Learning to Team: Remove Barriers to Success in Short-Lived Teams

“The issues we face today are so big and so challenging, it becomes quite clear we can’t do it alone, and so there is a certain humility in knowing you have to invite people in.

Paul Polman, the Unilever CEO

In her TEDtalk, How To Turn a Group of Strangers Into a Team Amy Edmondson discusses the idea of teaming and this differs from traditional team building and team development. Teaming centers around the idea of rapidly building a functional team for a short duration – “Teamwork on the fly.” The underlying concept behind teaming is that traditional teams that work exclusively with each other for years with minimal turnover of talent is no longer the standard. To be successful in today’s society we must be ready, and willing, too quickly come together to accomplish a specific task and then disband to move to the next problem set.

Be Curious

How quickly can you find the unique talents, skills and hopes of your neighbor, and how quickly, in turn, can you convey what you bring? Because for us to team up to build the future we know we can create that none of us can do alone, that’s the mindset we need. 

Amy Edmondson, How to turn a group of strangers into a team

This is the closing line of her TEDtalk and with it Amy identifies one of the most important steps in successful teaming. We must be curious! We must be willing to break down our own barriers of insecurities to find what skills and talents others posses that will make the team successful. By asking questions, and actively listening, to the members of our team we not only show we care about what they provide for us, but also that we respect them enough to connect with them. Curiosity also allows us the chance to get to know each person on the team as an individual and connect on a personal level as opposed to seeing them as a tool for our production line.

Situational Humility

“If everyone around you is wrong, are you actually right?”

This is a question I sarcastically asked my team one day as we left one strategic planning meeting and prepared for the next. In that particular case, it was a joke, as we had just spent the last two-hours citing policy and directives in our arguments for why operations and business practices needed to be adjusted. That topic, however, is a topic for another time. The point we must consider is this; no one is right all the time, and those that are unable to see their knowledge gaps and grow through them will fail as a leader, or member, of a team.

When it comes to working inside a temporary team it is important for us to maintain our situational humility. Extending our curiosity outwards to learn about the other team members, their processes, and their skills, allows us to connect on a human-level. This is especially important when trying to lead a short-term team. As the leader, you are responsible for everything that team does, or does not, accomplish inside their time-frame but that does not mean you have all the answers. Publicly recognizing when you do now have the answer, coupled with a curiosity to discover the answer, goes a long way in earning trust and connecting with your team.

A common phrase heard in staff meetings across the Marine Corps is “I do not know Sir, but I will find out.” When I was teaching young officers at their entry-level training I would tell them that this answer is perfectly acceptable, even though it uncomfortable to tell your boss that you do not have the answer. When we are teaming, and working on a unique problem set with unique limitations we need to be comfortable with not having every answer. The trick here, though, is that we must have follow through. If we tell someone we will get them an answer, we need to get back to them with that answer as quickly as possible.

For those interested here is another good read on humility, along with some good self-reflection questions.

Culture of Inclusion

If we are a leader within our short-lived team, it is vital to build an inclusive culture from the start. When teaming, we do not have the luxury of time; team building activities, workshops, and off-sites distract from the mission of the team. In this article from Hasan Youness we discover that inclusive leadership requires the adoption of an EACH Mindset

  • Empowerment 
  • Accountability 
  • Courage 
  • Humility

We already spoke briefly on humility. Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team: A Leadership Fable does a great job explaining why empowerment, accountability, and courage are vital to successful teams. To take it a step further, though, in teaming we must lay this foundation inclusive foundation from the onset. We must clearly articulate, and build into the team from Day 1, the idea that every member is empowered to make the team great, to hold each other accountable, and to do the right thing – even if everyone else is pressuring you to ignore your moral or ethical compass.

If we fail to create this inclusivity into the original blueprint of our team we run the risk of ostracizing members of the team down the road which could halt forward progress at a critical point in the teams short-lived time together. Addressing the culture up-front, and holding everyone on the team accountable for that culture, allows everyone to focus on the task at hand and not worry about the standard “Office gossip” or passive-aggressive tendencies that develop in large, steady-state, teams.


In my previous article on the Tuckman Model of team building, I explore the stages of building a high-functioning team, taken from the perspective of a Junior Military Officer. By applying the concepts from that article, along with the ideas discussed by Amy Edmondson, we are capable of rapidly lay the foundation for success while maintaining momentum and unity of effort. The military provides a unique opportunity to explore these concepts of teams as every team, unit, or section you find yourself on is temporary. With regular rotations every 3 years, most people find themselves filling one of three roles on the team; the new guy, the driven go-getter, or the short-timer. Maintaining momentum through these constant fluctuations in teams requires creative and adaptive leadership.


What have you done to find success when serving on, or leading, short-term teams?

Share your best practices, struggles, and any other comments below!


Here at Aggregate Project we strive to assist leaders in their efforts to inspire their teams to achieve common goals. Contact us now to schedule a complimentary 30-minute discussion on growth and development as a team. Connect with us online, on LinkedIn, or Twitter to continue the conversation.

Published by dannyrtudor

Leadership Trainer and Coach

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