Team-building in Uganda: Transforming workgroups through alignment of goals and values

The term ”team” is often used to describe what would more accurately be defined as a workgroup. Workgroups are people brought together by a goal in space and time. To truly become a team, a workgroup would need to be aligned.

In donor-dependent countries with multiple stakeholders, it may be common for different groups to work in silos. Team formation would therefore be necessary to encourage collaboration.

Team formation is a deliberate process to transform a group of people assigned to work together into a team that is aligned in mission and vision, and truly need each other to achieve success.

Since January 2019, Spark Health Africa has been coaching district health management teams in Uganda on alignment. We shifted focus in March 2020 to the newly formed COVID-19 District Task Force (DTF) teams to support the government-led response to the pandemic.

Uganda Permanent Secretary, Dr Diana Atwine, speaking at a review meeting for the transformative leadership and culture change program in collaboration with Spark Health Africa (December 2018)

In this article, we reflect on our collaboration with select Uganda COVID-19 District Task Force teams to address challenges faced by workgroups.

What happens when there is limited alignment?

A complete lack of alignment leads to disinterested workgroups. When there is limited alignment, workgroups become temporary alliances or pseudo-teams.

Temporary alliances need each other for a specific task, but they do not share a common goal. They can achieve short term targets, but this may come at the expense of reaching broader goals. Long-term strategic success will remain elusive if the “small wins” are not contributing to an overarching vision.

Pseudo-teams do share a common goal but do not believe they need each other to achieve that goal. This dynamic leads to poor performance and even conflict as individual efforts contest for attention and resources. As a result, pseudo-teams lose out on the power of collective action.     

When teams have a common goal and understand that they need each other, they achieve full alignment.

Challenges faced by workgroups in Uganda

Workgroups are dysfunctional, not because of incompetence or lack of noble intentions, but because of lack of alignment. In Uganda, DTFs had a clear composition and representation from multiple stakeholders, guided by a clear purpose, and plenty of zeal.

In spite of their clear terms of reference, DTFs faced execution challenges due to the following reasons:

  • Leaders assigned based on rank or positional power are not always effective.
    • They are not always present to lead deliberations,
    • They are not always fully engaged, and
    • They fail to encourage the productive participation of the wider team members.
  • The importance of multisectoral collaboration is outwardly emphasized, yet, political and technical agendas are misaligned and competing.
  • DTFs have Terms of Reference but do not have a clearly defined problem. They also lack direction and clear key result areas.

Lessons learned on team alignment from Uganda

Lesson 1: When values have personal meaning it is easier to commit to the achievement of the overall goal

Most public sector offices have their mission statement and values posted on the walls. Most people cannot recite them, and even fewer live by them.

Leadership in Bushenyi district used root cause analysis to identify team-based, behavioural vices that prevented its team from achieving its goals. The team identified the values it wanted to live by to close the gap between its current state and its envisioned state. Instead of coercing the group to recite existing values, leadership facilitated the creation of personal meaning in values.

Driven by significant personal values, team members regulated themselves and each other to stay aligned with the overall goal of improving the wellbeing of their communities.

Lesson 2: Demonstrations of transparency by senior leadership build trust within the team

Reports of corruption involving funds meant to fight COVID-19 in Africa abound in the news and on think tank platforms. Frontline workers can become discouraged when they learn that resources meant for their safety are corruptly diverted.

Through a simple act of transparently disclosing the full budget of COVID-19 resources received from the government, the leadership in Mityana district facilitated the creation of a healthier work environment. In Mityana district, trust forms the basis of engagements between multiple stakeholders, in turn promoting cooperation.

Lesson 3: Linking everyday tasks to the overall goal improves alignment

Terms of reference are simply a guide to help define the purpose and structure of an initiative. Workgroups end there. Teams, on the other hand, unpack data to get a common understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. Understanding the problem helps to clarify the desired goal.

Once the team understands its goal, it can devise a strategy to achieve that goal. That strategy needs to be broken down into the discrete tasks and system changes that the team must pursue in order to succeed. That way, each individual can see how they advance the whole and how their teammates contribute to their shared success. It also gives the team a way to measure achievements and milestones to celebrate and improve morale as they go along.

Lesson 4: Alignment is not an event but a journey

Alignment requires proactive leadership that is patient and committed to seeing through change. The experience of the Uganda DTFs demonstrates that team formation is more intensive than Terms of Reference. It is a process worth pursuing in order to improve the performance and collective impact of the team.

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