Zahir Irani: There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ – and the best civil service leaders know it

Successful organisations are the ones that allow multiple perspectives to flourish

By Zahir Irani

17 Aug 2015

When is a team really a team? Well, not when you tell them they are, that’s for sure. 

I made that fundamental mistake many years ago, when working with a new group of managers thrown together to solve problems and create a new product. I told them during the “norming stage” of team dynamics that they were a team, and would be charged with moving the organisation forward – only to be immediately corrected by a rather sombre character who cried out: “We will tell you when we are a team”.

Looking back, I can see how right he was. I learnt two immediate lessons that day: the first was how to hide a bruised ego. And the second lesson was to never to tell a group that they are a team until they are, and know that they are, a team. This has stood me in good stead as my career developed, and as I formed and dismantled my own teams over successive years and in numerous roles.

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What I have seen, and passed on to others over the years, is an acceptance that the highest level of team performance requires a diverse body of people who can see the world from different perspectives and promote broad group discussion.

If you can’t assemble a team that has very different world views, then try to encourage your membership to adopt different personas during heightened times of creativity. This diversity is not just valuable – it’s essential. Diversity should extend beyond an ethnic, gender and sexual orientation sense (not to downplay such contributions, as these are equally valuable) and should be directed more towards acceptance and appreciation of different thinking, in an environment that has been created to allow for the planning of thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive way. 
Accommodating multiple perspectives stops any single-minded idea from being flogged to death. Excellence in team development, communication and delivery is not the privilege of the private sector alone, and there are many examples of high performing teams operating across the public sector with great success, each manager or leader finding the best approach for delivering success in their own way.
I was privileged to spend much of 2014 working on secondment in the Cabinet Office, where I saw an ability to rapidly develop teams to tackle new and emerging government priorities. What I think makes the public sector different from the private sector is the inability of leaders to throw resources at a team, which often helps them gel – think swanky away days and team bonding exercises. Rather, civil service leaders rely on credibility, experience and sheer inspiration as means by which to enthuse and motivate a group of people to come together and pursue a common goal for the good of the public.

Two individuals who stood out during my time in Whitehall told me about their approach to developing team dynamics. Kate Silver, deputy director at the Cabinet Office says building a “really successful team depends largely on the confidence of the leader, not just in how they present themselves but more in their willingness to acknowledge their own gaps”. She adds: “I have a fantastic team built to fill the gaps but that is only the beginning – as a leader it was and is my job to inspire them and crucially to empower them.” 

But team formation and a sense of direction setting is only half the challenge, and there is also a need for a different kind of skill to ensure that the team is well maintained, and able to sustain its energy levels and focus on team objectives. As Greg Hobbs, head of collective leadership communities at the Cabinet Office, explains: “A team draws energy from having room to deliver and learn together. A great leader will empower his or her team by giving them ownership of their work and trusting them to deliver, without micromanaging, instead giving them room to make mistakes and then learn from them – no matter how personally uncomfortable they might find it.”

There is a whole body of academic literature that covers team formations and their dynamics, some of which I agree with and have seen played out in practice, while others to a lesser extent. The best place to start is by reading the work of Bruce Tuckman (1965). Edward de Bono (1985) meanwhile articulates well the areas to focus on when building teams, and explains how there should be a focus on: data and information; feelings, intuition and emotion; positive thinking; caution; creative thinking and exploration; process; and engagement.

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