Now as never before, managers are finding they have to create effective cross-functional teams on the fly. New projects emerge that require a diversity of expertise not found within a single department, and mergers and strategic partnerships thrust together new groups of people. Whatever the foundation for their existence, each of these one-off teams shares a common trait: it must begin producing results right away.

Managing a team that has been created under such circumstances presents a distinct leadership challenge. It is hard enough to guide the disparate mix of talent found in long-standing groups; when you need to immediately focus the efforts of people you may not even know, and who may not know one another, the challenges are multiplied. But managers can address these problems by using techniques to form a unified team, which can get straight to work.

Getting to know you

It is important to get staff to share personal background information. Having each member talk briefly about his work history and experience can achieve two important things: it conveys information about everyone’s individual competencies, and generates respect for those skills within the group.

It also fosters cooperation by giving team members a sense of shared history that serves as a substitute for an actual shared history experienced by members of long-standing teams.

Managers can help the process along by asking open-ended, work-focused questions that allow team members to tell their own stories, such as: ‘tell us about some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced on other teams and how you dealt with them’. If the leader is already acquainted with a particular team member, they can tell that person’s story as a way of acknowledging prior acquaintance and professional reputation.

When you ask staff to discuss what has contributed to the success of their past teams, you help achieve both engagement and commitment from them. By encouraging team members to share their views, you signal respect for their competence and judgment. You also are likely to learn new and useful information from people who are both skilled and experienced.

One cautionary note: even as you encourage team members to share their ideas on how to be successful, you need to make it clear that you are not inviting group decision-making. Without overtly accepting or rejecting any one person’s ideas, you can select from the ideas to formulate a plan of action.

This demonstrates that you are open to others’ ideas, a core element in building the team’s engagement with the assignment, while also signalling that you retain ultimate responsibility for making decisions.

Managers need to describe how the team will work together. To quickly engage the team in the task at hand, you must impart a clear vision of their purpose and how members will work together. This requires more than just giving out assignments.

State clearly why the team has been formed; explain the problem to be solved or the improvements that will result if the team is successful in its efforts. Then, articulate the desired outcome of the team’s efforts vividly and precisely. It is important to describe the deliverable in concrete terms so that everyone understands what the final product will look like, whether it is a report or a ‘go live’ date for a new service or product.

Next, provide a detailed plan of action so each team member will know exactly what must be done and when. Give the due dates for the deliverables and for the critical tasks that must be accomplished along the way.

Finally, you must make sure that each team member knows exactly how their role – and the roles of others – will contribute to achieving the goals. Try to play to individual strengths of the team members. Determining the best assignments for each member by taking account of their experiences, training and past performance. The right assignments align team members’ skills and aptitudes with the goals, improving the likelihood of success.

Attention to detail

Achieving this ‘best fit’ with staff roles demonstrates that you were listening when members shared their experiences and that you have ensured each member has the job most suited to their skills. When you show this kind of attention, it increases the likelihood that team members will respond in kind and will be able to communicate openly as the work progresses.

Finally, carefully choosing assignments for team members demonstrates your desire to enable all team members to succeed in their work. To fully optimise the skills at your disposal, you must be clear and precise about expected work outcomes for each position and for the team as a whole.

The rapid team building toolkit

Share personal histories

Personal stories reveal competencies, generate respect and foster cooperation.

Ask: ‘what has worked for you in the past?’

This signals that past experiences are valued as potential contributions.

Describe how the team will work together

Clearly state the team’s purpose and plan of action. Then describe each person’s role within the team.

Optimise individual team members’ strengths

Make realistic assignments that take advantage of each team member’s individual strengths.

Establish norms for making decisions

Let team members know what types of decisions they are expected to make on their own and what types of decisions will be made by the team leader.

Establish a process for feedback

This allows information to be exchanged quickly and easily.

Clarify how decisions will be made. You can improve the effectiveness of your team by telling them how you approach decision-making and deal with conflicts.

You should briefly outline the scope of decision-making for each position, letting team members know that decisions affecting the functioning of the team or its ability to achieve its mission should be brought directly to you.

For example, you should make all decisions that will affect the final outcome of the team’s work, the overall timeline or the work of other members.

Conversely, you should refrain from interfering in decisions that appropriately should be made by individual team members. Insisting that staff check with you before carrying out routine tasks increases your own workload and reduces the effectiveness of the team.

To the extent that the group is made up of people with demonstrated experience and competence, you should be able to limit your decisions to those that affect the team and its mission as a whole.

Managers should ensure a free flow of information. Rapid team building requires information to be exchanged quickly and easily. You need to establish clear processes for communicating within the team, including arrangements for written, electronic or face-to-face communication for different aspects of the work.

For example, voicemail and email may be useful for some communications between individuals who have different schedules or who work in separate locations. Problem-solving discussions may require face-to-face or telephone interactions – although agreements and decisions should be documented. Information required by the entire team, on the other hand, is best shared in written form, whether on paper or electronically.

The most important aspect, and the true test of effective team communication, is the giving and receiving of feedback.

Give positive feedback frequently and enthusiastically, identifying the results achieved. For example, responding to suggestions by saying, ‘great idea; that’s a practical solution to our problem’, or to completed tasks with, ‘well done; that’s just what we needed’, will help motivate team members to excel in their work.

"Carefully choosing assignments for team members demonstrates your desire to enable all team members to succeed in their work"

Negative feedback is essential for correction and quality improvement but it should be given without criticism or rancour. Saying, ‘that didn’t work; what can I do to help you?’ or ‘this doesn’t meet our needs; let me explain why’, allows negative feedback to become an important part of the team’s culture and ensures that critical information does not get hidden or minimised.

It is up to the manager to take responsibility for creating and leading the culture of the team. You can establish a culture of effective communication by accepting negative feedback with gratitude (even though you may not feel like it); giving negative feedback sparingly and without condemnation; and finding opportunities to give positive feedback to every member of the team.

Jerry Garfield consults to executives and their teams on matters of organisational behaviour, leadership and change management. Ken Stanton consults to healthcare organisations to develop new programmes, improve clinical practices and increase operational efficiency.