Agile methods rest significantly on prior experience and research on teamwork and team effectiveness. That research is accumulated in many books, seminars and off-site team-building programs. However, when I searched for lists of skills related to teamwork, I was surprised to discover there wasn’t much good reference information. The list I have created here is decidedly my own opinion and doesn’t rest on systematic research. That said, you will find that these items correlate well with what is out there. If I was to re-write this article, I would probably emphasize “Respect” more, and possibly place it first in the list. I hope this list can be a foundation for Agile teams and managers to help improve team effectiveness. By the way, this is probably the single most consistently popular article on my blog!
I’ve been researching teamwork lately. I just finished reading “The Discipline of Teams” by Katzenbach and Smith which is an HBR summary of their much more substantial book “The Wisdom of Teams”. I decided that it would be good to be able to describe the essential skills an individual needs to acquire in order to work effectively in a team. First stop, Google and a search of “list of teamwork skills”.
Strangely, not much turned up on the first page. The best result I found, “7 Essential Skills for Teamwork”, is a now-defunct page from a public elementary school web site. So, here’s my adaptation of their list:
Active listening is a skill that allows a person to completely focus on the communication of another person including both verbal and non-verbal aspects. Active listening requires the ability to not think of your own responses until after a person has finished speaking. One simple way of doing this is to echo what a person is saying in your silent internal voice. When someone says “I think we should build a new gimbal on the widget”, you are saying exactly the same thing in your own mind. Active listening also requires that you request clarification, often by rephrasing what a person has said and asking if you have understood correctly.
Being able to frame and express questions effectively helps us understand and integrate knowledge into our own mental model of the world, or even to modify our mental model. Asking questions is easy. Asking good questions is much harder. We need to use an appropriate set of words and tone of voice so that we do not alienate or offend the recipient of the question. For example, asking “why did you do that?” will often put people on the defensive since they will assume that you mean you disagree with their actions. Instead, saying “I do not understand the reason you did that. Could you please explain it to me?” can be a much more gentle way of getting to the same information.
When presenting an idea or position, being able to logically support it is important to exploring the truth of it. This includes being able to share your assumptions or axioms, the data you are basing your argument upon, and the logical sequence of reasoning to reach your conclusion. Being able to avoid fallacious logical methods is also important.
Showing respect includes acknowledging the fundamental human value of the existence of your teammates, and being able to step back from your own understanding of the world to acknowledge the legitimate nature of the perspective that other people have. This does not mean that you have to let teammates get away with inappropriate behavior. In fact, respect for your teammates will allow you to support them in behaving in ways that are in alignment with their fundamental nobility as human beings.
Offering help and actually following through with real assistance are aspects of helping. When you suspect that a team member is struggling with something, you offer to help both verbally and with your actions. This can take the form of offering information, offering emotional support, offering to assist with problem-solving, or actually taking action to do an activity together. When we help someone, we share their burden.
Sharing our knowledge, time, skills or physical resources are all aspects of sharing. Sharing among team members is focused on those things which will help a team reach its goals. This is similar to helping except that it tends to be more of a transaction than an ongoing activity. The transaction is that you give a gift and then the other person uses that gift to meet their needs. Sharing does not require reciprocity. If you share something with another person, you should not expect that that person will return the gift at any time in the future.
It’s probably obvious, but in order to effectively be on a team, you need to participate! Participation itself is mostly obvious: do work with the other team members. However, there are also some less obvious aspects of it. You are not participating when the team is having a discussion, you find it boring, so you check your email. You are not participating when the team makes a decision and you abstain from helping to execute the decision because you disagree. You are not participating in a work team when you are mentally checked out because of a crisis at home.
All of these skills are critical teamwork skills. For Agile teams, where typically the teamwork demands are very high, these skills can and should be consciously and systematically promoted and developed.
[This article was originally published on Agile Advice on 12-Oct-2009]
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