Team dynamics are complicated, and only a charlatan would claim to be able to diagnose the underlying causes of a team's dysfunction instantaneously.
One exception stands out, however. It's a cause of team dysfunction I've seen in practice so often that not only is it instantly recognizable, I've given it a name: The Time Warp.
Here's how it works: Most groups and teams--certainly high performing ones--are able, when in session, to easily and regularly shift their time horizon when needed.
So, for this agenda item there may be a need to look back and perform a brief autopsy--to ask what? and why? and how?; for the next item, the team may be required to peer into the future--to brainstorm, or estimate, or project not-yet-realized events and outcomes; and for a third issue, the team may find itself in the here-and-now, discussing current activities and present-day challenges. Some topics may involve the team in switching back and forth between two, or even all three, time horizons.
Not so for a team trapped in The Time Warp. Such teams are perennially stuck in one time zone, rarely if ever breaking free of it, and rapidly retreating back to their comfort time zone on the few occasions when they do.
Here are the three types of Time Warped teams:
1. The Bickering Undertakers: Teams who get stuck in the past usually do so because of an unrelenting need to find and apportion blame.
Crippled by passive-aggressive office politics and/or personal agendas, bogged down by unending autopsies of recent and not-so-recent mishaps, dropped balls and outright catastrophes, this team can't dwell on anything current or future for five minutes without someone turning the dial back to the past.
"Huh. Remember the last time we tried that?" says George when a new idea is proposed (accompanied of course by a pantomimed eye-roll). Cue a return to a dead-horse discussion of a past screw-up that already had the lifeblood hammered out of it many meetings ago.
"I'm not surprised the results are poor, given the way we set this up in the first place," says Juanita during a discussion of a current marketing initiative (while looking pointedly at Dave, making clear where she believes the problem originated).
Viola! The team is dragged back to yet another go-round of an already done-to-death debate about the parameters of the initiative, and away from a here-and-now consideration of its actual results.
2. The Grind-it-out Tacticians: Being relentlessly stuck in the present is usually a result of a misbalance in the team profile. Specifically, they have too many Operators and Processors, and no (or not enough) Synergists and Visionaries.
This results in a highly data-driven and/or action-oriented team--one that is overly focussed on real-time execution at the expense of being able to either learn from the past, or to prepare with adequate flexibility for the future.
You'll know you're in such a team when the focus from the first minute of every meeting is to get to the action points and finish; when any attempt to learn lessons from past results or events is universally dismissed as "paralysis by analysis", or if attempts to blue-sky or brainstorm around possible future scenarios is met with eyebrow-raising and looks of condescension.
3. The Blue-sky Optimists: Sometimes, teams get stuck in the future--and the results are just what you might expect.
Addicted to might-be's, could-be's, and shiny new ideas, this team produces a seemingly endless pipeline of projections, proposals and scenarios, all compelling in their way. And some of them even implementable.
Trouble is, the team's energy, momentum, and enthusiasm is so fully consumed by the kinetic fireworks display of brainstorming and innovating that there's nothing left to focus on present-day implementation--let alone calm, considered review of the past.
While pretty to watch at the outset and invigorating to be involved with, at least for while--this lack of ability to produce actual results in the here-and-now means that Blue-sky optimists tend to be the most short-lived of the three Time Warped teams.
Did you recognize any of these teams? Think you might be in one?
Fixing dysfunctional teams isn't easy (believe me, I do it for a living), but for a Time Warped team, there is a simple, mechanical practice you can begin immediately which will at least give you a fighting chance of getting out.
Set a time limit for discussion in any one time zone: 5 minutes, 10 minutes, an hour-- whatever seems reasonable. Experiment. Tweak the times to reflect reality (some topics will need the team to spend quite a while in the past, another may need more emphasis on the current or future state).
This won't fix your Time Warp problem on its own, but it will provide some training wheels for you to make a start.
For more from this author, download a free chapter from his book "The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success" which provides a comprehensive model for realigning dysfunctional teams.