Team Building and Development in a Matrix Environment

What is a team?

There are many kinds of teams. A functional team is a permanent team established to conduct operational activities for a particular part of the organization, such as finance, sales, marketing, etc. There is no specified time limit on functional teams as they are needed to keep the business running. A project team is brought together for a discrete period of time to achieve a defined goal. At the end of the project the team is disbanded. Project teams are often matrix in nature, staffed by members taken from diverse functional teams in order to achieve the project goal. When the Project Manager has a high degree of authority this is known as a strong matrix; when Functional Managers have stronger authority this is known as a weak matrix.

In all organizational structures, there are many ‘teams within teams’. For example, if I am the Manager, I might have several teams within my overall team:

- Me and the whole team

- Me and each individual in my management team

- Me and all of my management team

- Me and my peers in other departments

- Each management team individual and their direct reports

This is complicated enough if the structure is a well-defined functional hierarchy. However, a matrix environment for completing projects adds in another layer of complexity. The functional ‘teams within teams’ still exist and each person has a functional ‘home’ team, but now they also belong to a ‘project’ team which has a finite life span.

All of these teams need nurturing if a project is to be successful. In a matrix environment, allegiance to the project is not created by the structure itself, but rather as a result of the relationships that are developed within the project team. Relationships in all teams are important for success, but on matrix teams, particularly weak matrix teams, where the project manager may have little authority, they are especially important. On such teams, relationships are more difficult to establish, are more fragile, and can be more easily destroyed. Keeping a diverse group of people together in a matrix team depends on building loyalty and trust.

Phases of Team Development

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman developed the theory that a team went through certain phases of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. The phases can be summarized as follows:

- Forming – the team comes together, starts to understand the goals and boundaries, initiates the tasks, but each individual is still working somewhat independently. Managers need to be directive at this stage in order to steer the team toward the goal.

- Storming – ideas and approaches start to be exchanged about how the work can be accomplished, and this can result in conflict. This phase is critical for the growth of the team, and results in individuals learning ways to work together. Managers still need to be directive at this stage, and also accessible to ensure that conflict is resolved and the team is starting to move forward toward the goal.

- Norming – the team starts to feel a sense of achievement, rules of operation (either formal or informal) are working, and trust begins to form. Managers start to be participative, and need to be available to provide guidance as the team continues to grow together.

- Performing – the team is now maturing and often high performing. Work is accomplished, team members know how to work together, and even though conflict takes place it is managed and navigated with skill and can enhance productivity. The team requires very little supervision at this point and can largely make its own decisions.

Tuckman later added a final phase ‘adjourning’ to acknowledge that teams, in particular project teams, typically break up after the objectives of the project are complete.

Team Building Techniques

Team building activities are conducted in order to develop loyalty and trust which are a critical foundation for getting the most effective results from a matrix project team. Team building is not just about creating ‘fun’ events, although that is part of it. It is also not just about understanding team members through personality assessments, although again, that is part of it. The most effective team building involves combining a variety of tools and techniques.

- Kick off meetings – a new project should be initiated with a kick off meeting so that the purpose of the project, roles and responsibilities and how the project fits into the organization’s overall goals can be understood. This technique can be used in all types of teams, but in a matrix project team that has come together with staff from multiple different sources it is especially important as the team has no established context for the project.

- Team agreements – Teams that know how to work together are more likely to be effective and efficient. Establishing agreements can assist in this process. Collaboratively establishing ground rules for how a team will operate will provide the team with clarity and will ease communication over issues such as boundaries, responsibilities, and team member behavior. Functional teams already have this established through the use of departmental policies and procedures. However for newly formed matrix project teams that do not have rules of operation established as part of their formal organization structure, team agreements is a necessary aspect of building an effective team.

- Delivery process definition – Understanding how the work is to be accomplished makes it easier for a team to work together. Functional teams typically have the process for delivering the work established as part of the departmental rules. Given that the nature of each project may be different, matrix project teams typically do not have initial stated rules for delivering the work. For example, if a software development team is unsure which development lifecycle (waterfall, agile, etc) is being followed to achieve the project goal, confusion and a lack of productivity by the team may result. Clearly defining and establishing a process that is understood by all the players in the newly formed matrix team is critical for the success of the project.

- Conflict management- A skillful Manager will understand that conflict happens on any team and will take the initiative to establish a clear process for managing it. This provides clarity to the team in the event that conflict does occur. A newly created matrix project team will find this especially helpful as the team is not used to working together and will need to navigate this as part of the process of maturing as a team. This will also help the team move more quickly through the ‘storming’ phase of group development.

- Personality assessments – An effective way to understand the other members of a newly formed matrix project team is through team building sessions using personality assessments. These can be simple and quick assessments, such as the Personality Profile: The Shapes Test, or more complex assessments which include Strengthsfinder, Myers Briggs Type Indicator, FIRO-B, Kiersey Temperament Sorter, etc. Regardless of the specific assessment conducted, the results can bring a team significant value in determining how team members can be best utilized, how the project manager can best communicate with specific team members to get the best outcomes, and how people like to be managed to make them efficient and productive. For matrix project teams, personality assessments can help shorten the process by which the team matures and learns to work together to get the results needed by the project.

- Team building events – Group events encourage positive team dynamics to develop and mature. In matrix environments, the development of loyalty and trust is critical to the stability and effectiveness of the matrix structure. Engaging people in activities outside the project allows them to get to know each other in a more relaxed setting and is quite effective in building team esprit de corps. In addition, this allows people to find ways to work together in a non-stressful environment that can then be carried back to the workplace. Some options are:

- Social events – participating in a social activity can create a team spirit that encourages people to support each other when they are at work

- Team building ‘games’ – building or creating something outside of the project may engender a camaraderie that can then be carried back to the working day

- End of project celebration – to acknowledge the success of the project meeting the goal

- Executive Coaching – Individual and group coaching can be an effective tool in all types of organizational structures. Executive Coaches can facilitate team development, as well as individual leadership development, by focusing on areas such as collaboration skills, negotiation skills, addressing personal or group blind spots, and improving communication. For matrix project teams, Executive Coaches can assist in team building events, as well as facilitate personality assessments, and help the group understand its own dynamics and assist the team in becoming more effective. Executive Coaches can also help teams and individuals navigate conflict in an emotionally healthy way that allows the team to move quickly through the ‘storming’ phase of a project and onto the next phases, thus becoming more productive more quickly.

- Regular status updates – There are a variety of ways that status can be gathered and communicated. This is a natural activity in a functional team, as members are typically used to an established status reporting routine and may be more clear on their role in that structure. For newly formed matrix project teams it is important that team members feel that they belong to the team, and can see how their progress affects the overall progress toward the goal. Examples:

- Weekly status meetings

Can Team Building Increase Productivity in a Recession?

When the economy is slow, company managers and leaders have to be very cautious with every expense. As a result, we will often put off hiring new employees until more certainty in the marketplace develops. Although natural efficiencies will develop in a downward economy, can team building activities help increase productivity so that we can avoid the expense of adding on new personnel? The answer to that question is… “Well… It depends…”

Don’t Confuse “Morale” with “Productivity”

Team Building is almost a generic term that is used for both “morale building” activities and “productivity building” activities interchangeable, but if you confuse the two activities, you can make some costly mistakes. Morale building activities can include anything from going out to a movie together to an office holiday party to entertainment style activities at annual meetings ans conventions. These activities provide a shared-experience that builds temporary camaraderie and provides a fun relief to the normal day-to-day rat-race.

Productivity building activities are training events or innovations that help teams do more with less. Although people will often call both of these types of activities “Team Building”, the activities themselves get totally different results. Both are needed to create a team culture, but quite often, managers and leaders will schedule one type of activity hoping to get the needed result from the other type of activity and be sorely disappointed.

Although productivity will often improve (sometimes dramatically) when morale improves, an increase in morale doesn’t always cause a team to be more productive. For instance, if a manager came into the office and announced that the entire team would get the whole week off and still get paid, morale would skyrocket, but productivity would drop to zero for the week. Morale building activities like team outings and company parties are extremely important, but they can’t entirely replace productivity building events and activities.

Since the team atmosphere created by morale building activities can be temporary, you’ll want to schedule activities like this regularly so that the individual team members get to interact with each other in a more fun way to build camaraderie. Charity team building events at annual meetings or conventions can be a great way to insert a morale building activity. These team building functions are very economical, because the company can generate great public relations without increasing the cost of conducting a convention or annual meeting. For instance, most conventions are going to have some type of entertainment or at least a company outing of some kind. Many companies are replacing these activities with a charity bike build or a team scavenger hunt where team members build gift baskets for soldiers. The investment in each activity is fairly similar, but the results of the charity activities often provide impactful, lasting memories that build great camaraderie between team members.

Build Teams by Training Team Members Together

In addition to morale building activities, a team also needs to develop new skills in order to keep them productive. Many years ago, a mentor of mine told me that “You can’t build a team by training individuals, but you can build a team by training individuals together.” I didn’t really understand the power of this advice until I started my own business, but I understand it more and more as my company grows and grows. For instance, many big companies offer tuition assistance for higher level degrees for their employees, but what often happens is that a company will invest a ton of money into the development of an employee only to have the person leave the company and start working for a competitor. This happens because the individual employees is growing, but the team as a whole is stagnant.

Oddly enough, any skill development activities will work to build the team culture in an organization if the skills developed gives the team a competitive advantage in the marketplace. For instance, Apple decided to eliminate cash registers inside their Apple Stores and replace them with the ability for any employee in the store to be able to use their smartphones to ring-up items for purchases on their smartphones. Because Apple is doing something that no one else is doing, the employees who have been trained in this new technology feel like they are a part of an elite group that is different from other retail stores. Whether they are or not doesn’t really matter, because the team believe that they are ahead of the curve. Customers can find an Apple employee and within seconds create a purchase and have the receipt sent to the customer via email and be on their way. A dramatic increase in productivity and decrease in cost while creating more of a team atmosphere among employees.

“Soft-Skills” Team Building Training is Most Productive

The most effective team training to increase productivity comes from “soft-skills” training, though. While Hard-Skills are ones essential to doing individual jobs within a company – for example hard-skills for an engineer might be calculus and physics – soft-Skills are skills that improve productivity no matter what specific role that a person has within an organization. Soft-skills would include communication skills, presentation skills, the ability to persuade people, the ability to coach and mentor others, etc. If the engineer improves in any or all of these soft-skills, then he or she will likely improve their individual success as well as the overall success of the team.

When teams train together in these soft-skill areas, they automatically develop that same type of team culture that Apple developed with the technology change. Team members know that they are a part of a unique, elite group that is different from most organizations (because most organizations don’t train this way).

For example, a few years ago, I was hired by a commercial construction company to help them deliver high-level sales presentations better. Companies that build skyscrapers or have groups of construction projects often bid out these huge projects in one big contract, so they will often ask for huge proposals and have each qualified contractor come in and do a presentation to narrow down the field. The company that hired me was closing about one out of six of these presentations, but wanted to increase their numbers. So we conducted a series of presentation skills classes with the teams of presenters. Because they trained together, they developed a team culture that showed up when they conducted their presentations. Quite often, at the end of their presentations, the board members who were in the audience would say, “We chose this group because they just seemed to work very well together.” The team culture showed, because the individuals within the group had been trained in soft-skills together, so they saw themselves as having an advantage over other presenters (and they had one.)

Presentation skills, people skills, coaching, mentoring, and other soft-skills training can really help teams become more productive as long as the teams are going through the training as a team. I remember my college football coach telling us, “You don’t fight for records or awards, you fight for the guy who is next to you in the trenches.” When teams train together, they build a rapport that lasts.

Doug Staneart is the founder of The Leader’s Institute Team Building and the inventor of many world-famo