Building effective teams is critical if we are going to solve the complex problems facing our world.
When teams run into problems, we inevitably find ourselves using phrases like “team dynamics,” “trust-building” or “communication styles.” It should tell us something that we rarely use these phrases when we talk about high-performing teams.
It’s time we get better at understanding and talking about what makes teams work.
Defining Team Success
Harvard Professor and Researcher J. Richard Hackman provides three standards for defining effective teams in his book, Leading Teams; Setting the Stage for Great Performances.
An effective team:
- Meets or exceeds the needs of its clients.
- Does so in ways that build the team’s capability to produce future results.
- Contributes to the growth and learning of its members.
Hackman and his research partner Ruth Wageman demonstrate that teams can be intentionally structured to improve the odds of achieving these outcomes. In fact, they argue that one of the most important roles of leadership is to create an environment that clears the way for teams to achieve these measures of success.
Structure Impacts Behavior
Contrast this structured approach with the way we generally default to establishing teams. Too often, we create teams of people who report to the same superior, do the same job, have the same title or sit at the same level in the org chart. This is a recipe for poor team dynamics, conflicts and turf battles.
Formed this way, teams inevitably include individuals who are professional rivals, compete for organizational resources or lead interdependent programs with their own collaborative challenges. Is it any wonder our leadership teams struggle with team dynamics and trust?
Begin With the Task in Mind
This is why leaders should look beyond their direct reports when forming teams to implement strategic initiatives or priority projects. Teams comprised of a leader’s direct reports are great when you need status and project updates. But if you want the team to actually do something, like lead a change initiative, you will want to think more deeply about the design of the team.
- Clear Purpose: A well-structured team begins with a clearly defined purpose. What do you need this team to achieve? What task or initiative do you want this group to accomplish? Defining the purpose or task of a team, distinct from the overall mission of the organization, is the first step.
- The Right People: Generally, we need teams to work across organizations or projects. If that’s the case, then you’ll want to be sure your team represents the key parts of the organization the initiative touches. You should also consider external stakeholders as you build the team. Who will speak for the customer or client? Finally, be sure you have the right skillsets and talent on board. A well-defined purpose will help you identify the skills the team will need for success.
- Stable and Interdependent: In a well-structured team, members are fairly consistent over time and need each other in order to be successful. This interdependence lays the foundation for mutual accountability and task accomplishment.
Trust and Strong Dynamics
One of the many outcomes of a well-structured, high-performing team is trust. Trust on a team is the outcome of individuals working well together, delivering on their commitments to support the larger goal. When team members know they can count on one another to keep their word and do their work, trust and healthy team dynamics are the natural outcome. We don’t have to build trust; it grows in the process of working effectively together.
If you want to learn more about the essential conditions of building great teams, you’ll want to explore the work of Ruth Wageman (Wageman et al, 2008) and Richard Hackman.
Loretta Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Wheelhouse Group. She is an ICF Certified Executive and Team Coach (PCC) and an accomplished consulting professional with more than 12 years of private and public sector experience. Loretta comes to consulting after nearly two decades in network broadcasting. As an award-winning, Washington-based, National Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, Loretta (aka Lauren Rogers) had the opportunity to observe leaders in every sphere of influence – political, government, corporate, activist – and learn from their strategy successes and failures. She is married, the mother to two fabulous young men (just ask!), and enjoys long walks, jet skis, good books, and knitting.