michelin organization

Building teams on the fly

Article 5 mins

The teams that you will find in businesses today look very different to how they did in the past. The era of cubicles, offices and assigned seating has been consigned to the past, and instead you will find laptop docks, pods and hot-desking policies as the dominant theme in a contemporary workplace. And with the shifting nature of work come shifting expectations of how organisations and their employees operate. Rather than a set of workers who see their current role as a ‘job for life’, often a significant portion of a company’s workforce will be made up of freelancers, taking advantage of the rapid growth of the ‘gig economy’.

The reality of this trend is highlighted further when it comes to the delivery of short-term projects. Take the construction of Hinkley Point nuclear power station for instance. Creating a purpose-built team to work on a particular assignment for sometimes only a matter of months calls for the recruitment of a number of specialists to build out an existing team.

In these circumstances, what most organisations will end up with is a group of employees with specific skills, pulled together from across the business and externally, with no experience of working together before. How can businesses adapt to these changing work habits? There is a burning need to build effective short-term teams that allow for the successful delivery of projects, while also offering employees opportunities for fulfilment in their roles.

The art of problem solving

So what are the benefits of building a bespoke team for a particular project? The intention is ultimately to create a group that is fit for purpose, with the right skills for a particular project. If a company is tackling something new and innovative, that will perhaps not be repeated, existing team structures often just aren’t practical.

Amy C. Edmondson from Harvard Business School has done a significant amount of research into the idea of teamwork on the fly, which I find particularly insightful. “Stable teams of people who have learned over time to work well together can be powerful tools. But given the speed of change, the intensity of market competition, and the unpredictability of customers’ needs today, there often isn’t enough time to build that kind of team”, she says. “Instead, organisations increasingly must bring together not only their own far-flung employees from various disciplines and divisions but also external specialists and stakeholders, only to disband them when they’ve achieved their goal or when a new opportunity arises.” 

For an organisation, trying to identify the correct skills and knowledge in advance of a particular task, in the hope that the situation won’t change is unrealistic in today’s world of work. By adopting a more evolutionary approach to building teams, people with the appropriate skills can jump on and off a particular project depending on needs at that particular moment, which lets the team as a whole stay flexible to shifts in process or deliverables.

If implemented correctly, the result is not only business success, but also additional learning opportunities for employees themselves. Through being given the opportunity to experience life around the business, workers can climb the career ‘spiral staircase’ rather than the traditional ‘ladder’. Moving around the business should not be seen as a side-step, but crucial experience in knowledge gathering, and useful preparation for senior leadership. In the immediate term, it also makes employees more agile, an invaluable skill in uncertain times. And we know from our recent research that workers are facing unprecedented levels of change, with 94% of organisations reporting recent or imminent significant people-related changes, so there’s never been a greater need to be able to flex style and purpose as needs demand. 

Hitting the ground running

The key to ensuring early success in any team is to hit the ground running, and that is no truer than in the case of building teams on the go. When a particular project may need even tighter time management, and come with additional scrutiny because of its shortened timeline, getting off to the best possible start is essential. 

As a starting point, identifying the right mix of personalities and skills as part of a short-term team is crucial in making sure that employees can work together effectively and productively. There are a range of employee assessment solutions that can help to uncover individual potential, skills and what types of personality are required for a particular task, and the support they need in order to deliver the greatest impact. Organisations should ensure thatinvestinig in this type of solution is a priority right from the start. 

Another key part of ensuring success from the beginning of a project is keeping team members in close proximity, as much as possible. Temporary co-location is absolutely ideal if a team is to form the bonds that will be necessary to get them through a complex and testing task. The actual location itself is relatively unimportant. Whether it be a meeting room, dedicated pod, or unused corner of the office, shortening the lines of communication to bring sometimes unfamiliar colleagues as close together as possible can be an invaluable exercise, particularly in the early stages of a project. 

Ultimately, though, making sure that a team that is built on the fly can get up to speed fast is achieved the same way as with any other team – cultivating a shared sense of purpose. Even if a team is only together for a short while, and may never be pulled together again, emphasising the importance of a project, and what it could mean for the organisation or their individual careers more specifically, can help an otherwise disconnected set of individuals to unite behind a common goal. 

Role of the leader 

As well as getting off to a good start, consistent leadership is imperative in order to achieve success over the lifespan of the entire project. While effective leadership is clearly important for every organisation and in all circumstances, building a team for a short-term and immediate purpose can actually present a great opportunity for leaders themselves, giving them a chance to create a veritable ‘dream team’ of specialists. 

According to our recent research, managers score highly when it comes to being liked and respected by their direct reports. But while this is important, it cannot come at the cost of clarity of direction and vision sharing, which the study suggests is often what is lacking. Building on the fly provides leaders with a unique opportunity to articulate their ideas around a specific project, and provide clear parameters in which their team need to operate. 

With ample opportunities for friction amongst what in many cases are effectively strangers, team leaders would do well to adopt a multi-faceted approach to people management when it comes to building teams on the fly. It is important for leaders “to understand that they play three key roles in this people-centric space. They are leader, manager and facilitator. Expertise in all three is critical” :

  • The leadership strand is the one that allows for clear articulation of ideas, and strategic thought
  • The manager aspect ensures that the task gets done, moving to action quickly, but also with awareness of the various risks the project could face
  • The facilitation element allows all team members to have an input into solutions and problem solving, ensuring they constantly feel valued

One final consideration is that, in this context, most people brought on board will be there for a specific purpose. Either they have a unique set of skills, or a particular working style that lends itself to working as part of a short-term team. With this in mind, it is important the project lead takes a more visionary stance on management. This type of team ultimately requires clear direction and strategy, and for their individual skills to be deployed in a considered manner. Micro-management is unlikely to help the team work more effectively. 

Getting the most from your team

One of the realities of short-term team building is that, in the midst of attempting to prioritise project delivery and tight deadlines, employee development can sometimes fall by the wayside in the immediate term. With that in mind, making sure that employees feel as though they are getting what they want out of their work, whatever their current role, is incredibly important. 

For employers, workers that feel they are being undervalued can be hugely problematic, as this is one of the key motivators for staff looking to move from their current job. Our research has shown that 44% of staff looking to move do so because of the promise of greater development opportunities exist elsewhere. Ensuring that employees feel fulfilled by what they are doing, and are experiencing the professional development that they desire even as part of a short-lived team, is not only good for the project delivery in the immediate term, it helps retain employees over the long run. 

A further consideration is that on short-term projects, organisations will often need to rely on a range of specialists from the rapidly growing ‘gig economy’, to complement the resources that they can draw from internally. While these freelancers may only be with a business for a short amount of time, it is naïve to think that they care about their own development any less than a full-time employee does. To ensure this is catered for, assign these workers stretch goals, rather than simply asking them to play a limited role. Ultimately, it benefits both business and employee – the organisation gets more out of their employee, and the employee learns new skills as well as being able to engage more fully in the project. 

This is particularly important given the growing number of online outlets available for employees to express disappointment with a company. Further research that we have conducted suggests that websites such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor can be increasingly problematic for businesses in a ‘gig economy’, as people are continually looking into prospective employers for their next short-term role. It also suggests that, especially amongst the younger generation, people are likely to believe what they read online about an organisation. The study found that a third (33%) of prospective or current employees between 18 – 34 years old could be put off from accepting a job offer with a company they heard a lot of negative things about. With that in mind, organisations looking to get top talent on board for their next short-term project will struggle to recruit if their online reputation isn’t up to scratch. 

A new way of working
Building teams on the fly is not just something that’s becoming an inevitability, but something that should be embraced as a way of potentially delivering great work from an organisational standpoint, and great career development opportunities from an employee one. 

For organisations, it allows them to deliver a wider variety of services, and ensure a more unified workforce. And for individuals, it leads to broader knowledge, high engagement, more collaborators, and a greater understanding of company culture. 


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