Team success can’t be forged
Teams can be amazing platforms for innovation, they solve complex problems and for many they provide a sense of belonging and inspiration. There may be no recipe for team success, but that’s no reason for not trying! How should we approach team development? Certainly not by just labeling any group of co-workers ‘team’. A bit more effort is needed to make it work. Even with the right circumstances, such as size (teams are small groups), motivation, a clear goal and well defined roles, teams require constant care and ‘maintenance’. The following model of six success factors can be useful, both as a checklist of topics for the team development agenda (diagnostic) and as a way to legitimize talking points for the team.
How to use the Team Wheel?
- Each factor contributes to the development of an effective team. The results of each factor is located on the spokes of the wheel. So an ‘inspiring goal’ leads to a ‘challenge’, which is crucial for good teamwork.
- The wheel is round and the six factors are of equal importance. For example, you can’t work on ‘open communication’ if you neglect ‘mutual respect’.
- The factors should be balanced. If one of them is under- or over-represented there will be a bump in the wheel.
- A big wheel runs smoother than a small wheel. Each team can grow.
- A wheel with more spokes is firmer. Each team can invent their own factors, the model can be expanded.
- Try to translate each of the success factors into examples of concrete behavior.
Application of the model
Team leaders and team coaches may find it tempting or even there task to ‘apply’ the Team Wheel in an expert role. But most teams are perfectly capable of diagnosing themselves. You can present the model and then ask team members to assess which factors are the team’s strengths and which need improvement. Even without the wheel they can, but the model provides language that makes talking about the team’s state of affairs easier. Especially – but not exclusively – when sensitive issues, conflict, misunderstanding and disappointment have sunken into the ‘interpersonal underworld’ of the team.
The model is deceivingly simple, so be cautious not to use it in a quick-and-dirty style. It will not help the team and could even make important subjects disappear forever: ticked off, but not solved.
This success factor is both obvious and insufficient. A well-defined objective result is what gives the team purpose and identity. Many teams assume that they work towards the same goal, but upon closer inspection they are not. Some members put emphasis on the higher mission of the team, while others are focused on ‘smart’ results. Both are goal oriented but with completely different mindsets. At best this leads to confusions that can by solved when made explicit. But unaddressed they may also create unfulfilled expectations, disappointment and eventually mistrust.
Other teams make the mistake of taking their assignment for the team goal. What lacks is the translation of these assignments into the team goals. Even when the formal assignment seems too large, which is of course a huge demotivator, then still the team can choose to set their goals to a portion of it that they feel is realistic. It is better to finish a job that you agreed on yourself then to keep trying to fulfill a duty that no-one believes in.
One of the most vital characteristics of a team is that responsibility is shared by all of its members. Everyone feels ownership for the promises the team has made to its clients. It is crucial that all members have had a certain degree of influence on the definition of goals, tasks, time frames et cetera. People generally don’t feel very responsible for tasks that have just been imposed onto them. This sense of control is crucial to feeling ownership. In teams that are not doing so well there is often poor decision making. Consensus is not genuine or people are saying ‘yes’, and acting ‘no’.
Shared responsibility does not necessarily mean that everyone does the same amount work, as long as everyone is doing their fair share. Fairness is typically an emotional concept, but also an issue that is very difficult to discuss. In less mature teams the leader plays an important role in creating a safe space for people to engage en speak up. The team leader is a role, not just a function. In self-directed teams you will probably not find a leader, but there is leadership.
Communication is what makes the team flow. Without exchange between team members it is impossible to co-operate. Communication is about much more than the sharing of information, it is also key to building relationships. Teams whose members are geographically dislocated are additionally challenged and need to take extra measures to have effective communication. On the other hand, working on the same office floor is by no means a guarantee for effective communication. We all heard people complain about colleagues who literally work one desk away.
Communication is one, open communication is another. Since work in teams is naturally not very standardized there is lots of room for misunderstanding. The good news is that good communication involves skills that can be learned. Think of good meeting skills, the skill of giving and receiving feedback and dealing with confrontation and conflict. Also, teams should take sufficient time to reflect on their behavior and not shy away from bringing up painful topics.
Respect for differences
If anything has been proven about successful teams, it’s that diversity makes them stronger. Not only because in diverse teams chances are much higher to find unusual solutions to problems, but also because people are challenged to overcome their differences and thus become less judgmental and more innovative. Everybody agrees that trust is one of the most important characteristics of successful teams. Trust will only build when people feel accepted for who they are. The paradox is of course that all this diversity is a natural source of conflict. In good teams people take lots of time to get to know each other and show a willingness to understand and respect one another. That’s why facing and resolving conflict is so important for any team with high ambitions.
Speaking of paradox; teams are paradoxical in many ways. Dealing with diversity often requires the art of bridging seemingly irreconcilable differences. Think of the dilemma between guidelines and flexibility, between collective goals versus personal interests, between planning and improvising and between pushing for results and holding back to reflect.
In organizations with a seemingly never-ending change agenda, employees are more than once craving for stability and peace. But times of stability are far behind us. Successful teams must be constantly adapting to varying circumstances and need to maximize their awareness of what’s going on around, and within them. Changes come from the surroundings, such as changing customer demands, budget cuts, technological developments or project specifications being adjusted, and from within the team, such as people leaving or joining, team learning and shifting mindsets.
Successful teams know how to focus on their targets, they can set their priorities straight and follow a plan. But they must be capable of adjusting to changing circumstances when needed, and they must be swift at it. Agility is the buzz word, and it is important, as long as the team knows what it needs to preserve to stay firm and solid. Think of key values, of safety and of vital deliverables. The team is always making judgements about what to change and what to keep. Flexibility does not mean that the team bends with every whim.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this is what a successful team shows when taking sufficient initiative. It’s what gives energy to the team. Team members are pro-active rather than passive. They feel engaged and inspired to act when problems arise, they offer a helping hand whenever they see a colleague in need, and they step forward when they see an opportunity.
Successful teams experience flow; a feeling of efforts combining without hesitation and people taking risks on behalf of the team but always being fully and personally accountable. They will tell you that communication seems totally ‘natural’, conflict is normal and helping each other happens automatically, with little need for discussion. People just do what has to be done and this gives a huge personal satisfaction. The feeling of success is always collective, but individual merits are not overlooked.
For team leaders this last success factor is often a personal challenge. Not only because they feel responsible and find it hard to give space to team members. Also, and this is even harder, because they will undoubtedly face the biggest paradox of working in teams: the more you advice others to take initiative, the harder it is for them to do it… by themselves.