Team Lessons from the Wagon Wheel

web3The business world is increasingly moving away from individual performance as the basis for success, and moving towards the team being the most common unit of production.  Assembly lines of individual workers are giving way to manufacturing cells – smaller internal factories operated by small teams of workers.  This trend in happening in many other sectors, from health care to education, from sales to financial services.  Independence is being replaced by inter-dependence.  It is a safe bet that the increasing complexity of task and volume of work will keep us moving in this direction.

As consultants, we are often asked to help teams achieve higher levels of performance and higher levels of personal engagement and satisfaction.  There are plenty of theories and ideas that I can refer to – but increasingly I come back to the wagon wheel.   Probably many of us all remember the wagon wheel – but I have to admit, my interaction in recent months with the old-order Mennonite  community being established in the Douglas area has strengthened my appreciation of the intricacies and the value of the wagon wheel as an educational tool for teams.

The wheel has several basic parts – the center or hub, the spokes and the rim.  Now stay with me as I translate this image into organization and team life.  The center or hub is like the leader of a team  – in touch with all of the spokes, serving as a connection point for all the spokes in the wheel.  The hub keeps all of the spokes focused and in touch with one another and represents the point at which the wheel is connected to something bigger – like the wagon.  In a similar way, the leader is a connection point for all of the members of a team – keeping them focused – and in touch with their bigger organizational purpose.  Most wagons cannot function with a broken or missing wheel – so the leader makes sure that the team keeps producing its intended results enabling the bigger organization to successfully continue on its way.

The spokes carry the weight that is thrust on the wheel and enable this burden to be distributed equally so that no one spoke is over-taxed.  Each spoke has to shoulder its portion of the load – and if any spoke decides to take a walk, or disappear, then it wreaks havoc and risk on the two adjoining spokes – and on the entire wheel.  Spokes are like individual team members – all connected to the leader – and each fulfilling a very role important inter-dependent role.  The team members enable this team to do its job – just as the spokes enable to wheel to carry its load.  And the lack of performance of any one member adversely affects the whole team and threatens the achievement of its purpose.

Now we get to the rim – the most interesting part of the wheel.  The rim is held together much more by the spokes than by the hub.  Every spoke holds the rim in place. Every spoke contributes to its stability.  The rim and the hub only connect through the spokes – and the rim is that part of the wheel that is furthest from the hub.  It is also the only part of the wagon wheel that is in touch with the world outside  the wheel.

Now imagine the nature of the ride without the rim – bump, bump, bump,….. broken spoke, after broken spoke.  The rim makes the difference in the ride – and the rim helps the spokes survive the weight of their load.

So what is the organizational component that corresponds to the rim?  It is the team’s sense of purpose and commitment that makes up the rim in my analogy.  If the sense of team belonging and purpose amongst the members is strong, then the rim will be strong.  If there is open sharing and communication amongst the team members, then rim will be strong.   If there is a willingness to help each other out and share the load, the rim will be strong.  If there is a focus less on self, and more on the team, then the rim will be strong.  If each team member helps the other to perform to his or her optimal potential, then the rim will be strong.  If the entire team focuses on attaining the shared critical results, then the rim will be strong.

If you are getting the message that the team members interacting with each other determine the overall quality of the rim – and hence the quality of the team performance – then the analogy is working for you.  The leader can only affect the team performance through the influence directed at the individual members, just as the hub can only affect the rim through the spokes that connect the two.  Leaders affect the feeling of team through their interaction and coaching with the individual team members.   Team members are ultimately responsible for the quality of “teamness’”, of team strength that a team has.  The leader influences this indirectly – but the team members own the final responsibility.

So working with a team to make it more effective starts with the leader  – but quickly moves to the team members, and how they relate to one another.  Critical determinants of the strength and endurance of the rim include trust, comfort with conflict, commitment, personal accountability for team performance and a clear focus on the expected results.  So next time that you are looking at the strength of your team’s performance, start by analyzing the strength of your rim.   And yes – Delfi has a great team assessment tool to start you on your journey.   Wishing you happy trails and a “smooth ride”.