A successful team of workers operates much like a herd. Any expert in herd livestock behavior–horses, cattle, goats, llamas–will verify that every herd has a pecking order. Introduction of a new animal to the herd or removal of an animal from the herd immediately results in a sometimes violent adjustment of herd dynamics until all the animals understand their placement within the modified herd.
Consider the famous Budweiser hitch. A team of eight horses works well because each horse is carefully positioned according to its strength and personality. The wheeler–those horses closest to the wagon–shoulder the heaviest load. They’re the largest and strongest horses on the hitch, but they’re not the most dominant. They limit the maximum safe load, because only they can hold the weight of the load when going downhill. Wheelers also steer the vehicle. The leaders–the horses at the front of the team–are the dominant animals. Although they share the effort of pulling the load, they don’t actually turn the vehicle. They lead the team. The team trusts and follows them, both in the hitch and in the herd. If the leaders spook, the rest of the team will, too.
While the cooperation of human beings within a project team or program handles significantly more complex tasks than pulling a heavy wagon, the analogy remains apt. Just as each animal on the hitch knows its job, every employee on your team should know his or her job.
The same holds true for business. A well-written process defines who does what and when. Howard Shore’s article “The Importance of Defining Employee Roles” states that the clarity a process brings to producing the work leads to more collaboration success and less duplication of roles and defending of turf. Tammy Erickson, writing for the Harvard Business Review, agrees. Collaboration improves when the people on the team understand their roles, because that understanding leads to focusing on the task.
Who, what, when and why
Definition goes beyond simply stating, “You do this.” The process should also determine who does that when. A task performed at the wrong time can lead to inaccurate conclusions, budget overruns, completion delays, team member frustration, and other problems. The determination of what must be done leads to identification of who will do it. Match the task to be performed to the skills and interests of the person(s) assigned to performing it. The employee who’s a whiz at crunching numbers probably won’t be the one you want to assign to writing marketing materials, because that person’s competencies don’t lean in that direction.
The “why” matters, too, because you’re relying on people, not machines or livestock. Without understanding the reason for each step in the process or even the reason for the project or program in the first place, team members may avoid certain steps altogether that result in poorly done, incomplete projects. People need to know why something is necessary in order to give it their full support; machines and horses don’t.
Once the what and when have been determined, the effective manager then determines the metrics for successful accomplishment. Understand the factors that will affect success and encourage the behaviors needed for a positive outcome. The measurements used to determine success will inform employees that they have accomplished (or not) the tasks set to them.
A manager shouldn’t waste time worrying about how something will be done. That’s why he or she has a team of competent people to perform the work. Trust them to know how to do the tasks assigned to them. Once team members what to do, when to do it, and why, the manager must step out of the way to let them do it. At the same time, the manager must ensure that not only does he or she not pose a bottleneck, but that no one else on the team does either. Therein lies accountability.