Team Elements – Elegance: Role Clarification

by Ron Potter

This will be our last blog post on the Elegance section of TREC: Truth, Respect, Elegance, and Commitment.  We’ll summarize these three elements in our next blog as you begin to see the entire journey to great team development.

This post, a subtopic of Elegance, is about Role Clarification but I want to start with one of those statements that seem to have gone viral in corporate speak.

Stay in your Swim Lane

If you’ve been in the corporate world over the last several years, you’ve probably heard this term.  I’m not sure who started this cliche but it sure wasn’t someone who knew how to build great teams.  This is NOT one of my favorite sayings.  Every time I hear this statement it’s in reference to someone who has:

  • crossed the boundary
  • stepped on someone else’s toes
  • “presumed” to know better than the “expert” how things should or should not be done

Whatever the reason for the irritation, it sends a message that everyone is supposed to do their own job and somehow that will make the team effort successful.  This message reveals a couple of beliefs at the core of team building.

  1. Build the right set of skills, do your job and everything will be just fine.
  2. No one has the skills or experience to question the “expert.”  Questioning the expert questions their competency.

There are some fallacies in those beliefs.

  • Skills and competencies are what will make a team and a corporation successful.  WRONG!
    The reason this belief exists is that most corporations depend on the measurement of skills and competencies as the measure of internal success.  Promotions, pay levels, and other rewards are based on these measurements.  Research and experience points to the fact the good people skills create more success than job skills and competencies.  It’s just that people skills, leadership style, and team engagement are harder to measure.
  • Other research shows that new creative, innovative, breakthrough ideas almost always come not from the expert but from the person who has a different perspective altogether.

Orchestras and Choirs

Teams should function more like an orchestra.  If you want a quick read about what that looks like, try Maestro: A Surprising Story about leading by listening by Roger Nierenberg.

I’ve been a choir member off and on for years.  I just love the harmonizing of the various parts.  When it all comes together in a crescendo, it just sends a chill down your spine and sometimes brings tears to your eyes.  Hearing and being a part of a 12, 50 or 100 member choir as they bring their voices together is a wonderful experience.


Rehearsals are very different and a great learning experience.

  • The leader expects each section to know their part and perform it well
  • The leader will often stop us to say, “This section is not working, let’s listen to each part then put it all back together again.”
  • Often we’re instructed to tone our section down a bit so that the overall piece can be better understood.  “Basses, tone it down.  The sopranos are carrying the melody at this point and you’re drowning them out.  The audience can’t hear the melody.”
  • “Now basses, pick up the energy and the lead from the sopranos and bring it together with the same enthusiasm.”

The orchestra conductor leads us.  He expects us to know our part and corrects us when we don’t do it well.  But when we do it together it sounds awesome!

Business teams don’t usually function in this manner.  “Stay in your swim lanes” or “Know your job assignment and do it well.”  Seldom do I hear team leaders asking a section to tone it down, work at something other than your optimum rate, blend with the team, pick up on their enthusiasm and build something great together!

Build Team

Knowing our roles is important.  Building a great team means bringing it all together, not just maximizing each part!

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