NCIDQ: Competitive Advantage

Feb. 19, 2007
The ultimate sport of leading high-performing teams.

Teamwork is not a new concept—yet it is clearly critical to successful projects and productive organizations. Whether you are engaged in outlining a design project or organizing a highly-charged game of Scrabble®, the process of group dynamics underlies the content of the task at hand.

Ken Blanchard, co-author with Donald Carew and Eunice Parisi-Carew of The One Minute Manager Builds Higher Performing Teams (William Morrow & Co., 1990), describes the four stages of team development: orientation, dissatisfaction, integration and production. Blanchard also reminds us of the importance of "situational leadership" where, at each different stage of group or team development, there is a corresponding leadership style that provides the appropriate direction and support for what group members are experiencing in that situation.

characteristics of high performing teams
Most of us have been involved with a high performing team at some point in our lives. However, there are surely times when we have felt less than satisfied with a group outcome and frustrated by the experience. This often occurs when a team lacks a clearly stated purpose and the team members do not fully understand what they are expected to do. Or perhaps the leadership remains authoritative throughout the duration of the project rather than morphing into styles that are less directional and more mutually supportive. If leaders are not aware of the need to adapt their style to each new stage of group development, the result may be that the group remains in each stage longer than necessary. Leaders also need to keep in mind that the ideal team experience—combined with a clear understanding of the four stages of group development—can help to make your team endeavor a success.

stage one: orientation
When a group first comes together, excitement and morale is usually high. The group is considerably dependent on an authority for direction and support at this stage; without it, there can be a lack of clarity about the purpose, roles of each member, established goals, timelines and how the individuals will work together. Recently, I observed a five-day team building workshop in which a group of corporate executives were challenged to learn how to row together in an eight-person shell. The novice rowers needed to step back from their accustomed authority of making unilateral decisions and prepare to work as a team. During orientation, the coach clearly noted that the rowers each needed to fulfill their assigned roles as part of the team or chances were good that one or more of them would end up in the lake.

In any group, team members need to agree on how the work will get done and by whom. If there are existing resources that the group should consider, access to that information needs to be contemplated. It is also helpful if the members gain an understanding of individuals' strengths and weaknesses so they can use each other's diverse talents and begin to build personal connections. The executive group quickly seized upon the idea of putting its most athletic members in critical seats, and took turns as the coxswain— using that authority to remind the participants that timing their strokes together would help to keep the boat balanced and afloat.

Typically the leader at the orientation stage is an authority who has a clear grasp of the task at hand and is highly directive. At the kickoff of a design project, this might be the project manager, who is responsible for providing written documentation that describes the project and reviewing the resources and project assignments with the entire team.

stage two: dissatisfaction
There is no avoiding the inevitable; at some point, some team members will be dissatisfied. There may be a discrepancy between the expectations of the project design team and the reality of the timeline and financial resources available. There may be confusion and frustration regarding the ability of team members to meet deadlines and satisfy project goals. However, surprisingly, as dissatisfactions occur and morale nosedives, productivity (or learning) generally continues to increase.

The team-building exercise for the executives became less fun and more challenging as they were instructed to practice rowing in pairs, mirroring each other's exact technique and timing. Some of the participants complained that they needed more personal instruction and others seemed to think that not everyone was focused on learning the nuances of the stroke. But through it all, everyone kept working and honing their skills.

In a situation where a design team is disgruntled and struggling, the project manager must provide both high support and high direction. He or she must again clarify the big picture, refocus the group on its roles and goals and assist the members in developing positive communication processes.

stage three: integration
Things finally start to gel in stage three. Increased clarity and group productivity (or, in the case of the executives, more effective levels of rowing as a team) bumps up from moderate to high, and team members experience growing trust and mutual respect at this stage of the process. There is a willingness to share responsibility and leadership within the group and a tendency to avoid conflict. You may notice a change in the language being used—more "we" instead of "me." A collaborating leader will provide high support and low direction at this juncture.

As each rower developed a reasonable level of skill and accepted the efforts of others, the group as a whole integrated the knowledge that working together meant that the boat would run smoother and faster and pose less of a risk of flipping over. Even the role of coxswain became more cooperative and less directive, allowing for diminished authority from the outside of the group.

stage four: production
In stage four, members of highly productive teams who are working with clearly defined values, roles and goals are mutually empowered, having developed relationships built upon openness, respect and clear communication. There is very high morale as the group continues to show appreciation for individual and team accomplishments, which also allows the team to respond well to new challenges.

A validating style of leadership, which requires low support and low direction, is all that is needed. Leadership is often shared among members and there is little jockeying for authority.

By the time the novice rowers finished their week on the lake, they had integrated the process of performing as a team while drawing upon individual strengths and talents to achieve their goal of rowing seamlessly as a crew. Similarly, it becomes evident that teams that develop a mutual acceptance and trust through appropriate styles of leadership are often successful; whether they are interior design project teams, a team that is temporarily formed for a quick, random competition or executives who are brought together for the ultimate teaming sport of crew.

Sandra Friend serves on the NCIDQ board of directors and is the principal of Interior Planning + Design in Ashland, OR. She is a recipient of the Louis Tregre Award, an NCIDQ Certificate holder and has served as chair of the Practicum Exam Committee. Friend's driving passions are advocating for state regulation of interior designers in Oregon and racing with the Ashland Rowing Club master's crew. For more information on NCIDQ, visit

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