IJIS Exchange

A column dedicated to the exchange of ideas on information sharing in justice

The year was 1992, the place Barcelona, and the accomplishment was considered highly unlikely. Even with 12 of the most successful athletes ever assembled on a single team, not one person predicted the level of unbridled dominance they would bring to their sport before that first Olympic matchup against Angola. Eight games later and forevermore dubbed the “Dream Team,” these guys earned every point and stole quite a few hearts that summer, and not as the superstars they were individually…. They owned it together, as a team: the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team.

Twenty-seven years later and another United States sports team–this time women who control the soccer field–is now lauded as world champions for many of the same reasons as that 1992 Dream Team in Spain. As they claimed their second consecutive World Cup win this past summer, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) has shown characteristics matching those of the original Dream Team almost three decades before.

If you’re thinking, “Well, sure … professional sports teams dominate entire seasons all the time, nothing so special there,” you’d be wrong. Because the truth is, individual athletes tend to rise up on teams; we often see two or three “standouts” bringing their entire team along on a winning ride in any given sport during a season. There’s no doubt that strong athletes help teams to win. But individual accomplishments aside, all-in team brilliance just doesn’t happen very often, and when it does, well, those are winning teams.

So, what’s the difference between teams that win and winning teams? And what does any of this have to do with you and our court system? It turns out, people who study high-performing teams have connected the dots back to a few key traits shared by that 1992 basketball team, the 2019 women’s soccer team, and extremely successful organizations of all types and sizes.

Winning Teams Are Cohesive, from the Inside Out

Neither the 1992 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team nor the 2019 U.S. Women’s Soccer Team surprised anyone with their hard-hitting performance, especially in early rounds of play. These were top-echelon athletes after all. What did astound the world is that both teams kept up their winning pace at every successive game/match—each setting high margins of victory early on and continuing their momentum right on through to ultimate success. In business and in sports, we often refer to teams like these as well-oiled, and we give a lot of the credit to leaders who are seen as doing the oiling.

Leadership is a definite advantage to winning teams, but let’s not be too hasty in assigning all the credit there; personal engagement, along with high levels of ownership for their individual contribution to the final score, are what really make the difference. In the end, Charles Barkley did Charles Barkley, and Mia Hamm did Mia Hamm. As team members, Barkley and Hamm were individually instrumental to their respective teams, but it was the group dynamics that took them to the top.

Developing a winning team takes time, and the good news is that we can chart their path as teams form, acclimate, and eventually unite around a common goal. According to researcher Bruce Tuckman, in both group dynamics and the four stages of team development he popularized in the 1960s, leaders must retain the motivation of team members to successfully overcome the challenges of the storming and norming stages.

Illustration from: iSixSigma High Performance Teams: Understanding Team Cohesiveness
  • The forming stage represents the beginning, the honeymoon period; great expectations are shared from all team members. Relationships are developed, purpose is clear, and ground rules are established.
  • The storming stage is triggered once team members start jostling for position, stumbling from confusion, having arguments about leadership, strategy, and goals. This is when team leadership becomes imperative. The leader must succeed at keeping the team motivated, addressing all concerns, and clarifying purpose and goals.
  • Once the storming stage is overcome, the team is ready to establish open communications, stable positions, and norms—the norming phase. Trust is finally gained, and “when the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”
  • Forming, storming, and norming are the first steps towards cohesiveness. Once cohesiveness is achieved, teams will move on to performing and subsequently to highly performing.

“It’s not just about the leadership,” says Susan Laniewski, a principal with SAL Consulting LLC, a government IT consulting firm. “It’s about setting up a team that will work together to develop, endorse, and roll out a solution. And that means representatives that can perform the roles which make a team work together, moving as one.”

Winning Team Leaders Take Risks, Refuse to Lose, and Keep Right on Building Their Team

Of course, leadership matters, especially to a cohesive, winning culture. Establishing strong leadership that empowers others to deliver results is essential. Teams that win sometimes get by without a great leader, but winning teams depend on them. Jill Ellis, coach of the USWNT understands this, as did Chuck Daly who headed up the 1992 Olympic basketball team. Both coaches have lifelong reputations as risk takers, often flying in the face of disagreement from players, sponsors, and peers. When Ellis’s team lost to Sweden in the 2016 Olympics, she wasted no time making sweeping changes to her roster, ultimately creating a much more diverse team. As for Daly, he never played the same lineup twice during his Olympic season, and he was well known across his career for creating harmony from very diverse personalities at all levels of the game.

In our own teams, we tend to operate on the other side of risk–turning all aspects of a project around and looking for any opening for things to go wrong. Sometimes, we stick people in the wrong roles for the wrong reasons, thinking that we’ll limit risk by controlling “the known” (whether we think we can control the person or know exactly how they’ll engage or exactly what they’ll produce). This cautioned approach almost always limits innovation and will often keep teams from learning, even from (valuable) mistakes. So, what’s the number-one thing that the most successful leaders of winning teams do? They focus on building the right team.

No matter the profession, winning teams have the right people fully engaged in the right roles, and although specific roles will depend on your team’s overall mission or goal, here are some general guidelines offered by SAL Consulting.

  • Champions–Make sure your project team includes members who will serve as the champions and cheerleaders of the project. This means include executive sponsors and staff who will support and endorse the solution with the end users.
  • Coordinators–Agile, Six Sigma, Waterfall, or other project management and design methodology—coordination of process across sprints, phases, implementation steps, and processes requires that flow and continuity of process is understood and used.
  • Collaborators–Your project team must include staff who will share their knowledge of requirements, processes, and business objectives. This means staff and executives who are willing and able to review the basics of the solution content, discuss, moderate, and agree on shared content and details.
  • Communicators–Too many times, projects are completed in a vacuum, and the progress, schedules, goals, and objectives are not shared across the team—or outside the team to the user base. Communicating progress up, down, and across the team ensures that everyone stays on the same page.
  • Consumers and Contributors–Don’t forget to include the end users of the system in the process. Your project team has many functions where end users can play a role, like with QA, testing, and validation. Keeping the end users engaged helps support their eventual acceptance and ownership of the solution.

In the next IJIS Exchange, we’ll provide more tips for winning team leaders and talk about the number-one aspect of teamwork that every player (or court team participant) can contribute: accountability. We’ll take a look at the characteristics that public- or private-sector organizations value most on their teams, and we’ll compare how these stack up across different courts and industry suppliers.