#10 — Team Structure

Nobody wants more structure on a team than is necessary. If overdone, it stifles both energy and creativity. But the need for structure grows with the size and complexity of the work. It’s crucial, early on, for the team to reach agreement on the five elements listed below:

• choosing leadership

• internal communications

• external communications

• decision making

• record keeping

The agreement doesn’t have to be signed in blood, but it should be formally written down in some form of minutes or bylaws that all agree to. Notto address these elements invites conflict, inefficiencies, and chaos.

Choosing Leadership. The question of whowill lead the team is important. Even more important, however, is the formof leadership the team needs and wants,

The key concern any team must address head-on and early is how much authority it’s comfortable giving to its leader.Will the leader’s roles and responsibilities be limited to calling and chairing meetings? Or does it make sense in your team’s situation to give the leader broader powers to make decisions and to represent the entire team to others?

However much formal authority the team decides to give its leader, my experience is that it’s important to allow the leader reasonable flexibility. In a crisis or other fast-breaking event, you should want your leader to have more authority to make decisions than in less stressed times--there simply may not be time to talk through all the options with the whole team. So the leader needs to be someone the team trusts to use and not abuse this privilege.

At this early stage, it’s also important for the team to decide how leadership will be elected and how it can be changed, which includes setting terms of office.

Who will be the leader? Often it will seem natural and effective to choose as leader the spark plug who brought the core team together. But sometimes that person doesn’t want the job, or there’s consensus that somebody else on the team might be better suited. Sometimes the leadership emerges. Unfortunately, given the time and effort that leadership requires, the question often comes down to who is willingto do the job. If that’s the case, the best option may be to spread leadership responsibilities among several people who work well together.

Internal Communications. Good team communications are crucial--team members must have the information needed to do their jobs, including background facts logistics data and breaking news relevant to the team’s work. They also need to know broadly what each other is doing, so that they can better coordinate the work.

The Internet is the quickest and most effective way for team members to communicate with each other, Consider setting up a password-protected electronic bulletin board or newsgroup, using email, a website or social media, and then tasking team members to log on in a timely way, especially if the project is fast moving.

External Communications. Who will speak for the team to outsiders, including the press? While the team as a whole may decide the policies that then need to be communicated, it’s important to limit the number of people on the team who are authorized to deliver the message. This is not just to take advantage of your most articulate speakers, but it’s also to minimize the chances of delivering mixed or contradictory messages.

Decisions. The team must agree on a clear, unambiguous process for making decisions: who gets to make them--and how? Consensus is a good goal to shoot for, but to avoid gridlock when consensus fails, set up a voting mechanism. Decide how many members of the team are needed to form a quorum, and how many votes are needed for approval. It’s common to use majority rule for most decisions but to require a supermajority (60 percent, for example) for the most important ones--such as on spending a large amount of money, entering into a long-term contract, or initiating or joining a lawsuit.

Evelyn Schaeffer, an activist who took on the phone company in Ohio, offers the following tip for making team decisions: “The rock-bottom rule I never broke was to always ask after every decision, ‘Is there anyone who can’t live with this?’ It’s amazing how you can have an acrimonious split decision on something, but if you ask that question, the minority will usually say, ‘I guess we can live with it,’ and hostility is defused. Of course, if on rare occasions there is someone who says, ‘I can’t live with it,’ then I go back to the drawing board with the caveat that if we reach the same decision, that person may have to bow out.”

Record Keeping. Keep minutes that record attendance at every team meeting, accurately describe any decisions made, and give a balanced summary of the discussions. One option is to keep notes during the meeting on a flip chart where everybody can see them, and then to write up the minutes from these. However they are prepared, minutes should be sent out for approval as soon after a meeting as possible, while memories are fresh.

If you plan to raise and spend any money at all, create a separate bank account in the team’s name. Never use your personal account to transact team business; that can create financial snarls and invite criticisms you don’t need. Scrupulously record all transactions.

Avoid This Mistake There’s a strong temptation to avoid or delay creating the kind of team structures described above. I know because I’ve made this mistake. You think that what your group is doing is so important, and you see things moving so quickly that there “just isn’t time to do all that paperwork.” Don’t fall prey to this kind of thinking. Without the needed structure, a team can become a battleground, inportant elements may fall into cracks or be done poorly—and the team will be much less likely to achieve its goals.

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All content © 2015 John A. Graham. All rights reserved.