Cards on the table

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Sales teams love to talk, but how can a meeting be focused on achieving genuine team development? Allan Mackintosh explains a low-cost strategy to unlock the power of team meetings.

I am passionate about team development and totally convinced that when a team is developed properly, it can really enhance the performance of the individuals within that team. If all individuals develop and achieve their targets and goals, that ensures the team will achieve its own objectives, targets and goals.

However, I get very frustrated when I hear talk of ‘team development’ – because that is what it is in many ways, just talk. Many organisations and managers within them talk a good game when it comes to team development. They think that just holding regular meetings and keeping ‘communication levels’ high will be enough to develop the team to its full potential. Some firmly believe that a night out at the pub having a few drinks will enhance team ‘bonding’ and hence make them all more productive. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Having worked in and alongside many teams, from professional sports teams through to sales teams and executive boards, I know that without regular review of team results, processes and behaviours, teams will never get anywhere near their full potential. In fact, look behind the scenes with many teams and you will find cliques, in-fighting, ‘back-stabbing’ and ‘corridor conferences’. The team visit to the pub will only enhance this, not change it. Of course, these pathological behaviours will never be effectively challenged within a regular ‘manager-run’ meeting either. This is not a healthy situation, and certainly will not enhance either team or individual performance.

Nothing to spare

So what are the challenges that managers face in developing their teams – and what can be done to support them?

I interviewed a number of managers recently, and the key challenges they highlighted were:

Time. The pressure is on for results, so time for team meetings is limited and the agendas are crammed with ‘business’ items. No time is put aside within these meetings for team development.

Money. Cash is tight. The recession has caused training budgets to be slashed. Bringing in external team development specialists or taking the team away for outdoor team development sessions won’t happen in the near (or medium-term) future, simply because the money isn’t there.

Training. As regards team skills such as leadership, coaching and facilitation, there are few training courses being run internally. There may be internal training resources such as company books and videos, but little attention is being paid to these due to challenge number one – time! There are numerous external courses, but again time and money are limited.

Rules of engagement

What is the solution to these challenges? It was recognised by all the managers I spoke to that development of the team was vital if better results were to be achieved – and if a solution could be found that supported the development of the team in a timely, cost-effective and productive way, it would be well worth looking at.

I got my thinking cap on, and wrote down some key principles that would have to be kept in mind when creating a suitable solution:

• The solution must be affordable and be a ‘no-brainer’ as regards cost.

• Any intervention must be able to work within a limited amount of time and to be used within a regular business meeting.

• It should be easy to use and not reliant on external ‘experts’.

• Every member of the team must be involved and have opportunity to contribute.

• An action plan to move the team forward must be produced.

• It must be a motivational experience and hopefully a bit of fun!

A dynamic resource

Coaching cards, whereby a coach uses a set of cards to get individuals talking about their situation and how they feel about it, have been used by coaches for several years now. Typically, the individual being coached picks a card, analyses the question, statement or picture and then states their feelings, thoughts and comments. The cards are a catalyst to enable the individual to think and talk freely. I asked myself: Why can’t we apply this idea to team meetings? The answer, as you may have guessed, was: Why not?

So I designed two sets of what I call ‘team cards’: an ‘Original’ set composed of 52 questions about teams, and a ‘Provocateur’ set composed of 52 fairly provocative statements about teams. The ‘Original’ set is for newly established teams, while the ‘Provocateur’ set is for more established teams who are more open to expressing their views and, importantly, more open to constructive feedback. All the questions and statements relate to critical aspects of team working.

all cards examples web

Let’s talk it over

The rules of a ‘team cards’ session are simple:

• There must be a facilitator, a timekeeper and an action taker (three different people). The facilitator does not need to be the team’s manager, just someone who can effectively facilitate a group or team discussion.

• The individuals within the team must agree to be as open, as honest and as constructive as they can.

• Time must be allowed within the meeting for the cards to be used effectively. An hour and a half to two hours is recommended.

• The facilitator shuffles the cards and asks a team member to pick a card. Although the cards are picked ‘blind’ it is important (for psychological reasons) that they are picked by team members, not dealt by the facilitator.

• The team member reads the card’s question or statement and then answers the question or comments on the statement.

• The facilitator then encourages discussion and debate around the question or statement, while the action taker records any team development action points that arise from the discussions.

• This process continues until each member of the team has picked a card and commented on the question or statement. Trials have shown that each member of a team of six should have two opportunities to pick and comment on a card within a two-hour session.

• The end result of the session is that the team members feel motivated because they have all contributed and had the chance to air their views – and in addition, a team action or development plan has been constructed.

Play your cards right

The feedback from team sessions so far has been excellent. Enough time has been found in regular business meetings; individuals feel motivated; the cards are very cost-effective, so there are no real budget implications; action plans have been constructed; and overall the teams are ready to use the cards on a regular basis. All this without a single ‘rope course’, human table football game or expensive team development consultant like me in sight!

Allan Mackintosh is an Account Management Performance Coach with Grunenthal UK Ltd and the author of The Successful Coaching Manager (Troubador Press).