In the last series, we spoke of what makes a team effective and we touched upon three key aspects viz. exceeding customer expectations consistently, improving group processes of the team and individuals experiencing growth as a part of the team.
In this series, we will focus on some of the key ingredients that lead to team effectiveness.
There are a few conditions that are critical for team success and these lay the foundation of what happens in teams over extended periods.
Surprisingly the first on the list is the big question which usually has a default answer in many situations- Do we really need a team for this work? This question needs to be asked somewhere right at the start. In some instances, working groups do just fine. There is little interdependence or handoffs, membership is fluid and there is an integrating mechanism that works to bring the moving parts together.
Once this question is answered, the next big one is ‘What purpose will this team serve?” I recall working with a senior manager who was frustrated with the lack of innovative ideas coming from his team. I decided to sit through one of his team meetings and observed with much astonishment as he shot down one idea after the other to his poorly explained problem. This was until he came up with his bright idea to which the team readily agreed. Alas! A certain recipe to make good order takers is lack of clarity on purpose and maniacal micro- management. This clearly stymies the last ounce of creativity that employees bring to work and underutilized their potential.
Another important ingredient is rewarding collective effort. An irony in a large number of organizations is that while a wide section exhorts the cause of teamwork, most reward systems are geared towards individual efforts. This brings to mind the ancient Spartan infantry formation of the Phalanx, where each soldier carried the shield in his left hand to cover the blind spot of the next soldier in line. The reward for this collective effort and unwavering trust on their colleague was victory for the whole army and more importantly, survival. Now imagine, if each soldier was paid for the number of enemy soldiers he individually got!
Moving on, much has been written and done around Organization design and structure. Organizations are designed around major activity groups viz. Functions in the system say Human Resources, Finance, Marketing etc. Then there are Product based structures for organizations with multiple product lines that diverge in their underlying business models, there are geographical structures and so forth. However, relatively little has come about on micro-team structures within the larger organization design. One fascinating aspect highlighted by the research done by Dr. Hackman & Dr. Wageman is around the team size. It is interesting to note how the number of links between members of a team grow exponentially as the size of the team grows. A team of six members must manage fifteen links, a team of eight must manage twenty-eight and a team of a dozen members must manage sixty-six links.
As per anthropologist Robin Dunbar, we can have a limited number of people with whom we can manage mutual relationships. He pegged the number around one hundred and fifty. Now, juxtapose this with the research on exponential increase in linkages. No wonder a lot of large teams spend as much time managing the coordination between themselves as they do on their work.
So, team size becomes a critical input to the team’s success. There is a balance needed there between the need for inclusion and the effectiveness of the team structure.
Another ingredient that impacts the effectiveness of the team and is usually left for the leader to decide is the team strategy. A team's strategy is the set of choices members make about how they would do their work. It’s like a soccer team deciding what formation it is going to play and what the attack moves will look like, who will be replaced at what time or a business team in a production unit makes to reduce the re-work. These relate to the task processes that a team does and influences.
Leaders often assume that if one can work on individual members, good team dynamics surely will follow. What is missing here, is that teams are more than sum of the parts and in fact some parts may just work sub-optimally in teams. This is where team coaching comes in. In a world where higher self- management, direction setting, cooperation is expected among teams, it becomes important for teams to lead themselves.
Team coaching is fundamentally and empirically distinct from other ways of helping teams. It is an intervention with the team as a whole and works with the team processes of how teams work, whether they have the right people, the right structure, supporting context, strategy, appropriate skill and knowledge etc. to accomplish their goals and become increasingly effective over time. This calls for a team to be nurtured and coached on the path to success.
We believe that the success of a team rests on a lot more than just a dynamic leader’s capability. It is time we start seeing teams as a unit, who through nurturing, guidance and coaching of the team processes can create magic. The future of organizations rests in the ability of teams to come together and perform and that makes teams a good place to start.