The Way Great Teams Work

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The Way Great Teams Work

Don Rossmoore, Ph.D.

Teams are as essential in today's corporate world as disk drives and copiers; but they're a lot less reliable. At their best, they drive major decisions and projects through to completion efficiently and effectively, and foster cross-functional cooperation. At their worst, they squander time, money, and talent, with little or nothing to show for it when they disband. Most teams fall on the negative end of the best-to-worst continuum, over-using resources and under-achieving results. Clearly, corporate leaders can't rely on good luck or good instincts when forming and assigning teams to important projects; allowing teams to fail is too costly.

I've used the guidelines described below for creating and maintaining successful teams at several organizations, including high technology, insurance, and financial services companies. In each case, the team performed its assigned tasks on time and within budget, while meeting the organization's quality standards. These results can be replicated at any organization, if it is able to abide by the letter and spirit of the guidelines.

Teams need competent, committed leadership. The head of a team sets the tone for the kind of work the team will do. Therefore, it's critical that this individual have the ability and willingness to inspire and guide the team through all phases of its project. If the team founders, the leader must also have the strength to ask, "What am I doing or not doing that allowed this to happen?", and to make adjustments accordingly.

In order to command respect and have a real impact on team productivity, a team leader must have more than personal competence, however. He or she also needs authority to do one or more of the following with respect to the team members: hire, fire, promote, demote, and reward. This puts organizational muscle behind the leader's decisions and dictates. For example, a Wall Street trading firm greatly decreased clerk errors and increased clerk productivity after it gave clerk team leaders the ability to give bonuses and assign vacations to individuals who reported to them.

Team members need to share a common vision. The vision consists of two messages: why the team has come together, and what is its primary focus. The most typical, and most powerful, reasons why teams exist are (1) because of a collective need, e.g., "We have to meet this goal or our division will fold."; and (2) because of a collective opportunity, e.g., "We have to create this product to become market leaders."

A shared sense of purpose, especially if that purpose is survival, creates high team morale. Individuals on a team at a computer company were working regular hours and with minimal commitment on a project to bring out a new product. After they learned that the fate of their division, their jobs, and their friends jobs depended on the success of the project, their enthusiasm, dedication, and working hours all increased. When asked what was motivating them, they all replied that they were working to save the division and their friends' jobs. This kind of spirit enables team members to put aside individual agendas, to work cooperatively through obstacles, and to meet goals.

One of the pitfalls for teams is that over time they tend to lose the sense of common purpose. As this happens, individuals will begin to work toward their individual goals rather than the group's. It's a challenge for leaders in this case to formulate a new, compelling vision that will re-energize the team.

The other aspect of the vision -- what the top priorities are -- is essential if the team is to make and follow through on decisions. The computer company team was told from the outset of their project that time to market was the number one priority. Team members reported that this knowledge focused and streamlined their decision-making and was a key element in the successful completion of the project.

Teams need first-rate communication. In order for the work of the team to progress, there must be good communication between team members, and between the team and the rest of the organization. First-rate communication means communication that is timely; complete; precise; relevant; and verifiable. This kind of communication is critical not only for making good decisions, but also so that the team's working process can be continually examined and improved.

Sports teams provide strong evidence for the power of first-rate communication about how they're doing. Some of the most successful teams hold mock trials after their games, where the team leader passes out awards for good plays and "punishments" for bad plays. These trials provide a forum for discussing errors. The immediate feedback, clearly related to specific actions, enables team members to shape their performance for the next game. Corporate teams benefit from something similar: bi-weekly meetings to discuss what's working well, what's not working well, and what needs to be done differently.

Obviously, teams communicate about more than their own process. In order to make decisions, team members share facts and opinions. One of the biggest communication errors teams make is neglecting to verify the facts, which on examination often turn out to be opinions. For example, the marketing manager at a high tech company informed its executive team that they shouldn't be too worried about disappointing sales figures, because there were a number of big sales "on the 5-yard line." The executive team decided to investigate. Talking to the big prospects, they discovered that, indeed, they were on the five-yard line -- 95 yards away from the sale. With the vastly different picture than the one painted by the marketing manager, they were able to refashion their sales strategy.

Not all information, facts or opinions, is equally relevant to an issue. A key element of good team communication is sorting out what's relevant and what's not, and considering only the information that counts. Otherwise, teams can waste time on material that's just not important. For example, two organizations were competing for a contract to build a new air traffic control system. One team based its design on research conducted with air traffic controllers; the other, on information gathered from the Federal Aeronautics Administration decision-makers. The air traffic controllers' specs were of minor significance in this scenario, and the organization that focused on them lost the contract.

Teams need clear roles and responsibilities. Teams get into trouble when two or more individuals think they own a key task or decision. Roles and responsibilities need to be assigned early, and reinforced frequently, so that clarity over who is responsible for what isn't lost over time. Individuals will accept their roles and responsibilities more easily if they understand the value of their particular contribution to the effort. In the same way that sports figures are chosen for championship teams on the basis of their ability to perform specific functions, such as defense, so corporate team members must be clear about why they've been chosen and what they are expected to contribute.

Teams need courage. Facing and acting on facts can be frightening. So can taking responsibility for unpopular decisions, or decisions that turn out badly. Lay-offs, project cancellations, and policy and staffing changes are examples of executive team actions requiring courage. Courage is needed both at the moment of decision and afterwards, when facing the consequences and taking ownership for them.

Team members need to anticipate correct decisions and actions. It's not efficient or possible for teams to meet and get group input every time a decision needs to be made or an action needs to be taken on a project. Ideally, as team members work together and gain knowledge and understanding of one another's areas of expertise, they will develop the ability to anticipate each other's responses correctly. This capability greatly increases a team's productivity.

For example, a team at a computer company was negotiating a contract to form a partnership with another company. The team leader was often travelling, and was unable to be reached for three or four days at a time. The team had worked with the leader long enough and he had made his expectations clear enough so that they were able to anticipate his reactions to events. This enabled them to make decisions in a timely way without waiting to check with him each time. This sort of anticipation is especially critical on large, complex projects where several groups are working in parallel.

Teams need coaching. None of the factors that contribute to successful teams are easy to achieve. Especially in the area of communication, teams require the assistance of a skilled coach to observe them, help them discover their strengths and weaknesses, and guide them to greater competence. This process takes places over time, as teams practice new skills, get feedback, then continue to experiment with and sharpen their skills.

Executives can set the stage for successful teamwork by appointing competent leaders, clarifying and communicating their vision of the team's purpose and priorities, and supplying the resources teams need to have good communication, a clear sense of roles and responsibilities, courage, and anticipation.

article - Copyright 1997 Don Rossmoore



Copyright © 2004-2012 Don Rossmoore