Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.
Most people recognise that having a compelling common purpose is fundamental to the success of a team. In fact, there are a growing number of leaders and coaches who would argue that task cohesion (or goal cohesion) is far more important than social cohesion in a team’s success.
British Cycling’s Performance Director, Dave Brailsford told the BBC recently,
“I don’t spend a nanosecond worrying whether they [Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome] get on,”
“People talk about having team unity and team harmony. I don’t buy that at all. Most of the best teams I’ve been with, they’re not harmonious environments.
“This is not a harmonious environment. This is a gritty environment where people are pushing really hard.
“What you need is goal harmony, and there’s a big difference between the two.
BBC Sport, 22nd July 2013 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/cycling/23415146
In recent years I have been studying world class teams, to understand what differentiates the very best teams in the world from the rest. One of the fundamental building blocks is clarity of purpose. In fact, when a team begins to understand its job, simply, clearly and in the same way, it can become incredibly effective.
A few years ago I worked with a swimmer called Chris Cook. Chris had a team of support staff, which included his swimming coaches, sports medics, physiotherapists, strength coaches, sport scientists and myself as his sport psychologist. One afternoon, Chris came into my office for one of our regular one-to-one sport psych sessions. He was looking particularly flustered. When I asked what was wrong, Chris started to explain that he had a lot on his plate; correspondence with British Swimming regarding his funding, arranging travel to competitions, an awards dinner, training, etc. There is a technical term for this condition in sport psychology. Chris was ‘a stress head’. After he’d finished, I said,
“That’s strange. Surly your job is simply to swim two lengths of the pool as fast as you can”.
This innocent comment helped Chris to refine everything he did, to ensure that every moment contributed to helping him swim two lengths of the pool as fast as he could. Importantly, it also helped focus his team. They were also presented with the same challenge; to help Chris swim two lengths of a pool as fast as possible. The result was transformational. This collective energy and direction helped Chris progress from the fringes of the GB team to become the 7th fastest in history in his event.
Simplicity and clarity is all important. Other truly elite teams, such as SAS units, all have a very clear purpose, which they all understand in the same way. In his book, Superteams, Khoi Tu describes how the SAS team that stormed the Iranian Embassy in 1980 had a ruthlessly simple objective ; to rescue the hostages inside the building. That was it. Everything that they did was focused on that simple goal.
The same approach can be applied directly to businesses, sports teams and into fields such as education, healthcare and the public sector. Most leaders know how fundamental common purpose is to the success of a team. However, in my experience, it extremely rare to find a team or organisation whose members actually understand their job simply, clearly and in the same way. A couple of years ago I asked the senior partners of a law firm for their “two lengths of the pool”. Unsurprisingly there was some difference of opinion amongst the partners. Interestingly, some felt that the word ‘profitably’ should be included and others didn’t. In real terms, some of the senior members of the business didn’t feel that being profitable was fundamentally a part of the job. Clearly, they were not all on the same page!
However, simply recognising that a business needs to be profitable is not always enough to ensure that everyone is on the same page. During the last few months I have been working with a corporate Executive Leadership team. I asked them to define their “two lengths of the pool”. They all agreed that profitability needed to be included. Then, the Finance Director asked, “What do we mean by profitably”? He outlined that there are a number of ways of understanding profit; return on sales, return on capital, return on capital employed, etc. In fact, their definition of ‘profit’ has a huge impact on the decisions that they make within the business and the strategies that they adopt. Once the Exec Team understood what they meant by ‘profit’, they genuinely began to understand their purpose in the same way. Their shared understanding also now cascades down through the entire business, helping everyone to pull in the same direction and make decisions according to a common mind-set.
If we want our teams to be on the same page, we may need to go beyond the headlines and ensure that we all understand our purpose in the same way.
Find your Two Lengths of the Pool