Martyn Drake: Most of our teams can be far better than they are

If we want to build our capacity to achieve our missions it is our own teams we need to strengthen and invest in

Martyn Drake

When Margaret Meade said her much-quoted line: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” I doubt she envisaged that “small group” comprising one manager and a bunch of extra hands doing the donkey work. 

Yet way back when FW Taylor essentially founded the discipline of operational management with his early time-and-motion studies, pairs of hands was exactly what he thought most people in an organisation were.  

That philosophy has subtly pervaded the way we think about organisations ever since – even those whose business it is to change the world.

It’s embedded in the way we talk – of human resources, of workforce plans, of capacity and capability.

For Taylor, a team could only ever be as good as the sum of its parts, and even then, only if the tasks were organised in an efficient manner; and that was the primary job of management.

What Meade was describing is something very different: people spending time together in messy conversations, exploring and pursuing a common purpose, trying things and sharing learning, challenging and inspiring each other’s thinking.

In Meade’s depiction, the parts themselves become greater when they’re together and, more than that, by being together they can achieve what they could barely even conceive of alone.

The annals of social innovation are full of such examples: of inspired groups and collective leadership, of shared missions to find solutions, to build and leverage connections, to change how things work. 

So, be honest: what portion of its time does your team spend in Meade’s paradigm versus Taylor’s? 

We all know charities are under constant pressure to underinvest, in their core, their infrastructure and particularly their people, and that many, if not most, routinely succumb to that pressure.

All hands on deck, heads down, noses to the grindstone – pick your own cliché – but that’s the reality now for most of us, most of the time: running hot, working lean, racing around in our individual hamster-wheels with barely a moment to take a breath.

The idea of investing our time and money to create a team space for that Meadian model of discussion seems almost unconscionable. But without it, we’re never getting off the wheel.

The fundamental building block of a high-performing organisation, especially one that aims to change the world, is not the individual, it is the team. 

Where, once upon a time, people saw personal coaching as a purely remedial intervention, a last resort when folks were failing, most now see it as a vital investment in developing future talent.

And yet we still see whole-team development through that remedial lens – something to do when a team slides into some type of dysfunction, when its performance starts to crash, when all else fails.

“They’re under so much pressure, the team’s becoming tired and fractious, relationships are fraying, we need time off-site to work some of this through,” is an increasingly frequent refrain, especially when charities and their leaders are under such unremitting stress as they are now.

Should team performance really be something we only attend to when it’s falling apart?

Consider this: we all know we can’t create a better, more equitable society by merely reacting to the symptoms of its dysfunctions like whack-a-mole. 

That’s why we have research and policy teams, it’s why we agitate for deeper change, because we know things can be far better than they are.

Just as most of our teams can be far better than they are. 

It does them no injustice to say this, quite the reverse; putting time aside for their development is an endorsement, an explicit recognition of their untapped potential.

And if we want to build our capacity to achieve our missions, realise our visions, create better outcomes, it is our own teams we need to strengthen and invest in – their interrelationships and dynamics, their creativity and resilience.

Not just when things are tough and the cracks are starting to show, but continually. 

Because if you believe in that vision, that mission, those outcomes, then investing in your team today is probably the single best way you can invest in society’s future for tomorrow.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting


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