Why soft skills should be the focus for building cohesive teams

Ben Atkinson says concentrating on developing qualities including listening, leadership and time management will deliver more for businesses in the long term

Ben Atkinson

In today's climate, where businesses are facing increasing costs and tighter margins, it’s easy to understand why many are prioritising the bottom line and focussing on turnover rather than building cohesive teams.

 When it comes to a business’ longevity and viability, however, as supported by a McKinsey report which stats “defined principles and ways of working are critical to creating a cohesive, long-lasting organisation”, now should be the time for business leaders to be concentrating on building a cohesive workforce for longer-term gain.

Organisations can often fall at the first hurdle in team building, with a focus on hard skills being the main driver for assuming one person will complement another. However, it’s largely the soft skills, such as people skills, communication and listening, time management, leadership and problem-solving style that will dictate how well colleagues can work together. Having the ability to identify these skills, and how they complement each other could be the secret to team cohesion and overall long-term success.

The role of problem solving in building cohesive teams

We don’t add business value unless we solve a problem. When we’re assembling a team to solve a problem, we often begin by looking for people with specific technical skills. This makes sense when we understand the technical nature of our problem.

But it’s also a trap. If we don’t understand the problem environment in terms of structure, we’re likely to set our team up for struggle or failure. Thus, when a team comes together, there are always two problems. Problem A is the shared goal or task to be solved by the team. Problem B is the shared problem of determining how best to work with each other, given the diversity of thought of the team. Cohesive and well-functioning teams are often able to maintain focus on Problem A, and mitigate Problem B as needed. The use of soft skills can enhance the leadership of the team by not only helping maintain focus on Problem A, but also to discern if the team is struggling with Problem A or Problem B.

We encounter problems that require attention to details and very careful planning. We also encounter problems that can only be solved with different ways of unconventional thinking. In other words, some problem domains are more structured than others. This is true across technical disciplines. In the 1970s, Michael Kirton, a British psychologist, discovered that we each have a preference for more structure or less structure; or said another way, a preference for more attention to detail with focus on making the system better, or a broader focus on making a different system. This preference has been established as innate, fixed as an aspect of one’s personality and measured on an interval continuum, the KAI.

Recognising that one’s preference to solve problems is related to the degree of structure preferred, one simple approach to applying soft skills to move the team forward is asking: do we need more structure or less structure to solve the problem? Research indicates that there is no ideal amount of structure for effective teams, rather effective teams decide on what is needed and have consensual agreement.

Separating roles, skills and style

As an example, let’s consider three commonly-associated archetypes with engineers in an automotive manufacturing company, given a particular problem. This auto manufacturer is making the switch from internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EV) and requires new and very different manufacturing systems. Or does it? Let’s see how these stereotypes fit as they focus on Problem A.

  1. Manufacturing engineer (preferring less structure): This engineer is driven to leverage the latest and perhaps untested technologies to radically change the way new EVs will be built. Collaborative robotics, computer vision and additive manufacturing can reshape the automotive industry… if they can get them to work.

  2. Manufacturing engineer (moderate preference for structure): Once a new technology or idea is made to work, this engineer strives to make the solution repeatable. These engineers add necessary structure and figure out how to embed the new solution into the auto manufacturing process.

  3. Manufacturing engineer (preference for more structure): Now that the new idea has a process and is repeatable, this engineer shows up to make it reliable. The process is refined through continuous improvements. Back-up processes are created. 

The output of these three archetypes sounds so neat, so tidy and so efficient…so fictional. We all know that most organisations don’t operate this way. Why do organisations struggle on this product development process? One overlooked reason is that problem-solving is a function of both problem-solving style and technical skills. As illustrated in this archetype example, engineers with the same training prefer to work on different kinds of problems, regardless of their role and skillset.

To build a successful team, it is critical to understand that we each have a unique and preferred problem-solving style, which gives us advantages and disadvantages in solving a problem. Some prefer more structure, some prefer less; and there is no ideal preference, in general. Recognising this diversity of thought in your team and harnessing good leadership skills will set your teams up for success.

Ben Atkinson is an innovation strategy leader and KAI practitioner