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Top 3 Things to Do When Teams Derail

November 12, 2014

Top 3 Things to Do When Teams Derail

We’ve all been there at one time or another. We start out excited to be on a new project team. But about a month or so later, we dread anything and everything to do with that project. We entertain thoughts such as, “I’ve got a headache, I’ll call in sick. What customer / vendor / colleague can I visit today? What nearby industry conference I can go to? Am I volunteering at my kid’s school today?” Anything to avoid going into the office or dealing with other team members.

Why is that? What happened to all our excitement and enthusiasm? And most importantly of all, what can we do about it?

Teams are a Fact of Life

Regardless of where we work, we’re all “stuck” working in teams, whether we like it or not. (Rolling your eyes doesn’t change anything.) If we want to achieve big goals such as designing and launching a new product, service, or program, there are too many moving parts for any one person to succeed solo. It takes the coordination, cooperation, and collaboration of people.

The more complex and interdependent the desired end result — the more collaborative and in sync your core team must be to achieve its goals. So when a team starts to head south, it’s all-hands-on-deck time.

1. Context: Raise Issues with the Goal in Mind

You’ve come together as a team because you share a goal. Together, you’ll accomplish something fantastic that none of you could do on your own.

The moment you become aware of something that seems to be taking your team away from your collective goal — whatever it is, whoever is doing it, whenever, and wherever it happens — that’s the time to be extremely curious. Ask the entire team “How is [XYZ] bringing us closer to our goal? Because [now share your perspective why you think XYZ is taking you all off course].”

When you raise the question, and share your point of view, you’re inviting a discussion with your teammates. You may not see why or how XYZ helps the goal, but others might.

The key takeaway here is when you raise issues in this manner, the context is crystal clear — it’s all about the goal. It’s a goal achievement issue, not a personal attack. And an effective way to get everyone back on track.

2. Ask the Hard Questions – Embrace Conflict

Even if you’re not the “official” team leader, in a collaborative work environment, everyoneon the team is responsible for its leadership and its outcomes. Not just the project manager. Not just the project sponsor. Everyone. That means you — regardless of your title, salary, or the tasks you’re assigned.

Everyone needs to step up and ask the hard questions — the ones we all avoid because conflict is uncomfortable. We get anxious. We don’t want to be attacked. We don’t want to make mistakes, or be embarrassed, or embarrass others.

We’re so afraid of the negative feelings and images we associate with conflict that we forget its benefits: clarity, innovation, improved morale, increased understanding of yourself and others, even better working relationships, not to mention greater effectiveness and efficiency.

Change your mindset. Think of conflict as a stream that’s blocked by tree branches and rocks. Better to ask how you can tackle eliminating that block (the burning issue) together than to ignore it and watch the team, and the project, implode.

3. Decide Who’s on First

Every team has a mix of people with different roles to perform. In many cases, people are assigned to teams based on their job responsibilities in an organization or department.

When we join (or lead) a team, we make all kinds of assumptions about what we’ll be doing. And we do the same for other people based on what we know about them: their job title and responsibilities, outward appearance, behavior, and attitude. But that route is filled with gotchas.

Just because Mike works in finance, is neat, organized, and quiet doesn’t mean his role on this project should be taking care of the project’s books or that he’ll enjoy doing that. It could very well be that he’s a brilliant and creative business strategist who is also adept at finding win/wins in conflicts. And that’s why he’s on the team. But unless you’ve worked with him before, how would you know that?

This is why at the outset of any collaboration, knowing which of you is going to be responsible for what outcomes and tasks is vital. Playing to everyone’s strengths means tasks are done more efficiently and effectively. This helps speed you to your goal. Much like the Roman Army formation known as the tortoise, when everyone’s strength is their shield, and those shields overlap, and every person knows their place and role in the formation — you can become as invincible as the Roman army was for centuries.

But without defined roles and responsibilities, it’s easy to duplicate some efforts and neglect others — too many people fighting over the same position in the formation, leaving gaps for the enemy to strike. And if team members keep coming and going off the team, that really compounds the issue.


Teams quickly derail when they lose sight of their goal, avoid confronting burning issues, and lack clearly defined roles and responsibilities. The sooner you nip those in the bud, the faster you’ll get back on track.