True teamwork promotes individual and collective performance. Powerful teams value listening and communicating, sharing work responsibilities, provide support and can even make work more social and enjoyable. Team members are supportive of one another and recognise the interests and achievements of each other. I would go one step further and say that powerful teams actively contribute to the success of each other. When they are working the way they should, they are incredibly effective in achieving high performance results.
From Individuals to Powerful Teams
The essence of a team is joint commitment to a shared vision with shared values. Without these elements, teams are just collections of individuals working together but separately. An average team’s performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. Such teams are prevalent in large organisations where individual accountability is most important. They may come together to share information, perspectives and to make decisions, but the focus is always on the individual’s performance.
Teams evolve over time and have a pattern of development. During the forming stage, teams attempt to define their tasks and decide how to accomplish them. They sort out how the members will relate to each other. During the storming stage, members establish a pecking order within the group. Then in the norming stage, members accept the ground rules and norms by which the members will cooperate. In the performing stage, the group has settled relationships and validated expectations and can turn to work for which they are mutually responsible. At this stage the team is capable of more work together that the sum of the individual efforts would have produced.
Powerful teams differ from average teams because they require both individual and mutual accountability. While they also rely on sharing information, perspectives, and joint decisions, teams produce results through the joint contributions of its members. They are committed to shared objectives, as well as individual objectives, and they share the same vision. Teams develop direction and momentum as they work together to achieve shared objectives. Thus they commit together to work together towards the same ends, even though each member may participate in different ways.
Working together towards shared objectives can create social ties and enjoyment. This is also an important factor that contributes to high achievement.
Management should not leave teams alone. Teams left on their own can be confused. Most successful teams shape their purpose in response to a demand or opportunity put in their path by senior management. This helps teams get started by broadly framing the organisation’s performance expectations in alignment with the organization’s mission and vision. Management is responsible for clarifying the team’s challenges. It should let the team develop a shared commitment to vision, set specific objectives, and determine its timing and work approach.
Principles of Powerful Teams
1. A meaningful shared vision that the team has shaped themselves
The best teams spend a significant amount of time and effort exploring, shaping and agreeing on a mutually defined and shared vision. This activity continues throughout the life of the team. Research on failed teams shows that they rarely develop a common purpose.
2. Performance objectives and measurements that flow from the vision
The best teams also take their shared vision and translate it into specific performance objectives and measurements for the full team. These objectives relate to the vision and build on each another, moving the team forward towards achievement and creating powerfully motivating steps to success. The achievement of objectives along the way builds momentum, fosters trust among members and helps build continued commitment.
Specific Key Performance Indicators may be such things as bringing a product to market in record time, a 50% decrease in customer complaints, or achieving a zero-defect rate while cutting costs by 40%. Transforming broad directives into specific objectives provide first steps for forming the identity and purpose of the team. As the team progresses with small wins, they reaffirm their shared commitment.
The combination of vision and specific objectives is essential to increased performance. Each depends on the other. Clarity of objectives helps keep a team on track, focused and accountable. The broader, overlying aspirations of a team’s purpose can provide meaning and emotional energy.
When people are working together towards shared objectives, trust and commitment follow. Members hold themselves responsible both as individuals and as a team for the team’s performance. This sense of mutual accountability produces alignment towards achieving a common objective. All members share in the rewards. People who participate in high performing teams find the experience energising and motivating in ways that their usual jobs could never match.
On the other hand, groups that are established as a “team” but that do not have a clear common vision rarely become effective teams. Only when appropriate performance objectives are set does the process of discussing the objectives and the approaches to them give team members a clear choice: they can disagree with a goal and opt out, or they can pitch in and become accountable with and to their teammates.
3. A blend of complementary abilities
All members of your team should have the skills necessary to perform their jobs. When there are skills gaps, the whole team suffers. When people have the right mix of skills, the team thrives.
In addition to finding the right size, teams must develop the right mix of skills, that is, each of the complementary skills necessary to do the team’s job. As obvious as it sounds, it is a common falling in potential teams. Skill requirements fall into three fairly self-evident categories:
Technical or functional expertise – Product-development teams that include only marketing people or engineers are less likely to succeed than those with the complementary skills of both. Similarly, medical practices are seldom run by clinicians alone. A mix of technical skills is often desirable if not essential.
Problem-solving and decision-making skills – Teams must be able to identify the problems and opportunities they face, evaluate the options they have for moving forward, and then make necessary trade-offs and decisions about how to proceed. Most teams need some members with these skills to begin with, although many will develop them best on the job.
Interpersonal skills – Shared vision and objectives cannot arise without effective communication and constructive conflict, which in turn depend on interpersonal skills. These include risk taking, helpful criticism, objectivity, active listening, giving the benefit of the doubt, and recognizing the interests and achievements of others.
Obviously, a team cannot get started without some minimum complement of skills, especially technical and functional ones. Still, think about how often you’ve been part of a team whose members were chosen primarily on the basis of personal compatibility or formal position in the organization, and in which the skill mix of its members wasn’t given much thought.
4. A strong commitment to how the work is done
Studies have shown that commitment to a team may translate into a willingness to help team members and improved team performance. Low levels of commitment to both the organisation and the team have been linked to absenteeism, turnover and intention to quit.
Every member of every team has a certain degree of commitment to the team effort. Whether you work in government, health care, or in another business, you have probably seen wide variations in the level of commitment that people show at work. Some people come to work every day and put forth a very conscientious effort. They are enthusiastic. They have a positive attitude about what they are doing. They constantly try to improve what they are doing. They help others. They do not wait to be told to do something that needs to be done.
Committed teammates can be relied upon to do what they say they will do. You can count on them. If you tell a teammate that you will finish something by a certain date, you have made a commitment.
Commitment might manifest itself as team members’ willingness to do whatever needs to be done to ensure that the team succeeds in its work. Contributing to the larger team’s accomplishments becomes every person’s primary focus; as a result, team members often stop saying “it’s not my job,” or “it was my turn last week,” when difficult work must be done.
Commitment can also be characterised by a belief among team members that they are a part of something special and that they are sharing something that is very important with other people. As such, commitment can evoke strong emotions among those involved, as well as an unusual sense of connectedness among individuals from different agencies and disciplines.
5. Mutual accountability
Though it may not seem like anything special, mutual accountability can lead to dramatic results. It enables a team to achieve performance levels that are far greater than the individual bests of the team’s members. To achieve these benefits, team members must do more than just listen, respond constructively, and provide support to one another. In addition to sharing these team-building values, they must share an essential discipline.
The challenge for senior management is how to build high performing teams without falling into the trap of appearing to promote teams for their own sake. There should be relentless focus on performance and results. Paying constant attention to specific teams and their progress on specific performance objectives is the key.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Andrew Carnegie:
“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on creating powerful teams. Please leave a comment below.