Creating Effective Teams – If you don’t negotiate the criteria for success, your team is in trouble.
This is the first of a series of short articles I am writing to assist leaders create and sustain high performing teams. Whether you are a CEO or a Project Team Leader, creating and maintaining a great team is a constant challenge. These blogs are designed to help.
The most important thing about any team is that it be successful. But what does success look like, and how can you measure it? And how can you create a high-performing team without the team members understanding what they need to do to achieve success for the team and themselves?
A starting point for thinking about teams and their success is the obvious, but crucial fact that a team exists to satisfy the needs and expectations of people outside the team. People outside the team created and resourced the team, and now sponsor it. As well, the team has “clients”, both inside and outside the sponsoring organisation, who are vitally interested in the team’s outputs. And it is all these people who observe and evaluate the team’s performance. But the things that the outside people see and judge are the direct result of the effectiveness of the team’s internal processes in directing the knowledge and commitment of team members towards the team’s task.
The late Richard Hackman in his influential book, Leading Teams – Setting the Stage for Great Performances, offered a framework for evaluating team success. He said an effective team results from success in managing three facets of a team’s activity.
- First, is the evaluation of the team’s outputs by the people who matter – the people outside the team.
- Second, is the quality of team interactions and processes, and how they improve over time.
- Third, is the individual learning and personal well-being of individual team members.
Ultimately, each of these three activities have the same standard of success: whether or not they meet the requirements of people evaluating each of the processes, and these requirements can only be determined by negotiation with the people involved. In other words, a team’s success relies heavily on the skills of its team leader in negotiating reasonable, and achievable, success criteria.
Ultimately, the most important measure of team effectiveness is what its clients think about the quality, quantity, and timeliness of the team’s output. “Clients” in this context are the people most affected by the team’s work. Most teams will have several client groups, some internal, some external to the home organisation. Internal clients include the senior management responsible for creating and sponsoring the team and organisational departments affected by the team’s work. External clients include customers and users of the team’s output, as well as intermediaries and regulating authorities influencing the output’s distribution.
All the team’s clients make different kinds of demand on the team. For example, the team sponsor may be expecting to get to market before competitors; the marketing department may be expecting novel product features; the customers may be mainly interested in lower cost; and external regulators may require standard tests to be met.
The team must identify the key people with whom to negotiate the success criteria of each demand. Influencing these people and negotiating their requirements becomes a crucial aspect of the team leader’s role. As well, clients, whether inside or outside, dislike unpleasant surprises. The team leader must ensure that surprises do not happen by interacting with clients on a regular basis, assessing their needs and advising them as the Team’s situation develops or changes.
For certain clients, the process of defining requirements may be quite complex, but the process itself has a simple objective. For both the client and the team to be successful, it must first address these questions:
- What does the client require from us?
- What do we require from the client to ensure we can meet expectations?
Secondly, these are the style of questions intended to draw out the client’s requirements:
- What does quality mean to you?
- What are the basic things we must do?
- Are there things we must not do?
- Is there anything else we haven’t asked about that we should know?
- Are there other people who have views about what is needed?
In practice, it is not an easy matter for one person to listen, interpret, record, make suggestions and negotiate, and then be expected to make a complete, accurate and objective report back to the team. So it is common for two or even more team members to be involved in specifying “client” requirements that are the team’s success criteria, and as such demand that all of a team’s specialist knowledge be applied to the task.
Quality of team dynamics and process
Hackman also suggested that effective teams:
“Operate in ways that build shared commitment, collective skills, and task appropriate co-ordination strategies…they become adept at detecting and correcting errors before damage is done and noticing and exploiting emerging opportunities.” (Leading Teams, page 28).
Effective teams collaborate in ways that see them get better over time. They demonstrate high-level communication and problem-solving skills that see the team improve the longer they work together. Effective teams regularly review their work and consciously seek to identify learning opportunities.
Another hallmark of an effective team is that it negotiates its success criteria within the team. Guided by its team leader, it sets its own expectations and objectives, determines what needs to be done to be successful, and how it will measure that success. It also collectively decides how the team will accomplish its task, who will do what and to what standard, and how the team will conduct itself with its clients.
When team leaders reflect on the effectiveness of their team, they will first review progress towards the team’s own internal objectives and ask questions such as:
- Are we improving over time? If not, what is holding us back?
- Are we learning from our mistakes?
- How effective are our team communications and meetings?
- Do we share information effectively?
- Do we manage disagreements and conflict appropriately?
A successful team leader will also ensure that their team satisfies the expectations of those people outside the team who are crucial to evaluating its success, and ask questions such as:
- Do we promote the team’s successes inside the organisation?
- Do we maintain constant personal contact with important outsiders?
- Do we arrange formal Q & A sessions with important outsiders?
- Do we ask important outsiders for their opinion on team progress?
- Do we invite important outsiders into our team meetings?
Team member satisfaction
Hackman also suggested that evaluating the effectiveness of a team requires consideration of whether or not the team contributes to the learning and personal well-being of its members. Effective teams allow members to feel safe and comfortable at work and provide support and opportunities for personal growth and development. Effective teams are also good to be a part of.
Achieving success in this regard means meeting the expectations of team members, which requires that team leader negotiates with each member about their personal success criteria. While each member will be looking to satisfy their own personal needs through their participation in the team, the successful team leader ensures that each member understands, accepts, and takes responsibility for their part in achieving the team’s task. So, for both team and the individual member to achieve what they want, questions to be answered include:
- What does the team member require from us (the team)?
- What does the team require from the team member?
Finally, there are two questions that a successful team leader needs to regularly review:
- Is the team contributing to the learning, development, and fulfilment of each member?
- What might we do differently to enhance the learning and development of the members?
Answers to these questions can only come from the team members themselves through a process of reviewing their personal success criteria with their team leader in regular, informal and formal mentoring sessions. These should focus on developing the new skills, attitudes and behaviours appropriate to better achieving the team’s task.
Bringing it all together
Hackman’s idea of assessing team effectiveness through “Client” assessment, the quality of team dynamics, and team member satisfaction resonates for me. However, as we all know, teams differ in their purpose and the nature of their clients. So, the detail of the analysis for the needs of a senior management team will differ from that of, say, a new product task team or a team negotiating a joint venture. In any event, every team’s success relies heavily on the skills of its team leader in negotiating reasonable, and achievable, success criteria with stakeholders and individual team members alike.
Enjoy your week.
For more information about building high-performing teams, please visit my blog at https://www.balancedcurve.com/blog/.