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Teams that work [Blog]

Many of us have spent considerable time working in teams. When we reflect, most can recall at least one team experience that sparkled more than others – a team that felt great to be part of, and seemed to achieve their goals almost effortlessly while having fun along the way. There is a palatable vibe in these teams that made them work and work well.

Conversely, most of us can recall at least one team that we were part of that seemed to struggle. A team that couldn’t makes things work, struggled to set clear goals, or failed to overcome the obstacles that were in their way.

So what makes a team successful, and how, as leaders and managers, do we make ensure that they work effectively?

First, it’s important to understand that a team is a special type of group. It’s not just any group. Groups can define themselves simply through having a common characteristic (a group of people with blue eyes for example) … but a team has 3 very important characteristics which, by definition, make the group a team:

  • A reason for being – Teams have a clear and shared purpose, which all members know about and can action to achieve
  • The team’s purpose cannot be achieved by individuals – Teams are a group of people who need assistance from one another to achieve their collective purpose. They are aware of this, and actively work together to achieve their shared goals.
  • Achieving the goal benefits all members – Teams exist where the collective effort of all the members results in them each being individually rewarded in some way when the shared goal is achieved

With these things in mind, it’s not hard to see that when we draw people together into groups in the workplace, considerable effort is sometimes required to ensure that the group can successfully apply themselves to achieve the business goals the organization requires of them.

So what makes a Team Work?

The following points are reflections from people who participated in teams that “didn’t work so well”. They are things that most of us can relate to or have heard about through our own experience of teams.

Each point is followed with a short statement about the things that create “Teams that Work”. These short summaries provide a list of areas to focus on when you are aiming to build a high performance team.

1. “The goal wasn’t clear, people saw it differently, it changed over time, or was never really achievable in the first place…some of us actually thought it was the wrong goal!”

Teams that work create a clear and common goal that all members can support. They keep members involved in directional changes and their goals are things that can feasibly be achieved if the team works together and to their potential.

2. “Everyone thought that someone else knew what to do … or that someone else would get around to doing things …”

Teams that work clarify members roles, responsibilities, and their ability to get the job done (right knowledge, skills and attitudes). Members provide one another with feedback and the group continues to evolve with experience.

3. “Everyone was so keen to achieve our goals that we just jumped right in … and everyone headed off in different directions …”

Teams that work have agreed ways of doing things. They agree these processes at the outset, base them on the contributions of members and document them, so that everyone understands the rules. They ensure that new people understand the rules when they arrive.

4. “We started a new team but we had “the same old problems” …and no one did anything about it …”

Teams that work make time to talk about past and current challenges and learnings, and plan to do things differently going forward. Members take action when things aren’t working and document their solutions so they can be shared.

5. “We had a lot of smart people in the team … but they all thought they had the answer … and all the answers were different … in the end we all expected to never really agree …”

Teams that work take time to understand differences in backgrounds and approaches. They develop their skills by harnessing their differences, through group problem solving and by having fun as they develop collectively owned solutions without fear of embarrassment or disapproval.

6. “We had lots of good ideas … but we usually didn’t have the data to help us decide … so we just couldn’t make a decision … and if we made one we usually changed our minds …!”

Teams that work use whatever data is available to them at the time, invite the wisdom of the team’s experience and intuition into discussion, and make decisions about a range of scenarios to minimise risk while continuing on a solid path forward.

7. “When we finally made decisions, we came to expect that there were always people who would disagree. In the end, they were usually the ones who struggled to implement at best, or sabotaged the teams success at worst…”

Teams that work patiently come up with unique & creative approaches which all members support. They expect to succeed together and they work on developing consensus and rewarding themselves as a team. If a compromise must be reached, it is openly acknowledged as a compromise and never made the habitual decision making pattern of the group.

8. “People were so fired up about the points they’d disagreed on in the past that we got stuck making decisions about the path forward …”

Teams that work expect disagreement to arise from time to time. They learn to manage emotions, listen carefully to alternate views and openly deal with conflict if it arises. Teams that work actively manage conflict and learn to put past grievances behind them as a consequence of their honest communication and their trust in one another.

9. “Our team meetings were painful! …no-one ever said anything much, people often didn’t turn up and they usually felt like a waste of time…”

Teams that work plan their meetings and hold them regularly. ALL participants are encouraged to express their views, and members meeting skills are developed so that this occurs comfortably. If members aren’t getting what they need from meetings, they speak up and responsibly influence improvement of the meeting process.

10. “We used to squirm when, from time to time, management would decide to “reward” us … usually a morning tea or the like … it just felt so disconnected to our day to day work …”

Teams that work reward each other through the achievement of their shared goals first and foremost. Beyond that, they work hard to maintain their self-esteem and enthusiasm through day to day celebrations. Teams that work thank one another for work done at the time of doing, they regularly and publicly acknowledge key milestones, and recognition activities are chosen because they’re genuinely pleasurable for the person/people being rewarded.

11. “As things got tricky, more and more rules and regulations started to be developed … in the end, a big chunk of our resourcing was tied up in maintaining the regulations and no-one could keep track of how to apply them in daily life …it seemed like the more we tried to control things, the more out of control they became …” Teams that work focus on leadership which emphasises relationships, not control. By influencing, sharing power and developing talented individuals who know how to be team players, this leadership approach creates teams that work. It is founded in teams where people respect one another’s capacity to contribute and leverage this to perform. In this setting, it is OK to not know all the answers, OK to give new things a go, and OK to make mistakes which should always be viewed as learning opportunities…these are the things that drive innovation, the resolution of problems and ultimately, the achievement of goals.

Many things make teams work or not work effectively. As leaders and managers we must be vigilant in our attention to what is working, open to feedback and most importantly be constantly learning better ways to work with, in and for teams that work.

About the author

TMS Consulting