Three Steps to ignite a team

What do the Blue Angels, an improv troupe, and your team’s offsite have in common?

 They all have the potential to access a new level of genius, creativity, and accomplishment when the right conditions are in place.

We work with people on a daily basis, sometimes in good and rewarding circumstances, and sometimes in the deep drudgery of tolerance. For those who have participated on a great team, you know the unique feeling and accomplishment that comes from working seamlessly across individuals where anticipation and execution seem to merge. If you’ve had that feeling, you question why your current team just can’t operate that same way. In my career, I’ve always looked for that spark that ignites a team.

There is an exceptional amount of research on creating the perfect team covering topics from team selection to mandating the right way to interact and communicate with one another (including Google’s Project Aristotle). In Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, he outlines a set of social triggers that occur within high-performing teams that allows them to reach a higher state of execution. These social triggers include: a group goal, close listening, complete concentration, a feeling of autonomy and control, the blending of egos, equal participation, familiarity, communication, building on one another’s ideas, and the potential for failure. This new state is referred to as “group flow” where cooperation, productivity, and performance exceed normal bounds. The team becomes far more than the sum of its individuals and build on one another’s thoughts and ideas in new and exciting ways.

Through my work with teams, I’ve found that these social triggers can be encouraged and facilitated deliberately. In strategic planning sessions, offsites, and managerial training, my job is to light the spark that can ignite a team. There’s a lot of work required to provide fuel and fan the flames to keep that team rolling, but that initial spark is an enabler to prime, prepare, and shape the mindset of team members. By understanding the social triggers mentioned above, we deliberately create the circumstances to initiate a compelling team interaction. To create that spark, there are 3 critical conditions we set:

  1. Have a clear objectiveCreating some certainty enables individuals to focus and push other distractions to the background. This objective need not be the grand mission for the organization, but the reason the group has come together must be evident.
  2. Introduce something novel to the group. Again, to relieve the team of distraction, an unusual thought or activity allows the team to shed pre-conceived notions and the normal roles we find ourselves in. We have done this in a variety of ways from an early morning physical activity (i.e. running), to a role-based simulation, to a session on mindfulness and meditation. Importantly, this novel activity must not favor the traditional leaders of the group. Novelty creates an even playing field allowing all participants to feel engaged and contribute beyond the scope of the novel activity.
  3. Enable team members to take some risk in front of each other. Team members taking a risk (and not being punished for it) in front one another gives rise to a feeling of psychological safety within the team. Psychological safety allows the group to be prepared for broad, collaborative work beyond the activity itself. To be impactful, these risks can be relatively small and unrelated to the overall objective of the team. For instance, many people see doing a physical activity (i.e. working out) in front of a colleague as risky and uncomfortable. We often combine puzzles with a physical activity to lower barriers for participation. In the case of a recent mindfulness activity, a willingness for a participant to simply close their eyes in front of fellow team members was a sufficient level of risk to activate this spark.

The mental state created with these conditions lasts. In the event itself, there is an openness for creative thought and rich discussion. This openness increases the opportunity for alignment and collective commitment. Of course, the work is not done with setting the three conditions. A thoughtful agenda and diligent preparation helps discussions to be relevant and meaningful. But, lighting that spark creates an advantage where you can make the most of your preparation. Best of all, when you’ve created that feeling within the team, they will seek it out and associate it with those people they have felt it with before. Group flow is the gift that keeps on giving!