Once you get set in your ways, your creativity is curtailed.How do you become more flexible? Michael Maynard offers some suggestions…

What can you practically do to improve team-working in your school, especially when departments or project teams come together for the first time?

Create an ACE team!

ALIGNED

While teams can be highly productive, they can also be extremely hard work. To transform a group of people into a team demands a commitment from everyone involved, not just the team leader. You only get a team when there is a collective will, not an individual won’t.

Step 1 – look for opportunities where people can actually work together.

The best teams function on interdependent activity. Teachers are often on their own in a classroom with kids and can easily become soloists rather than ensemble players. So there needs to be projects or a work-focus that brings them together, and they become dependent on each other.

Step 2 – Work at the relationships

The best teams are built on good working relationships. People don’t have to like each other, but do have to work together impeccably. This demands a level of understanding. Once you know people well, both their strengths and their flaws, you are more able to work with them. Yet, this doesn’t happen by chance – you need to put your attention on it. Spending some time at meetings or in social situations to explore team members on a personal level is usually fruitful.

Whenever you get together as a team, rather than plunging straight into the maelstrom of current issues, it really pays to pause, taking time to “touch base” with each other. This is not about making small talk, though that too can be useful. It is getting the chemistry right, detecting anything that might stop the group succeeding, and then being able to address it.

Don’t assume that when things go wrong, it means the team is falling apart. Whilst that is clearly a danger, if handled well, facing difficulties can help strengthen the relationships. The most trusting working relationships are often the result of people weathering storms together.

Step 3 – Team Feedback

The best team performance is normally the result of developing a culture where people constantly give and receive feedback. Ideally this will happen informally, simply with team members asking each other for support, or offering ideas for improvements. But you might need to formalise the process by taking time out, no more than an hour, on a regular basis to give each other feedback.You could try a pairing method where each member of the team takes turns to give a colleague feedback. The first team member has two minutes in which to tell the other person “What I find most helpful about your team behaviour and the least helpful”. More specifically people say to each other, “I want more of this,” or “I want less of that,” or “this is how I think you could add more value to my role.”

Step 4 – Going in the same direction

Many teams seem confused about their purpose or have simply ‘lost the plot’. The team leader needs to ensure that everyone is clear about the team’s direction.This means knowing what the overall aims are. Is there a vision for improvements needed in the next three to five years? Are there priorities that the team needs to focus on in the next year?

It’s not enough for this to be stored in the imagination of the team leader. It is crucial in teams that everyone owns the vision. That means the leader guides the process, but is receptive to the team’s input.You really ought to be able to ask any member of staff where your team is going, and what the priorities are, and get a consistent and coherent response.

A key place to look to see if the team is aligned is at the way it is organised. It’s all very well having supportive relationships, but if people are constantly late, or don’t do their preparation, or miss important deadlines, then the team soon falls apart. It is simply good practice to ensure that the organisational boundaries are kept tight so that inefficiency doesn’t spark frustration and apathy.

CREATIVE

Once a team is aligned, then it can get on with its real purpose – to create. The reason you have a team, is because it ought to be able to create more than the sum of its parts. In this instance, 2 + 2 really ought to equal something more than 4!

Today’s teams in schools face constant and often disruptive change. In such an environment you need to be a great improviser.

Yet, you, like all of us, are creatures of habit. You may not be aware of it, but the way our brains function is to create patterns in order to make sense of the world. Thus we don’t normally think new thoughts, merely replay old ones. Creativity demands that we need to think out of these ‘boxes’ that we live in.

This is not helped when the work environment is one of rules, systems and procedures that stop people thinking or behaving afresh.A culture that rejects new ideas or suggestions, or where mistakes are not tolerated, is a tough one in which to create. So, the first action you can take to improve the creative output of your team is to go in search of anything that inhibits people’s natural flair and invention. Do away with inessential rules and bureaucracy.

More Flexibility

A good start is simply to identify habits and systematically break them.Why not deliberately seek counter ideas that challenge your opinions with other viewpoints? In short – challenge your status quo! Get used to working with the unusual.

Make Meetings Creative

While sports teams and orchestras play together, and actors rehearse and perform together, most teams in schools don’t function in this way. In fact, one of the main times they get together is in a meeting. Yet people often complain that these can be boring, procedural, inhibiting and pointless. Getting groups of people together is an expensive use of time.

To achieve great team performance, start making your meetings special events. Perhaps even think of them as a mini-drama. Consider each moment. What will make it compelling? What will engage the audience? What is the dynamic purpose of each section of the event? How can you remove the boring moments? What will keep it alive?

A team can only produce outstanding performance if everyone is contributing. Meetings are the place to ensure this happens.

Encourage Involvement

  • Give people responsibilities – encourage them to make personal commitments to aspects of a project.
  • Make people temporary ‘experts’ and give them a personal connection (as well as providing a development opportunity).
  • Ask different team members to prepare something in advance, or to lead sections of the meeting.
  • Hold time-framed brainstorming sections of the meeting in order to throw ideas around and get everyone’s views. You could get people working in pairs, asking team members to tell a story, give them a role in which they have to elicit material from others and so on.

You might not get much of a response right away, as these things take time. Yet after a while, when team members see that they can have an influence on proceedings, they are likely to be bursting with ideas.

One of the best uses of a team is to trouble-shoot problems – ‘a problem shared…’ and all that. So, to help develop exceptional performance, you need to bring issues that need trouble-shooting, for the team to do its job. Having created an environment that involves everyone in the team, why not look outside and start inviting some of your stakeholders (people who depend or rely on what you do) to meetings. See what they have to contribute.

Experiment

Really creative teams are experimenting all the time. Rather than rejecting ideas, they are put to the test. This helps keep people fresh as well.

Use the Power of ‘Yes’

Listen out for the language used most frequently in your own team. For instance, which word pops up most often, ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘but’? Do people also build on each other’s ideas, rather than kill them off with muted enthusiasm or negative criticism.

‘Yes, but…’ comes from a negative world which is fearful and forces unnecessary choices. It views things as fixed dualities. In contrast ‘Yes, and…’ assumes creative potential, where alternatives, contradictions and paradoxes are embraced, because they are often the source and stimulus of invention. For instance, notice your thoughts as you’ve been reading this article. Have you been open to applying any of the ideas, or have you habitually been thinking, “Yes, but that wouldn’t work because…”

If you can hear another team member’s contribution as an offering that might prompt you to create something of value, then you remove the impulse to kill it off. Instead you can accept it for what it is, and build on it. See if you can say ‘yes’ to ideas and comments made by colleagues and create with them. That way, you value their input and see it as an opportunity. It could encourage you to create the unexpected.

Some managers are afraid that if they immediately respond positively to people’s ideas it will get rapidly out of hand. They worry that absurd projects might start exploding across the school. This is most unlikely since the ‘yes’ device is only the start of a feasibility exercise to reveal whether an idea is useful or not. The main purpose of the ‘yes’ approach is to avoid killing off potentially brilliant ideas at birth.

Have Some Fun

If you can create a playful environment you are more likely to generate creativity and improvisation. ‘Brainstorming’ is the most common idea-generation exercise in most organisations. The purpose is to get ideas that wouldn’t normally emerge if conventional thinking were pursued. The team is encouraged to think the unthinkable. Yet, the process is often conducted in a solemn, downbeat and controlled way – hardly an encouragement to yield wild ideas.

Generating humour and fun, and having a good time does not detract from commitment and application. Some of the most resolute and engaged activity happens, for example, when schools start generating money for Comic Relief. People can work hard and have a lot of fun doing it. So, why not conduct brainstorms as if they were a party (get some sweets and treats in) and see whether the ideas can flow more easily.

Tips to Encourage Experimentation

To stimulate creativity:

  • Seek outside stimulus: visit other schools and organisations and see how they work. Make sure some are completely different to your own. For example, churches, concert halls, banks, old-people’s homes, racetracks, fun fairs, coalmines, theatres, hospitals, and shopping malls – anywhere you can spot creativity being applied in a completely foreign way to your own school. Then see if there’s anything at all that you could learn from what they do.
  • Look for strange and unexpected connections between what you do and what is around you.
  • Set some creative personal challenges, for example, to have one entirely new experience every month.
  • Entertain the possibility that nothing you believe in is necessarily true. See where such thinking leads you.
  • Change how you take notes; try Mind Mapping® to avoid linear thinking, or use story boards with pictures.
  • Conduct thought-experiments that use ‘what if?’ scenarios.
  • Break habits – change the ‘normal’ way you do things.

EXPLORING

Finally, a really good team is focused on delivering high performance. That means everyone going that ‘extra mile’ and making above average effort. And that has to start with the team leader of course. It’s essential they model a spirit of adventure, and taking a few risks. It seems a shame that schools have often been forced to be risk-averse. Students need teachers to bring some ‘attitude’ and audacity to the proceedings. So do colleagues!

Add Value

How can you constantly add value to your colleagues,department,school or community? It could be through your decisions, contacts, knowledge, experience, relationships and so on. There may be no single route since schools are now too complex and fast moving for any one person to control. Adding value therefore starts within your team. To produce more than the sum of the parts, each member must somehow add value to the others.

Learn from your mistakes, and your successes

It seems strange that organisations, whose prime focus is on learning, often don’t learn well enough themselves. Yet this is the only way the team will growand develop.By being explorers,there is always discovery. That allows your team to harness its learning and continually improve its performance.

Spending time with colleagues exploring why something worked or why it didn’t, can add to the collective knowledge base. Sharing best practice builds further success. Being willing to admit you’re wrong and analyse why, is a vital contribution.

Celebrate Achievements

One major way of maintaining morale is to appreciate and celebrate successes. First, however, you need to spot the deserving action. Individuals in teams often complain that their contribution goes unnoticed. Whilst ideally the team leader picks these up and draws them to everyone’s attention, it is a two way process. Team members too have responsibility to highlight actions they have taken of which they are proud.

So, ACE teams are Aligned, Creative and Exploring. Though they may not last forever, anyone who has ever been a member of such a team, never forgets the experience. Performance is only one of the benefits for the outstanding team. Another is being part of a community of exceptional colleagues,and experiencing a sense of closeness and connection.

IN A NUTSHELL…

An ACE Team:

Alignment means there is a collective commitment to team-working. You have the right mix of people offering a diversity of approaches, yet sharing the same values. Everyone needs to be going in the same direction, with clear roles and tight organisation. Creativity is what the team is for – to produce more than the sum of its parts. This means eliminating the factors that kill creativity, running creative meetings where everyone is contributing, and valuing improvisation where people accept and build on others’ ideas. Exploring is when the team takes its performance out into the world. They use an adventurous spirit to take risks and add value. They learn from successes and failures, and grow from the experience. And they celebrate! TEX

“What have you done today, to make you feel proud?”

This popular song lyric helps to highlight the need in any team to focus on achievements. Whilst it may be a bit corny to talk of pride in this way, there is a real need to ensure that people’s contribution is not ignored. The team meeting is a perfect place to spend a few moments appreciating what people have done. You could:

  • Ask everyone to boast about something they’ve achieved that they’re pleased about.
  • Ask people to boast on behalf of others in the team who may have done something special.
  • Have presents for any exceptional effort on behalf of a team member.
  • Have a box of ‘goodies’ that can be awarded by anyone to any other team member to acknowledge a special contribution.
  • Recognise and celebrate the end of a period of work or a project.

Michael Maynard is the director of Maynard Leigh Associates a London-based management development company.

Maynard Leigh Associates Marvic House, Bishops Road, London SW6 7AD

www.maynardleigh.co.uk

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, December 2003.

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