Winter 1994

RTS Ministry Volume 13, Issue 4

With eight years of business under his belt before entering seminary, Bill still remained a devotee of The Wall Street Journal and Fortune. As he watched the growing attention paid by the corporate world to teams over the past few years, his interest was piqued as well. Reinforced by a number of his elders, who were businessmen, Bill decided it was time to turn the church staff into a high-performance ministry team.

He shared the vision with them, then retained a consultant to provide some training and show them the basic principles of teamwork. The whole process culminated four months later in an outdoor retreat on a ropes course, where his staff was learning to work together to attack a number of obstacles. As Bill watched his music minister push the “youth dude” over a fourteen-foot wall with the help of the church secretary, he sensed a new era of teamwork beginning at First Church.

A year later, a somewhat deflated Bill explained to me that, although the experience had been fun, little had changed. Everyone was getting along, but each was still doing only his assigned tasks. To make matters worse, everyone now had expectations of what teams were all about, but the principles just didn’t seem very applicable.

Why form a team?

Many organizations attempt to form teams merely because they feel some intrinsic merit lies in them or because it seems like the thing to do in the nineties. Such efforts are invariably doomed to failure.

Bill’s confusion stemmed from seeing teams as an end versus as the means to an end. Teams are a means of achieving goals that exceed the capacity of individual effort and do so at “exceptional” levels of performance. Ultimately, therefore, team effectiveness will be judged by its results. The decision to form a team must be made in response to particular objectives and strategies in which teams represent the most appropriate organizational response.

A high performance team, then, is mission directed — the task is the boss. It is a clear, compelling, common task that gives birth to the team in the first place. Like the grain of sand in a Japanese pearl oyster, the task of the team is the critical ingredient around which it will form. Regardless of whether the life of the team is temporary or long-lasting, the team mission is the motivation for the existence of that team. This is so important that it bears repeating: a clear, challenging, relevant task is the single biggest contributor to team development.

The team mission answers the question, “WHY?” Why do we exist? It is the task or mission of the team which provides the reason for cooperation. One of the biggest reasons for lack of teamwork is an insufficient answer to the question, “Why should we?”

The answer is — to accomplish something. And that something is bigger than any of us could do alone. It involves an outcome which I, as an individual, desire but am incapable of achieving on my own. Therefore, I must “team up” with others to get the job done.

This purpose (mission or task) not only calls the team together but, like glue, holds it together during the inevitable turbulence the team will experience on its journey. Without such a bond the centrifugal force of individual interests would pull the team apart. Peter Drucker makes the point well in his article, “Society of Organizations,” in the Harvard Business Review (Sept.-Oct., 1992). For clarity, I replace the word “organization,” used by Drucker, with “team.”

Because the modern team is composed of specialists, each with his or her own narrow area of expertise, its mission must be crystal clear. The team must be single-minded, or its members will become confused. They will follow their own specialty rather than apply it to the common task. They will define ‘results’ in terms of their own specialty and impose its values on the team. Only a focused and common mission will hold the team together and enable it to produce.

The Secret of Alignment

Teams are voluntary organizations and allegiance is not a given. It is the mission of the team that will determine my commitment to and alignment with the team. Alignment is the link between the individual team member’s interests or goals and the team mission. Charles Garfield, in Peak Performance, defines it best.

Alignment occurs when individuals perceive that contributing to an organization (team) produces direct contributions to their personal mission. . . .The individual wants the team to succeed because it provides the context for his or her own personal achievement.

In such a setting every member is highly committed to the team mission. They are in the same boat, heading in the same direction, pulling together. We might portray alignment graphically as shown in Figure 1.

Alignment was an issue in the Philippian Church. Listen to Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 1:27 as he calls them to unity:

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.

Just in case they miss it, he goes over it one more time in the next chapter, “…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:2). Like-minded, same love, one in spirit, one in purpose — that’s alignment.

Alignment provides focus for the potential power of the team. An old Ethiopian proverb observes that when the spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion. In The Fifth Disciple, Peter Senge puts the concept in more contemporary terms:

When a team becomes more aligned, a commonality of direction emerges, and individuals’ energies harmonize. There is less wasted energy. In fact a resonance or synergy develops, like the `coherent’ light of a laser rather than the incoherent and scattered light of a light bulb. There is a commonality of purpose, a shared vision, and understanding of how to compliment one another’s efforts. Individuals do not sacrifice their personal interests to the larger team vision; rather, the shared vision becomes an extension of their personal visions.

One of the most common problems we find in teams today is the lack of alignment between the team mission and the interests of individual team members. In this instance, Figure 2 might provide a better picture of the situation. Here, instead of pulling together as a team, some members are putting their creative energies and efforts behind a different direction or strategy.

If such misalignment is allowed to continue, it’s unlikely that the team will accomplish its mission, nor will its respective members (Figure 3). Although in the same boat, everyone is doing “his own thing.”

Such a situation is more common than one would think. Senge agrees, noting that,

In most teams the energies of individual members work at cross purposes. . . . The fundamental characteristic of the relatively unaligned team is wasted energy. Individuals may work extraordinarily hard, but their efforts do not efficiently translate to team effort.

Achieving Alignment

Establishing alignment is one of the key roles of leadership, for it often falls to the team leader to ensure the purpose of the team is clearly defined and communicated. He or she must make sure that the team mission meets four criteria:

  1. Relevant (I want it) — The end results to be achieved by the team must be closely tied not only to the purpose of the overall organization, but also to the needs, interests, and goals of the individual team members. The degree to which the mission of the team is desired by the members will greatly influence the energy and effort they employ to attain it. In this respect, the mission of the team is a motivational force, a source of power that fuels the energy needs of the team.
  2. Significant (It’s worth it) — The objectives of the team must not only be relevant but they must be of sufficient magnitude to make it worth the effort. Remember, they don’t call it “teamPLAY.” Teamwork is just that — work, hard work, and team members won’t pour out their energies for small ends. They must see the objective as “exceptional.” Mission must be supported with vision.
  3. Achievable (I believe it) — Individual team members, as well as the team as a whole, must really believe that this task or mission is achievable. If it is perceived as unrealistic or unattainable, they will not invest the emotional energy needed to achieve exceptional results.

Here is where the art and tension of goal- setting reside. Teams should go after exceptional results; however, it’s important not to go to the extreme — exceptional does not mean exaggerated or excessive.

Within the context of a ministry team, faith must play a vital role. It’s not simply a matter of what we think we can accomplish, but what we believe God can accomplish through us. The team leader must be sensitive and take into account the faith levels of individual team members. How big is their faith? What can they believe God for?

  1. Clear (I see it) — Finally, the benefits of team effort must be clear and understandable. I can’t count the number of team leaders who have shared their frustration with me about the apparent indifference of team members to the benefits of higher levels of cooperation. “Don’t they understand that if they cooperate they could . . .?”

The problem is that often they don’t understand. Don’t assume that the benefits are as clear to others as they are to you. Don’t gloss over the pragmatic elements of the team mission and the goals that flow out of it with eloquent generalities. Cooperation based on warm fuzzies, cliches, and platitudes will soon break down under the load of attempting to achieve exceptional results.

It is important to understand that alignment is an individual issue that must be resolved one person at a time. It cannot be attained through mandate or a passionate plea from the podium. Each team member must work through his or her issues of trust and alignment that motivate the willingness to cooperate.

Picture a team as a crew on a boat. Each member has his or her own reasons for being on the team — that is, for being in this particular boat going to this particular destination. Growth, recognition, challenge, compensation, and achievement might be a few typical reasons.

As each team member considers joining the crew, they invariably weigh the costs and benefits. An alert team leader ensures that the benefits are not only clear but are “positioned” in a manner that is most relevant and meaningful to each individual team member.

If this is done right, people of like-mind will join the team. Those who are not will have to find the boat that’s going to their destination. This is critical because in a ministry setting we often have people who are in the boat but not on the team. They are not going to pull their oar with a lot of energy when they realize that the team goal is not their goal.

Like many team concepts, alignment is a relative concept. Some team members are a little out of alignment, others are way off. Which ones are going to hurt the team the most? Often we would say those who are most out of alignment, but my experience doesn’t support this observation.

Those who are very much out of line with the objectives of the team tend to be outspoken about their displeasure. Their lack of alignment is clear to everyone. They are either going to jump out of our boat, or we’ll throw them out.

It’s the individuals that are just a little off in alignment that tend to blunt the effectiveness of the team. Their lack of alignment is hard to discern, for them as well as the other team members. In this case, the signals aren’t strong enough to point to the real problem; a lot of little things seem to drag the team down. Discussions are drawn out, meetings run longer, arguments are more heated, and responsiveness loses its crispness.

A clear, certain mission brings additional benefits to the team as well. It serves as a gyroscope providing stability and allowing the team to maintain its footing and sense of direction in turbulent, fast-changing environments. It provides the boundary lines in which the team can set realistic, but exceptional, goals. It also enables the team to monitor and evaluate progress.

However, if the mission statement is wrong, everything that follows will be wrong, too. In their informative article, “How to Make a Team Work” in the Harvard Business Review (Nov.-Dec., 1987), Maurice Hardaker and Bryan Ward advise us

…to make the mission statement explicit — nail it to the wall. It shouldn’t be more than three or four short sentences….It says what has to be done and how achievement will be measured. The mission statement should be clear enough to let you (and everyone else) know when you have succeeded and are entitled to a reward.

Most team mission statements will start with words like provide, achieve, implement, design, complete, decide, demonstrate, and develop. It will take time and plenty of revisions to find the wording and tone that will capture the qualities I’ve described above.

A Happy Ending

Bill learned the hard way that you can’t have a team without a task. You can have motion, but, without mission, energies dissipate as everyone pulls in his own direction.

Bill had assumed that the organizational mission statement of the church was a sufficient task for the team. He was right in a very broad sense, but this type of team purpose is too wide and abstract. Its goal is too far in the future to motivate members on a day-to-day basis. Bill’s team needed to break that purpose down into a series of “do-able” chunks –tasks that met the above four criteria.

A little over a year later, Bill invited me to tour the church’s new educational wing — a wing, he explained, that was paid for! It had been a big task, from planning to selling it to the congregation to raising the funds, but everyone on the team –Christian education, music, youth, and missions — needed that new facility.

“We’ve never worked harder — or better,” Bill concluded. “I didn’t have to push them to get to work; I had to push them to go home at night.” Bill’s team had discovered the power of task-driven teamwork.


Pat MacMillan is founder and President of Team Resources, Inc., an international consulting firm specializing in team and organizational development. The firm serves a spectrum of clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to not-for-profit organizations. The author of Hiring Excellence, MacMillan is also Adjunct Professor of Leadership at RTS. This article is an excerpt from his upcoming book on team building.