How to catch lightning in a bottle

Some tips for forming and managing successful - and innovative - teams

Mark Wade

Director, Learning Resources, Division of Student Learning, Charles Sturt University

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You could say that projects live and die by the teams put in place to achieve them. It’s not just luck that has people in teams clicking along with each other – it’s about judgement and foresight. But rigid approaches to recruitment and management can sometimes stifle innovation and creativity and set projects up to fail.

One of the more challenging projects Learning and Teaching Solutions set out to achieve was the conversion of module content from print to digital to be delivered through the OU Anywhere App, which the team was also developing. I had to recruit a large team and quickly form them into a cohesive and effective unit. I trialled a few new approaches and learned a lot.

1. Value potential, attitude and enthusiasm over experience

When building the team to deliver OU Anywhere, I tried to value potential, attitude and enthusiasm over specific experience. There is an important caveat to this – many projects (and tasks within projects) clearly need specific skills, and the rarer the skill, the less choosy you can be about how you resource it.

However, with the development of OU Anywhere, as well as some highly talented specialist staff, we needed to recruit around 20 team members to work on the transformation and quality assurance of over 1,000 eBooks and thousands of hours of audio and visual content.

These people needed to quickly learn specific OU systems and processes and work to a quality framework. We found that digitally literate people with an aptitude for quickly learning new software and approaches were more effective than those who came to the project with previous experience.

We were clear and consistent about what we wanted, and while we listened to suggestions for improvements, we weren’t slowed down by debate and conjecture about the best way to use OU systems. We prioritised people who were enthused by the project and what we were trying to achieve.

2. Team balance

Some people just want to come to work, get the job done and go home. Not everyone wants to progress up the career ladder. In a large team with a challenging goal, you need a range of personality types – you don’t need 20 leaders. At the same time, if you create an environment where innovative ideas and positive contributions are rewarded and occasional mistakes are accepted, you sometimes find that the quieter ‘heads down’ team members come out of themselves and come up with some of the best ideas… sometimes surprising even themselves.

3. Be prepared to make mistakes

Like everything, there is no reward without risk. If you are trying to judge potential, sometimes you will be wrong. When it works — and in the case of the OU Anywhere project, success was down to a mixture of good judgement and pure luck – the benefits to the individual, the manager and the organisation are huge.

When it fails you need to act decisively. You need resilience, and to keep faith with your methods. You also need to have the good fortune to work in an environment where your approach and judgement is supported at a senior level.

4. Formal vs informal recruitment

If you are recruiting to a permanent or long-term position there is a rigorous and largely very effective OU recruitment process to follow. However, projects are often resourced using agency and freelance staff. Through trial (and some error) I found it possible to combine the best bits of formal and informal approaches to recruiting a team.

With a bit of forethought it is possible to have what seems to be an informal relaxed conversation with someone while still using competency based interview techniques. I find small details are important – for example in my experience, people who demonstrate good manners and respect for others (and it is possible to assess these qualities in a relatively short conversation) usually make good team players.

I developed this approach while building the OU Anywhere team and again through luck, judgement and moreover the ability and work ethic of the individuals, it proved successful. More than half of those recruited this way have gone on to secure long-term positions at the OU, mostly at higher grades.

Interestingly, we later found that many of the team were extremely capable people who found formal interviews very difficult and this was the primary reason they worked through agencies. When suitable contracts with the OU arose, we offered coaching and support to those individuals as they tackled the application and recruitment process.

5. Get references and listen to other opinions, but make up your own mind

On more than one occasion I’ve taken on a person who has performed well at interview, but has come with a reputation for being difficult. Each time they have ended up being extremely high performing and reliable team members. They were talented people who had become frustrated working in an environment where they felt boxed in and their ideas weren’t listened to. They responded positively to a change of environment and working towards a clear goal, while also being given the opportunity to influence how they meet those goals.

6. Diversity

There isn’t a lot I can add here that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and you’d find it hard to find anyone involved in recruitment or management who would say they don’t value diversity. I didn’t deliberately set out to build a diverse team, other than looking for a balance of personalities, as mentioned above.

However, as it worked out, we did create a team with a good balance of different gender, age, ethnic and religious backgrounds. While this was positive in itself, it had unplanned benefits. There were numerous instances where we avoided the various pitfalls associated with working on content across the entire curriculum through the language skills, global knowledge and cultural sensitivity of the team.

7. Capitalising on creativity

On both the OU Anywhere and FutureLearn projects, a lot of the work was a grind. Tagging XML, compressing video, and quality assuring ePubs is not many people’s idea of fun (though you would be surprised).

Whenever you are working with content, though, there are always opportunities to be creative. When people in the team showed a particular talent, flair or interest during what could necessarily be fairly mundane work, I would try to ensure they got more of that type of work.

This may be as straightforward as reassigning batches of work to different people, but sometimes I’d go as far as creating new tasks to explore the potential of that individual. Over a relatively short period of time, certain team members developed specialist knowledge or became the go-to person for a particular task, benefiting the team and making themselves more employable in the process.

8. Leadership

For all that I’ve said about potential and aptitude, during the development of OU Anywhere I also relied extremely heavily on one or two senior team members with detailed knowledge and experience of creating OU content.

I’m not suggesting it is possible to merely recruit an inexperienced team and just point them in the right direction. Leadership of the team is critical and the day-to-day operational management needs to quickly win the respect of the team.

There’s never any guarantee that a group of people who happen to have been placed in a team together will be able to achieve a goal, or will rise to a challenge when a project starts to go off the rails. But the combination of creative and open-minded recruitment, and creative and open-minded line and project management, can really make the difference between a job done, and a job so well done that the team becomes a successful unit time, and time, again.

Mark Wade is the Director of Learning Resources at Charles Sturt University. He was formerly Head of Corporate and Strategic Projects in Learning and Teaching Solutions at the Open University.