarchical positions.'
In the end it is all about trust. The winning team is out there, sitting opposite you or just round the corner. The nadgerer, the flirt, the prat, the office bully - each could play a part in turning your company into a Treble-winning outfit. All you have to do is identify them.
1. THE PLANT Creative, imaginative, unorthodox. Solves difficult problems. Also impatient, hopeless at communicating and should be allowed nowhere near people management. We've all met one. Right now he or she is probably your boss.
2. THE RESOURCE INSTIGATOR Extrovert, enthusiastic, communicative. Inspires everyone, spreads the word, develops contacts. Then, once the project is underway, quickly loses interest. Better known as the office bullshitter.
3. THE CO-ORDINATOR
Mature, confident, trusting. Perhaps not the cleverest or most creative member of the team, but good at clarifying goals and promoting decision-making. Probably the most natural chairperson, even if they're currently making the tea.
4. THE SHAPER
Dynamic, outgoing, highly strung. Challenges, pressurises and finds ways round obstacles, but is also prone to bursts of temper. The one who flings their computer out of the window after failing to access e-mails.
5. THE MONITOR EVALUATOR
Sober, strategic, discerning. Sees all options. Lacking drive and the ability to inspire, currently more likely than not dismissed as the office carpet - there simply to be trodden on.
6. THE TEAMWORKER
Mild and accommodating but indecisive in crunch situations. Every team needs its drones, as vital in getting the task done as the high-flyers and creative brains. Just don't go out for a drink after work with one.
7. THE IMPLEMENTER
Disciplined, reliable, conservative. Turns ideas into practical action. But watch out - has a tendency to be inflexible and needs persuading of an idea's validity before proceeding. Has been sitting in the corner opposite, bringing the same sandwiches for the past century or so.
8. THE COMPLETER
Painstaking worrier who searches out errors and omissions. Can be breathtakingly pedantic, but someone has to scour the small print. Think nerd, think clerk, think the last person in the office you can imagine ever having achieved anything. But as they say, God is in the detail.
9. THE SPECIALIST
The equivalent of the goal kicker in American football, brought in on a short-term basis to provide specific skills in rare supply. So single-minded and narrow in outlook they can only be tolerated in short bursts. So there is a point to the office bore who tells you exactly what route to take home every day.