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What makes a team successful?

three coworkers were asked what makes a team successful

You can’t just assemble a team of superstars and expect them to make magic. (Just ask the numerous sports teams that wrongly thought they could bankroll their way to a trophy.)

Team cohesion and high performance springs from the freedom they’re given, and their reasons for doing the work. Success isn’t something you can force, but you can build the team around some key principles to make it much more likely. 

When you’re trying to figure out what makes a successful team, you have to look at the members of the team itself as well as the organisation around it. What’s their background? How do they communicate? What choices are they allowed to make on their own? 

It takes a little more consideration than simply picking the most talented bunch, but it pays off with better productivity, harmony and creativity. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the values shared by teams that really work well together. Whether you’re just starting to assemble a group of superstars or want to improve on existing team dynamics - there’s always something you can do better.

Table of contents
5 characteristics of a successful team:

5 characteristics of a successful team:

1 ) Members have a sense of autonomy. 

It might sound a little counter-intuitive, but teams given freedom to make their own choices are often more productive than those under strict supervision. 

This kind of arrangement can manifest in fairly radical ways, like that of Valve Corporation. Valve are a multi-billion-dollar Seattle-based video game development and distribution company, and made waves around the business world upon releasing their employee handbook, revealing the flat hierarchy of their organization. There are no ‘managers’ at Valve, and employees are free to choose which projects they want to work on. Projects are organised into ‘cabals' (multidisciplinary project teams) and they form organically, rather than being ordered:

"Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily. But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.” 

Powerful words indeed, but Valve’s incredibly strong position in the gaming market is testament to this method’s efficacy. 

Employee autonomy can also be granted in more traditional companies. Letting teams explore their creativity and take controlled risks fosters a culture of ‘intrapreneurship’, where ideas are bounced around and experiments undertaken with enthusiasm. Teams enjoying these freedoms can come up with amazing innovations that a strict management style might stymie under the weight of bureaucracy. (Post-It notes being a prime example of this.) 

Whatever your company org chart is like, there’s one thing you need to remove to help teams perform better - micromanagement.

2 ) There’s a purpose to their work. 

Great work comes from those who believe in what they’re doing. And this usually means benefiting others as well as just collecting a paycheck.

It’s actually quite rare for a business to have no positive impact on the world. There are some arguably destructive industries, like gambling or tobacco, but an optimist could find merit in even those companies (they pay tax, create jobs, et cetera). 

So almost every employee contributes to society somehow - they have purpose.

There’s purpose on the larger scale: making a positive impact on society, creating movements, and changing the world

And on the smaller scale: helping make people’s days better, bringing smiles to faces, or lifting up their colleagues.

What happens when your team isn’t feeling the love for the bigger picture? It could be down to their day-to-day work experience. 

As professor of organisational behaviour Dan Cable explains

“[Communicating purpose] is often managed poorly by transactional leaders who deliver speeches about lofty societal goals rather than helping put employees in direct contact with the people they serve."

The remedy? Help your team understand the story by getting closer to the results of their work. 

If you’re a coffee distributor, the complicated logistics of moving beans around the world is a far cry from the joy of the drink itself. Purpose comes from happy farmers and delighted drinkers of the final product. Encouraging the team to look away from the spreadsheets and take an interest in the human stories can put the spark back in their love for the job. 

If you’re a pharmaceutical multinational, you might exist in a world of data analytics and complex calculations. The remedy for a team slipping in motivation is a reminder of the end goal - healthier, happier customers. Can you tell those stories better? Can you get them out in the field somehow, or give them more direct contact with their customers?

The results of understanding purpose better - inspired employees who are engaged with what they do and strive to do it better. 

3 ) They work together and play together. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean after-work trips to the bowling alley. We all know mandated team-building exercises can be painful, and forced fun activities are rarely enjoyable. 

But there’s a significant advantage to teams that encourage a culture of playfulness - creativity. 

Play can be seen from a psychological perspective as an absence from fear. The fear that if we break certain rules, we’ll be outcast. But play allows us to relax as we shy away from that fear.

Play, as done by children, is about imaging alternative realities: what if I were a tiger? What if we were on the moon? What if I were 50 foot tall?

And it’s that sort of experimental, out-there thinking that’s most likely to lead to breakthroughs. 

An unwillingness to be playful shows a rigid work style and thought style. Sure, you might not want a pilot or surgeon to be playful, but anyone involved in solving problems and creating new things needs occasional playtime to let the subconscious do its best work. And being afraid of putting new ideas out there will reduce the likelihood of useful and profitable ideas coming up. 

“Almost everything that is interesting, worth doing, or important will meet with a degree of opposition. A brilliant idea will always disappoint certain people - and yet be worth holding on to.” - The Emotionally Intelligent Office

The idea that work is ’serious’ and play should be left for our weekend pursuits is one to leave in the past. Martin Reeves & Jack Fuller explain in Harvard Business Review that play is more useful than ever for teams navigating uncharted waters (as most of us are right now): 

"Sometimes nothing immediately useful will come of play, but playing at least allows us to practice imagining, improvising, and being open to inspiration — all important skills when navigating the unknown."

4 ) They’re cognitively diverse

Successful teams have a breadth of experience to utilize - and not just through their backgrounds.

Just how a sports team will have players occupying different positions possessing different attributes and skills, business teams have their own members suited to their ideal roles.

And we’re not just talking demographic diversity here. Generally, teams with a makeup of people of different ethnicities, genders and age groups gives a team a better pool of experience to draw from. There’s also the argument that it’s positive for societal harmony, of course. But it’s not always a guarantee of better performance, as some studies have found.

Cognitive diversity is a better indicator of high performance. Simply put, teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse. 

It’s diversity of perspective, or information processing styles; the way in which people tackle challenges. It’s less visible within organisations, as it’s not always correlated with the demographic differences mentioned above. 

For example, if you’ve got a group of demographically diverse folk who all achieved a PhD in economics from Ivy League or Oxbridge universities, they’re probably going to approach certain scenarios with a similar perspective. This means they’ll have unknown blind spots in their ability to reframe challenges in different ways.

Different methods for approaching problems were quantified into a framework by business consultant Peter Robertson. This system, called the AEM cube, measured whether people prefer to utilise existing knowledge or generate new knowledge when tackling a challenge. It also looked at perspective: "the extent to which individuals prefer to deploy their own expertise, or prefer to orchestrate the ideas and expertise of others, when facing new situations”.

This data was harvested alongside a strategic execution exercise to see how participants performed in solving complex tasks. The result: each team that completed the challenge in good time had diversity of both knowledge processes and perspective. The ones that failed did not.

So the next time you’re assembling a team, make sure you’ve got a breadth of problem-solving approaches if you want to maximise success.

5 ) They have a culture of honest communication. 

Teams don’t work unless they work together. And working together is based on the ability to communicate properly

Despite the arsenal of tools available to us in the workplace, many of us haven’t yet figured out how to say what we really think. As the School of Life puts it in their Emotionally Intelligent Office:

“Despite our extraordinary prowess at the technical side of communication, humans have made very little progress towards improving the quality of psychological communication between ourselves. We still too often fall into sulks and furies; we don’t say what is on our minds and fail to get our points across.”

The obvious remedy to this is to loosen up a little; don’t tiptoe around the truth when something needs to be said. Hours can be wasted avoiding a difficult conversation. If something needs to change - say it. Don’t wrap things up in flowery language when they can be kept straightforward. 

But these aren’t just day-to-day behavioural changes. They need to be embedded into the culture of a team. Honesty begets more honesty. So it’s going to take a combination of directives, infrastructure (like feedback mechanisms and open forums) and examples set from above. If a culture of secrecy surrounds management,  employees throughout the company will reflect that in their own communication. 

There’s a good example of this at Autodesk, where a more open communication style was encouraged through the use of Slack - managers found that employees organically started to talk more and teams would 'cross-pollinate’, helping each other ad-hoc which had a measurable impact on the workload of the support admin teams.

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