What did #givingback teach me about team dynamics?

My younger daughter and I did some volunteer work yesterday at the Capital Area Food Bank warehouse in Washington, DC. We were part of a group of about 12 people, some parents with kids who needed community service hours and other adults. It was fascinating to watch us evolve from individual or small groups to a graceful machine that just did what needed to get done. I left thinking about how a group of strangers working for a good cause can naturally meld, while we have all been in professional situations where people seem to work against the natural evolution.


Our job was to unload several pallets of breakfast and lunch foods in the refrigerator, repacking it all into individual banana boxes. Our group of volunteers started working either individually, or with the people that came together. Fairly quickly, people started stepping into roles that just needed to get done. Instead of fighting for floor or pallet space to load boxes, started opening all the boxes and handing them off to packers. Stronger individuals started collecting the boxes as finished, and others stepped into to funnel empty boxes to those that were packing. As pallets were packaged and left empty, others stepped into to breakdown boxes. And we did all of this, with politeness and instinct. I’m not sure anyone even asked any other person their names. It was awesome to have a bunch of strangers work together so seamlessly, all pursuing the same goals (either the short term one of getting out of the fridge or the more altruistic one of helping a worthy cause.)

Why is it then that I have been in more than one professional situation where the team  doesn’t meld in any capacity, let alone as smoothly as yesterday? I’m not talking about the individual who marches to the beat of their own drum, as I’m pretty sure I fall into that position quite a bit. I’m talking about the person or team that seems to fight against almost every request or initiative to solve our customers problems. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up around small businesses as a child and for most of my professional career. Small businesses need be customer focused to survive in a way that larger companies some times forget. My professional roles have always been in bridging the gaps between customers and technology, so for me, every decision I make is with the customer in mind. It’s unfortunate then when I’ve been in situations where process or team goals have been misaligned. If I’m working to deliver customer value but all efforts are stymied, does it mean the unhelpful person or team isn’t aligned to delivering value to the customer?

I know that this is a harsh criticism. I also recognize that different people have different motivations, and are provided different team goals within organizations. While I don’t truly believe that these teams intentionally set out to hinder what I’m trying to accomplish, I do think it’s unfortunate that there’s that much misalignment across organizations. Too often, customers see the results of this disfunction and ultimately are the ones that get hurt.