It’s no secret that teams are absolutely critical to the success of every organisational endeavour. After all, an organisation is obviously, in every sense, a team.
There is no “Perfect” Team.
“One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist”. Stephen Hawking
Making a “perfect” team your only acceptable outcome will lead to eternal disappointment. Just as pursuing a perfect solution, process or product will too.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from managing teams, in multiple environments, is that sometimes it’s the very imperfections themselves that make them stronger and more effective.
We have to be particularly careful with “perfection” as it is highly subjective when we’re talking about “people”. Very often I see the word “perfect” confused with “exactly like me”. This couldn’t be further from the truth in this case. 20 identical people would fail a group task. You might very well have 20 individuals, but you’d still only get one perspective, one idea and one set of experiences, regardless how able this one “perfect” person was.
I’d go so far as to say you need to specifically avoid a “perfect” team. People often don’t agree with me on this, which is healthy and to be encouraged!
Even if we can’t actually achieve “perfect”, what can I confidently say are some of the key attributes which typify successful teams? Well, in my view anyway, they are;
Safe, Fair, Purposeful, Valuable, Flexible, Diverse, Creative, Realistic, Effective and Connected
A Safe Team
“I’m not frightened to make a suggestion or constructively challenge others”
Members need to feel able to make contributions without fear of being ridiculed, ignored or bullied. This is an area in which both a positive organisational culture and strong group leadership play key roles.
When I’m leading a team I try hard to ensure that any member who wants to contribute is able to do so without being interrupted or “shut down” by others. Additionally, that when they do so, their contribution is visibly captured and considered / discussed alongside all others.
When I’m a team member I make efforts to respect the conversational time and space others need, particularly those less confident than myself. Even when this means I have to listen to an idea I believe is flawed or unlikely to succeed. (I will, however, politely provide my constructive criticism of the idea once discussion of it is opened to “the floor”!).
A Fair Team
“I know I will get my opportunity to contribute”
This does not mean that every member must be equal in terms of the quality or quantity of their contributions. Rather it is about ensuring each member will always have an opportunity to contribute to any particular topic should they want to do so.
When I’m leading a team I find “going round the room” regularly (within a meeting, or otherwise) and specifically asking each member if they have anything they would like to add to be a very effective process for both myself, and the team as a whole. This approach ensures everyone is actively involved and engaged.
When I’m a team member I make sure I support the leader in “defending” the rights of all members to contribute. I also make sure I consider all ideas on merit, not based on any political or other agendas / relationships. The best outcome must be that which works best for the organisation, which isn’t always what works best for me.
A Purposeful Team
“I understand exactly what we need to do and why we need to do it”
Both the team as a whole, and each team member within it, need to fully and confidently know why they have been brought together and what they are expected to achieve (including all financial and temporal constraints on this / these goals). It is particularly important that when membership changes this purpose is re-stated and clarified to any new members.
When I’m leading a team I make an effort to both ensure that all members start the process with a clear understanding of goals. This usually takes the form of a written (or unwritten) summarised “terms of reference”. I also ensure we come back to check our progress against this regularly.
When I’m a team member I try and continually focus my contributions towards the team’s goal. I do this by explaining the precise way my idea(s) support delivery of these goals.I also try and include reference to overall goals within any discussions I am party to with others.
A Valuable Team
“I see why this is worth doing and how I can contribute to achieving this.”
Teams need to believe that what they are tasked to do has value to the organisation. This is a very important factor in ensuring members engage with, and commit to, the goals of the team. Members also need then to understand how they, specifically, can contribute to generating this value.
When I’m leading a team I endeavor to set out the “return” the team’s efforts are expected to deliver clearly and ensure I pull focus back to this value if direction appears to start to drift from the path required to achieve this result.
When I’m a team member I concentrate on where my experience / expertise can add value to a topic / theme. Then I focus on where others are likely able to deliver better value based on theirs, and actively defer to them in these areas.
A Flexible Team
“The team respects my needs and I want to contribute more than the minimum because of this.”
There are few facets of life that work well without flexibility. The needs, aspirations and status of organisations, teams and individuals can change dramatically in short spaces of time. One of the reasons why “Agile” is such a valued term in so many business settings is that just as the outside world is constantly changing so must organisations. Teams must be flexible in all regards, not just goals but also; constituents, processes / methodologies, approaches, values, resourcing, leadership, collaboration, deadlines etc.
When I’m leading a team I take time to ensure all members understand that flexibility is both offered and expected. That missing a meeting or two is fine, but also that any extra efforts expended will be noted and rewarded.
When I’m a team member I am conscious that flexibility is a very desirable two-way street. I can’t just demand it without first demonstrating I can provide it. I also try not to judge others when they need flexibility, who knows when I may need some next myself!
A Diverse Team
“It’s great that we have so many perspectives and backgrounds involved.”
Diversity often feels like something we need to worry about not achieving rather than be excited by the prospect of pursuing. This must not become an exercise in colours, shapes, sizes, faiths, ages, preferences or genders. Diversity, in a team context, is about packing as much variety of experience and perspective as possible into the team. By having a great mix of ideas and backgrounds you can safeguard against assumptions, preconceptions, bias and prejudice. No one person can know everything, understand all stakeholders, have used every methodology, worked in every industry or be expert in every technology.
When I’m leading a team I make a conscious effort to involve people from as many backgrounds as possible, but not at the expense of expertise or experience.
When I’m a team member I try and remember that I don’t know everything! Others will have greater experience and deeper insight into certain areas / disciplines than I do!
A Creative Team
“I was surprised at how we reached the solution, I’d never thought of it like that before!”
Regardless of how experienced or expert members are there is always a situation, challenge or hurdle which is going to require someone to make a leap of intuition. If everyone is only following structured methodologies then the team runs the very real risk of missing significant opportunities to “Innovate”. Innovation is so important because, as the name implies, it’s “new”. New, is in turn, important because you will not advance your cause significantly without the courage to try something radical on occasion. I am constantly surprised by how often solutions from a completely different arena, which seem irrelevant when first raised, end up delivering huge improvements to situations in another. Once they have been intelligently tailored and applied of course.
When I’m leading a team I pay special attention to strange sounding ideas that come from sharp, practical people working in other spaces. Methodology, in of itself, should never be king. The expert must always be looking to tailor, adapt and transform approaches to deliver even greater value, often in completely different areas.
When I’m a team member I try and apply successful solutions from other projects / services to the current challenge. I know not to exclusively operate “by the book”, as this can lead down dead ends if not challenged / scrutinised.
A Realistic / Pragmatic Team
“Our solution may not be perfect, but it definitely works”
One of the hardest things to do professionally is to compromise. Often, high functioning individuals, from all levels within an organisation, find it very difficult to “let go” of perfection. Even when faced with a need to marry a solution against a budget, timescale or resourcing level. This is a discipline every member needs to be mindful to maintain at all times. No solution is going to deliver any value if it it can’t be afforded in the first place.
When I’m leading a team I try and manage the expectations of all stakeholders involved. Once the limitations are clearly understood by all, then a compromise between “the vision” and “the reality” can often be achieved fairly swiftly and amicably.
When I’m a team member I make sure I don’t get too precious about the way that things are done, but instead concentrate on supporting a valuable solution / result.
An Effective Team
“People trust us because we deliver and we deliver because they trust us”
Perhaps the ultimate measure of the success of any team is its / their effectiveness. This can manifest in various forms, but most often it comes down simply to how much value they managed to generate from the solution they designed and implemented. Delivering a small scale result, to time and within budget, is always more valuable than the “big dream” that ends up delivering nothing. Effectiveness should not just be a measure applied externally, in retrospect, it needs to be absolutely fundamental to the way a team thinks about itself moment to moment.
When I’m leading a team I aim to deliver results as quickly as possible, even if these are relatively simple / humble. I then build these up, bit by bit, to achieve the overall end goal. There is simply no greater way to build trust, confidence and support for a team than to demonstrate actual, real-world, changes along the way.
When I’m a team member I focus on channeling my efforts into a tangible end product, even if this feels trivial. Even a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step!
A Connected Team
“People know what we are doing and tell us what they think about it”
A team can excel in all the above areas but still be poorly regarded. Why is this? Well, in my experience, it’s because they have failed to manage one of the three pillars of “Connectivity”. Teams need to be connected in three primary ways; Firstly the team itself needs to understand what impact they are having / will have on the rest of the organisation. Secondly they need to keep everyone inside the team up to speed with the latest developments across the whole team. Last, but by no means least, everyone else in the organisation needs to understand what the team is doing and how this may impact them. As I noted at the start of this post, in my view an organisation is simply a “team of teams”, so when these are not properly connected discord grows and opportunities for valuable synergies are missed.
When I’m leading a team I endeavour to create networks and fora within the organisation that promote connectivity and try to keep the rest of the organisation informed on the progress, challenges and achievements of our team(s).
When I’m a team member I pursue dialog with members of other teams, often informally, to try and make sure others know what we are doing and we know what they are doing.
So there we go. Just my personal opinions of course!
I hope this has at least provided you with food for thought. I’m passionate about the importance of effective teams, so feel free to drop me a comment or email if you want to discuss this in more detail…
If you want to dive deeper into teamwork as a topic topic why not catch Tom Wujec’s excellent talk for TED or read about what Google learnt from it’s experiences in this area.