Handling Team Dysfunction

November 19, 201410:00 am
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Your team’s is in a rut and under-performing. But what can you do about it? How can you push everyone to be more creative? Where should you seek inspiration? What’s the best way to bring in new perspectives? And finally: how do you prevent the group from getting stuck in the rut again? There are a number of solutions, but all share the same core values and principles.

What Experts Say

Teams get stale from time to time for all sorts of reasons. After all, everyone is “seeing the same data, interacting with the same people, and having the same conversations, so it’s no surprise that the ideas coming out feel as though they’ve all been done before,” says Scott Anthony, the managing partner of Innosight and author of The First Mile.

But you can get your people back into the groove with a little work, says Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, a partner at The Innovation Architects, the advisory firm, and the coauthor of Innovation as Usual.  “Sometimes you need to rethink what you’re doing.” Here are some ways to get your team’s creative juices flowing.

Identify & Fix Obvious Problems

The first step is to disengage from the situation and diagnose the problem. “Observe what’s going on and ask other people’s opinions. Think about when, where, and how your team has been most innovative in the past. Can you recreate that environment or group dynamic? Figure out how people share ideas, and how open others are to those ideas,” suggests Wedell-Wedellsborg.

Another action is to review ideas and schemes generated in the past and assess if they’re worth resuscitating. Maybe it was a good idea early for its time or an idea that wasn’t managed well. The objective is not to seek the perfect idea but to do something with the idea that matters.

Focus Team Attention

Open brainstorming sessions with lofty goals like generating “500 New Ideas” are theoretically fine but ineffective and inefficient in practice. Instead, what works is directing your team’s attention toward solving a narrowly defined problem. For instance, what ways are there to fix a specific customer issue or to generate 2% cost savings in your division?

Define the task so your team is very clear on what it is trying to accomplish and can work towards that. Management literature tends to associate chaos with creativity, but in fact, providing constraints are one of the greatest enablers of creativity. Providing firm limits allows teams to explore a space with new possibilities emerging from what is known and extending the boundaries of those limits.

Listen To Different Perspectives

Most of us tend to live in filtered worlds, reading the same papers and magazines, listen to the same newscasts, get our daily updates from the same RSS and Twitter feeds, and have lunch with the same people. But great ideas come from people immersed in more worlds than just their own, with a broad range of experience. Its the responsibility of management to create opportunities to expose their team to different perspectives and points of view.

Touring the offices of companies in different industries or inviting employees from other parts of the business to regularly present ideas to your team helps to generate new ideas, based on fresh input. The point is “to touch and interact with people who are thinking differently. The magic happens when different skills and mindsets collide” explains Anthony.

Relatable Success Stories

The Steve Jobs-Mark Zuckerberg-Richard Branson “genius” innovation narrative is omnipresent in business blogs, books, and magazines. But to most work-a-day folks, those figures are irrelevant and are difficult to relate to. To people with normals jobs in an SME, these examples can seem terribly ambitious and too remote.

For relatable inspiration, offer success stories that are closer to home, shining a spotlight on innovative things that have already been done within the organisation. The message should be: “This is something we can do; your peers have done it.” Providing relevant and relatable

Conquer Team’s Fear of Failure

One of the most common reasons for stagnation is not a lack of ideas but the fear that existing ideas are neither good nor actionable. This fear of failure is very pervasive, with many employees choosing not to voice or champion their opinions. Naturally, this hinders innovation. Leaders must therefore manage the political realities of brainstorming.

What’s essential to success is making sure there’s room for people to share ideas, in a way that’s under the corporate radar and allows them to retain their credit as its originators. Managers have to cultivate a safe environment that is tolerates and facilitates learning, as well as allows staff to express their perspectives and develop it further to a practical point.

Implement Good Ideas

Ideas only matter if you act on them. “People get cynical fast after they have a fun and empowering brainstorming session and then nothing happens,” says Anthony. As a manager, you need to commit to moving innovation forward.

Setting aside a small budget to create rough prototypes and simulations, or relieving workers of some  duties to free up their time for new projects works towards this, like Google’s 80:20 rule or 3M’s 15% Model. Testing ideas on a small scale is recommended as it forces people to come up with practical experiments, so they then get honest feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

Avoid using Buzzwords 

Innovation is a cliched, tired and overused term. In some organisations, you can still talk about an “innovation initiative’ and create excitement, but in most companies, the term is highly overused and suffered tremendous fatigue.

It’s use results in feigned ignorance and internal dismissal, as well as a disconnect.  The alternative? Encourage teams in language that’s meaningful to them, framing it as a team developing ideas for a “Making Your Company a Better Place to Work Strategy” rather than a “Employee Retention Innovation Plan”. It aligns with the self-interests of employees and generate more beneficial outcomes.


In ending, some principles to remember going forward are the following:

Things To Do:

  • Create regular opportunities, so as to expose your team members to new ideas and perspectives
  • Cultivate a culture where your team feels confident sharing their rough ideas without fear of failure
  • Develop action plans, setting aside a modest budget for experimenting with new concepts

Things To Avoid:

  • Host vague brainstorming sessions with grandiose goals;  focus your team’s attention toward solving specific problems
  • Hold up unattainable examples of innovation success; find reliable models of innovation success
  • Persist in using tired business-speak; frame concepts using relevant and resonant language

When dealing with a matter like this, its important to be sensible, principled and action-oriented. Prolonging a rut can lead to team dysfunctions, or even the loss of talent through resignations. In the end though, prevention is still better than the cure. Learning how to manage team under-performance now leads to preventing it, rather than dealing with the consequences later.

This is an abridged version of a Harvard Business Review Essay “What To Do If Your Team is In a Rut” by Rebecca Knight. Questions or insights? Contact Shiwen via shiwen@hrinasia.com