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In some ways, absolutely yes. There are entire sections of bookstores dedicated to team-building, communication, and collaboration -- and yet, from the stats above and anecdotal evidence within organizations, it feels like many haven’t quite achieved team effectiveness yet.
Some of this is inherently logical: human beings come from different backgrounds, and arrive at jobs with different personal baggage, different desires from their career, different family situations, and much more. With so much individual difference, pulling all those disparate personalities and backgrounds into an effective, functional team can be a challenge (and obviously is).
Now, when you talk about team effectiveness, there are two different tracks you can take. One is more theoretical, where you understand the science and context behind different models for team achievement. There are hundreds of these models, some detailed in this post from productivity software tool Wrike, and some in posts of ours, like this one on coaching leadership styles.
The theoretical side of team effectiveness is definitely interesting, but it won’t necessarily give you a toolkit to a more-effective team in the moment. So, the other approach is more tactical, where the discussion centers on things you can enact right now to see more team effectiveness.
The latter -- pragmatic, tactical -- is the approach we will take in this article.
Martine Haas, from Wharton Business School, and Mark Mortensen, from INSEAD, have studied team development across a wide variety of industries and departments for 15+ years. They begin their discussion of team effectiveness by noting that most teams right now are “4-D” teams, meaning more diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic.
In 2020, this absolutely feels true: there are notable corporate pushes for diversity, teams are necessarily dispersed because of COVID, digital rules the day, and business models are increasingly dynamic.
“4-D Teams” do a have core enabling conditions for effective work:
If we believe these core tenets of team effectiveness, and variations of these hold up across a wide swath of management literature, then how do we improve these elements on our teams?
Ideally this begins during the hiring process -- having a careers page, employee testimonials, and an interview process rooted in conveying what the big goals are. It moves, crucially, into onboarding new members to a team. Consider how John Deere does this:
There’s a group at John Deere in India, where they face a really competitive labor market for engineers. On the first day, a new employee is met by a friend they had been corresponding with who shows up with a favorite beverage, and they walk to their cubicle. It’s already set up. In fact, the first email is from the CEO of John Deere, who talks about the legacy that we have, 175 years of innovation. The fact that we’re making products that make people food and give people shelter, so we’re doing important things for the world. He welcomes people to their first day. On the desk is a model of the first file that John Deere ever patented. It was a plow that you could pull behind your oxen or your horses that didn’t get caught up in root systems when you were plowing a field.
In this example, the compelling direction is set from Day 1, which is very powerful.
Other ideas for establishing a compelling direction:
Paradoxically for some, establishing a strong structure for your team is about simplicity, not increased complexity. We already have too many platforms and pings at work. For processes to run smoothly, we need to simplify the processes involved in team effectiveness. Make them clear and make it easy to get work done, as General Motors CEO Mary Barra told some MBA students at Stanford:
“If you believe that most people come to work every day and want to do a good job, then what’s getting in their way? Do we have an environment, a collaborative environment, and the tools that are necessary so they can do their best work? Or is it painful to get the most simple task done?” she says.
Other ideas for a strong structure:
This one is a bit harder during COVID, because teams cannot gather for social events as easily. But to establish a support structure and psychological safety on a team, some approaches include:
This is somewhat similar to “compelling direction,” although one of the modern challenges of “shared mindset” is that business moves very fast these days (“VUCA” is the term, for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) and sometimes the overall mindset shifts drastically and certain teams haven’t caught up. Their shared mindset is several iterations behind. You saw this commonly with basic approaches to work around cloud adoption, for example -- as organizations embraced the cloud, many teams were still heavily on-premise and paper-driven. Their mindset around work, while shared with their team members, was not broadly shared in that example.
The most effective way to build a shared mindset is to be transparent as a team leader, and keep your people in the loop about:
That’s all at a higher org level. At an individual level, team leads should check with the individual members of their team about:
Those check-ins should happen at least 5-6 times/year, if not more. There should be whole-team check-ins with similar questions too; otherwise teams get lost in task work and deliverables, and while “stuff is getting done,” the shared mindset becomes lost as everyone focuses on their specific set of tasks.
This is a very tricky one, and it varies a lot by industry and role. Above all else, though, the evaluation model needs to be transparent to members of a team in order for the team to be effective. To wit, then:
Transparency is the most important step -- people want to know how they will be evaluated, by whom, and what their prospects are for more responsibility, more opportunity, and more compensation. If those factors can be made clear, team effectiveness is within sight.
Now, at the same time transparent reporting and KPI structure can alienate some team members, and they might choose to leave if they don’t like the structure. That’s OK, as very few teams in human history have 100% retention forever.
Be a good manager and check-in with your people frequently. Take their pulse. Understand what matters to them collectively and individually and how that may have shifted in the last few months. Focus on both giving and receiving feedback gracefully. Learn the work style of your team, which allows you to better understand People-Project Fit. Be an active, engaged leader who balances process, task completion, and empathy and discussion -- and team effectiveness will follow.
As with the development of any top-tier team, there will be hiccups and challenges, but if you focus on a mix of goal completion and psychological understanding, your team can thrive.