Questions That Help Build Your Team Quickly

Last Updated Jul 19, 2011 11:58 AM EDT

Teams get put together quickly, and often the members don't know each other very well. Especially on project teams they may have never worked together or even met. Working relationships can take a while to form, which is great when you have time. There are some ways managers can jump-start the relationship building process, and it often starts with some basic questions.

Team theory has been around a long time. As far back as 1965, Tuckman's stages of group development became the standard model. Most of you have heard of forming, storming and norming. Basically, a team gets put together, there's some degree of drama and stress as people figure out their roles and the written (and unwritten) rules of working together and then they get on with it. The faster teams get through the storming stage, the more work gets done and more productive the team.

Good project managers, like the blogger Syed Rayhan, have a list of questions they like to ask and share the results with their peers. His list includes:

  • What's your role on the project? (If you've ever worked on a team and wonder why so-and-so was included, you know how important this is. It also allows managers to delegate tasks and answers more effectively.)
  • What is your main expertise? ( "Oh, so Raj is a database expert? Maybe he can help me with this other problem I'm having". This is a great way to get the team to work together and form bonds beyond the task level.
  • What new capabilities are you learning on this project? This one is not only a chance for people to express gratitude about what they're learning, but also a non-threatening way to let the team know this is their first time on a software project like this, so be gentle!
  • What are your pet peeves in the workplace? If someone doesn't like working in a certain way, it's best you know that before you learn the hard way or just tick them off. Setting boundaries is an important part of working together.
  • Tell us one thing about you that nobody knows? Obviously this should be amusing and non-incriminating.
  • What's your favorite hobby and why do you like it? It's amazing how much easier it is to form a working relationship with someone that you share a passion with. A favorite sports team (or at least a favorite sport and a good-natured rivalry), a shared interest in bird photography, or almost anything else that helps you think of that teammate as something other than a nameless, faceless task machine.
Other things worth sharing early on are pictures (so people can put faces to names) and their work environment (do they work from home? Are they in the Rangoon office? Who do they report to?). They may want to share other projects they've worked on in the past.

What questions or information do you like teammates to share with each other?

Some readers have stated that they think much of this information is irrelevant,and at least one commenter in an earlier column stated he'd immediately quit any team that demanded such "intrusive" information. Work, they claim, is about getting the work done and this other stuff is nobody's business.

As a manager, you have to be sensitive to not exposing people to ridicule or to divulge personal information that may make them uncomfortable. You also can decide whether the desire to keep such a low profile is something you want in a teammate. Sometimes people who just cranky out good code and aren't a barrel of laughs are important to the team. Sometimes they can be seen as barriers to team morale. That's for every team to decide for itself.

The tone you set for your team and the ability to quickly create a culture where everyone stays positive and productive is best determined at the beginning, rather than trying to fix a team when cracks appear in your project.

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