Shared goals are perhaps the most essential element of effective team dynamics. The adage "you can't score if you don't have a goal" is particularly relevant when it comes to interdisciplinary work teams. Shared goals refer to both goals related to project outcomes (e.g., the specific deadlines when a report or recommendation is due) as well as goals related to team dynamics (e.g., ensure each team member is recognized for his/her contributions to the final product.) Without shared goals, team members often find themselves working at cross-purposes. In this case "hidden agendas" and territorial battles begin to hijack the established processes, and trust within the team quickly erodes. For shared goals to be effective and accepted by team members the must be clearly stated, specific and measurable, relevant to the project requirements, and created through an inclusive process.
If shared goals are not universally accepted by team members, there are typically several underlying reasons for this. It is essential to understand these underlying reasons if there is any hope for solving the problem. Here are a few reasons why teams frequently lack shared goals:
- The initial requirements of the project were never well understood.
- The team members have changed over time.
- The project requirements have changed over time.
- The initial goals were mandated, rather than developed in a collaborative fashion.
- There are conflicting priorities.
When something is not described well in words, it indicates that the subject is not well understood. We have all experienced goals, mission statements, or strategies that made us scratch our heads and wonder what is really being described. Effective goals begin with a clear understanding of the project requirements and the process that will be used to meet these requirements. If you experience goals which are confusing or convoluted, it is important to step back and review the initial project requirements. You may need to interview a few team members who were around when the initial goals were crafted. Also review all historical documents such as memos, e-mails, policies, and meeting minutes in order to get a sense of the questions that were posed at the onset of the project and what answers were received or not received. It is important to remember that goals are always established based on the best information that is available at the time. Consider what new information was received after the goals was set and whether these should have caused the team to revisit the goals.
Take what you have learned from this review, and then convene a meeting with the team members to discuss the most appropriate way to revisit and revise the goals. One possible technique that is very effective for helping groups come to consensus on shared goals is called action learning. Action Learning is a group problem-solving process built on the principles of diversity; reflective questioning; and commitment to individual and group learning. In this strategy project members are brought together in-person or in a virtual environment by a group organizer or facilitator (also known as an "Action Learning Coach.")
In action learning the group organizer states that the purpose of the meeting is to clarify and reach consensus on the project goals. Project members are asked to individually consider the project goals and write them in 1-3 sentences. Project members are then asked to share their written expectation verbally with the rest of the group. The project members are asked to clarify and explain how and why they have come to believe their understanding of the goals. The group organizer facilitates the discussion until the project members come to consensus on the shared goals. The shared goals are documented and disseminated to all project members. If the group can not reach consensus, individuals must agree to seek out information that supports their position and report back to the group.
Changing Team Members
Getting clear goals is only half the battle when it comes to shared goals. Even the most well-stated goals are subject to low support if the team members who originally derived the goals have changed over time (see Participant Stability). Each time there is turn-over in a team, there are several important steps that should be taken in order to ensure that the goals remain "shared" and supported. First, the team should convene and discuss what type of replacement team member would be most likely to support the goals from the onset. Assuming the team was performing well prior to the departure of a given team member, there should be a good understanding of team member characteristics that will suit the team goals and sustain the positive team dynamic. This is not to say, however, that "fresh thinking" and new perspectives should be avoided. The team needs to assess which qualities will mesh well with the team and support the goals without trying to find a "carbon copy" replacement for the departing member. If a new team member is mandated without the team's consent, at least assess upfront what some of the major differences in perspectives might be and try to address them with the new team member early on.
Once the new team member is on-board, the team leader or as assigned individual should spend an appropriate amount of time acclimating the new member to the project requirements (cost, schedule, performance) as well as the shared goals and the rationale behind the goals. If a new team member does not support the team goals, it is essential that this difference be addressed. It may require that higher level decision makers at the agency reframe the new member so that they understand that the agency has made a commitment to the goals. Alternatively, it may be necessary to convene a meeting with the entire team to flesh out a revised set of goals. The same techniques described above for reaching consensus on shared goals (e.g. action learning) can be used in these instances.
Changing Project Requirements
Just as changing team members effect shared goals, changing project requirements have a similar effect. As mentioned previously, shared goals refers to both project outcomes as well as goals related to team dynamics. Typically changes in project outcomes are well noted and adjusted to. However it is equally important for the team to consider the impact that changes in project goals might have on the team goals. For example, if a project deadline is extended for six months, and there was a team goal that they would have 80% attendance at all meetings, this may no longer be realistic due to competing demands. It is far better to adjust the team goals to meet the new realities, than for team members to begin getting the impression that commitment to the original goals has waned.
Shared goals require buy-in and a sense of ownership. Ideally all goals should be collaboratively created by the team. However, it is not unusual for a team to be handed a set of goals that they are required to meet. In these situations, the team should still take the time to sort through the goals and determine which ones are problematic. Once these have been identified, the team should either negotiate with appropriate decision makers or stakeholders on the goals and/or determine coping strategies for reaching these goals. This process will help surface concerns that team members have about the goals, and will enable the group to develop interim goals that they feel the can be achieved. Mandated goals have the potential of dividing a group if some team members agree with the goals and others do not. In these circumstances it is still important to discuss all points of view and look for opportunities to create team goals that incorporate as many perspectives as possible. This will allow the team to pursue the mandated requirement, but will give piece of mind to the dissenters that their point of view is being heard and, to the extent possible, incorporated into the team's decisions.
Sharing Conflicting Priorities
All teams are affected by differing political, economic, and social agendas. These differences can potentially undermine a group's commitment to the shared goals. The key to effectively dealing with these differences is to create an environment where team member openly share their conflicting priorities and willingly listen to varying view points. There are many ways to create a constructive environment where people can share their ideas. Some of the most common ways are to establish group norms/ground rules, ensure all team members share their views before evaluation of the ideas begin, place emphasis on confidentiality, and do not allow the group to make personal attacks. Emphasize that they are free to disagree with each other's ideas, as long as they remain professional and respectful.
Once all perspectives are understood, the team should assess what impact the varying viewpoints and agendas have on the shared goals. Often there are only a few key issues that make a big difference. Remember that the goal is not to get every team member to see things the same way; it is to derive strategies to address differences that undermine a shared sense of responsibility for reaching the team's goals.
Marquardt, M. (1999). Intervention Resource Guide. Langdon, Whiteside, & McKenna
HOW THE DECISION GUIDE CAN HELP
In each phase of the Decision Guide there is a specific key decision for adopting goals to guide decision making. This step allows the partnership team to identify where there may be challenges to establishing and supporting shared goals. This particular hold point is in the context of decision making partners who understand their individual roles and can observe that their interests are being considered. With this collaborative framework in place, an honest discussion of setting goals for both the project and the team is possible. For identified interests of the decision making partners see How Does My Agency Fit?