Building Teams Under Adverse Conditions

Forming people into a collaborative body is like building a sandcastle on the beach. When the tide comes in, a portion of the castle may be washed away and need to be rebuilt. A rogue wave could knock down the whole structure and leave only a trace outline of what was once there. Reformation and reconstruction are ongoing efforts, which is why it is called teamwork.

The importance of collaboration cannot be overstated. As Christopher Avery pointed out in his book Teamwork Is an Individual Skill, “Becoming skilled at doing more with others may be the single most important thing you can do to increase your value—regardless of your level of authority.”

Team building, especially under adverse conditions, requires the application of an ideology whereby individuals can get to know and trust one another by working on the same things at the same time for the same reasons.

The challenge in constructing a team is to pull isolated individuals together around a common task. Fortunately, Jay R. Galbreath in his book Designing Complex Organizations, has provided a practical, easy-to-use process known as responsibility charting.

Responsibility Charting

The most effective way to introduce responsibility charting is to pick a situation where confusion prevails. Next, create a matrix with the names of the team members written horizontally across the top and the list of tasks they need to accomplish listed vertically down the left side.

Then, visualize a column below each name into which a letter will be placed representing one of the roles described below.[R] Identifies the individual responsible for completing the task. This person needs to accept the stated expectations such as the budget, timelines, production standards, and other factors critical to the successful completion of this task.

[A] Identifies the person whose approval must be obtained before any action is taken. This person will determine in advance how far the [R] can go in completing the task, what progress reports are required, and how often the task team needs to meet.

[C] Identifies those who need to be consulted as the task unfolds. These subject matter experts need to know how much time and talent they are expected to provide. Assigning [C]s makes it clear to the [R] that they will not be working alone.

[I] Identifies those who need to be kept informed and provided status updates as the task progresses. The [I]s are just receiving reports from the [R] and are not expected to provide any substantive input or share any responsibility for the outcome.

The matrix format outlined above is designed for larger, more complex organizations where the team members may be disbursed and unable to meet. Smaller entities may prefer a less formal version. Instead of letter designations, hats are used to verbally indicate who is performing in what role on any given task. This simpler method can be effective, but it can also lead to confusion if the roles are not clearly understood.

For example, in a team meeting someone may ask, “What would you do?” To some, your reply may sound like a directive, so they see you wearing the [A] authority hat. Some see you wearing the [R] responsibility hat because you are known for getting things done. Others see you wearing the [C] consultant hat or the [I] information hat and think you are giving advice or sharing your opinion. To avoid confusion, it is important to state what hat you are wearing when you speak and invite others to do the same.

Responsibility charting provides the structure for the creation of a troubleshooting mechanism that scans the environment looking for ways to improve performance and productivity even during a period of upheaval, as was the case in the example below:


The largest medical imaging center in the nation downsized three times during a period of economic upheaval without damaging its world-class reputation for diagnostic excellence. The potential for mass confusion was present throughout this stressful period. A transition monitoring team was formed to ensure that the constantly changing roles, relationships, and responsibilities were clearly communicated to those employees who remained after each layoff. Responsibility charting was applied during all three phases of this painful but unavoidable restructuring.

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