Ten Constructive Team Roles for Planning and Decision Making
Just as a football team needs a variety of team roles in order to accomplish its mission of winning the game, business teams also need a variety of roles to accomplish their mission of better planning and decision making. Consider using these ten constructive team roles for planning and decision making.
Previous articles discussed the attributes of good decision making and the importance of including the right amount and variety of team roles in order to accomplish the team’s objective. The highlighted team roles are organized around a different theme like personality, or task, or thinking style. If we think about the attributes of a good decision as the organizing theme, what kinds of team roles might contribute to good planning and decision making? Here’s my thoughts on ten constructive team roles for planning and decision making.
Team Role #1: Educators (i.e. “Functionals”) – There’s a reason why I started with this role. I believe that functionals might be the most critical and underused role in team planning and decision making. Functionals are your subject matter experts in the organization and yet they are probably NOT on the team. That means the team is not fully harnessing knowledge in their organization. However, functionals can be very valuable to your planning and decision making process. They are passionate about their areas of expertise and will be eager to share their knowledge. Functionals can educate the team on the important and meaningful insights about the general features of alternatives and key technical criteria that should be considered in evaluating the alternatives. They can provide initial thoughts on possible consequences associated with the alternatives. Functionals also provide basic instruction in subject areas in which the team does not possess expertise. Examples might include key technologies, buzzwords, current vs obsolete approaches, etc. Functionals are not infallible. They’ll likely be overly focused on understanding(and articulating) every nuance of their area of subject matter expertise. They may not be concerned with other organizational values that determine other planning and decision criteria such as profitability. Functional may also fail to keep the discussion focused. That’s why other roles become important to ensure the dialog does not become tangential or too detailed at the expense of other objectives and the overall big picture. One final thought about this role: There is a lot of talk today about the need for employee ‘engagement’ to help retain talent. I can think of no better way for an organization to engage their employees than by tapping them to participate in decision making in the role of an educator. This also has the added benefit of demonstrating the organization’s authentic appreciation of the employee’s deep knowledge of their area of expertise. “At last, someone really cares about what I do….”
Team Role #2: Facilitator – If teams must fully explore all ideas, some of which are conflicting and based on opposing value systems of its members, how can the team be assured that members don’t ‘hold back’? The role of facilitator is the answer for improving productive candor. According to Robert Schwartz, author of the The Skilled Facilitator, facilitators help increase the effectiveness of group processes and structure. They help members deal productively with their emotions when addressing difficult issues. Although identified here as a team role, typically, a facilitator is a non-advocate who is not a member of the team or a decision maker. It’s probably true that not every team needs a facilitator role to ensure effective team behaviors, roles, and communication, but it’s probably just as safe to say that every team could use some improvement or help to ensure effective communication and group processes.
Team Role #3: Coordinator – While the facilitator focuses on the use and adoption of effective group communication techniques, the coordinator keeps the sessions organized and flowing. This is especially important when decision making cannot happen within a single team session. Coordinators will look to ensure the team is achieving progress towards the goal of making decisions and help reduce discussions that might move to tangents. There’s a good case to be made that coordinators and facilitator roles, as I have defined them, are similar if not overlapping. However, I see the coordinator role focused on content and on conducting the team like a maestro conducting an orchestra. The facilitator is focused on team process and structure and on intervention when the team is not using effective process and structure.
Team Role #4: Imaginator(or Ideator) – What happens when teams start literally with a blank sheet? How do new options and alternatives get created? Almost everyone can generate ideas and alternatives that are grounded on something that already exists. However, when it comes to literally creating something from nothing, the Imaginator role becomes crucial. Imaginators create ideas that grow into options and alternatives for consideration. The ideas could either be expressed as higher level courses of actions or lower level tactics. But an idea by itself is insufficient. It lacks ‘meat’. That’s where the next role becomes a crucial partner to the Imaginator.
Team Role #5: Elaborator – Some people are naturally detail oriented. They are a natural complement to high level thinkers (like Imaginators). Elaborators are essential for fleshing out fuzzy alternatives to bring clarity, completeness, specificity, and compliance to the alternatives under consideration. With an elaborator on the team, the alternative selected will be less likely to be considered ‘half-baked’.
Team Role #6: Pessimator – Every organization has their share of curmudgeons or ‘Debbie Downers’. They’ve ‘seen it all’. They tend to think about the negative consequences of actions. The Pessimator role is an appropriate role for this person to play on a team. Unlike the infamous ‘Debbie Downer’ character from Saturday Night Live, the pessimator can actually serve a very useful role in planning and decision making. There is a big difference between declaring ‘it can’t be done’ instead of asking questions like ‘what could go wrong?’ or ‘what don’t we know?’ The declaration reflects someone who is defeatist. Pessimators, on the other hand, can help a team uncover gaps in knowledge and possible unknowns in the plan by focusing on questions and inquiry. They can help to strengthen the plan or decision and reduce risk. Nobody likes to think about the possibility of what could go wrong. That might be considered negative thinking. But strong plans and decisions must consider both opportunities and risks.
Team Role #7: Evaluator – To evaluate something is to establish its value. Evaluators help to uncover and assign ‘value’ or merit to the alternatives, especially when planning and decisions involve a substantial level of subjective criteria. Evaluators must deal not only with hard facts, that might be supplied by the tabulator, they must also consider softer, ambiguous, and subjective information. In that case the evaluator must rely on judgement. Evaluators are also the converse to the pessimator’s role. Evaluators help answer the question of ‘what’s possible?’ by identifying positive consequences and opportunity.
Team Role #8: Tabulator – Tabulators are the analysts on the team. They strive to put hard facts and data together to support planning and decision making. They collect and analyze the information and (ideally) reduce information complexity to bring clarity to the alternatives. Great analysts can also anticipate questions and issues and build flexibility into their analyses and models to bring additional thoroughness to the discussion without excessive time or resource consumption.
Team Role #9: Attenuator – When a signal, such a radio wave, is attenuated, its amplitude (the wave’s peaks and valleys) is made smaller. Passionate discussion within teams can bring about similar waves that can reflect extreme amplitudes of viewpoints and perspectives. Attenuators help temper and balance these extremes. They anchor a team and can bring sobriety, and prudence to the discussion. (Keep us from ‘drinking the kool aid’). They can temper subjective measurements. Someone who is characterized as ‘Mr. Boring’, because of their dispassion and stoicism, may be a good candidate to fill the role of attenuator.
Team Role #10: Permutators – One of the differences between an average chess player and a master is the master’s ability to see many moves ahead. The master can look at each move (an alternative) and then play several moves ahead in their mind to see the possible outcomes(or permutations) that could occur. In planning and decision making, the permutator’s focus is event or path driven. Permuators explore the many possible future paths and outcomes that flow from the alternatives under consideration. Permutators are a good fit with pessimators and evaluators. However, a key difference is a permutator applies deductive reasoning to put the possible outcomes together into a logical sequence. So while the pessimator might fear a negative consequence of an alternative. The permutator can help the team rationalize the fear and explain why and how the negative consequence could occur in a logical sequence of events.
Okay, so some of my team role titles, like pessimator, are a bit artificial and aren’t likely to be found in any dictionary. I wanted to ensure the team role titles communicated a purpose or action of the role and were catchy. Almost everyone is capable of operating within each of these ten constructive team roles for planning and decision making. It also doesn’t mean that team sizes need to be large in order to achieve variety. Smaller teams, with members operating in multiple roles, can be effective. They key is to ensure that the small teams reflect a variety roles.