Today all businesses have embraced the concept of teamwork, based on the assumption that a team of people can be more productive than the sum of its parts. Yet few businesses have started to look at team effectiveness and even fewer at team efficiency. Putting a team of people together and giving the team a common task does not ensure effectiveness or efficiency. In this article, we are going to explore these concepts in more detail and look at what it takes to create a high performing team.
Team effectiveness relates to the team’s ability to achieve its task or purpose. To assess effectiveness, the team’s purpose needs to be clearly understood. For example, a project team will typically have a clear purpose to complete the project to specification, on time and on budget. Yet most operational teams we have encountered lack this clear sense of purpose. Whilst individuals know clearly what they are supposed to do, the team’s overall purpose is usually much less understood.
To ensure team effectiveness in your workplace, you will need to look closely at what the team’s purpose really is and how it is aligned with the wider purpose of the department/division/organisation. Then you will need to look at the ability of the team to execute their task(s) to achieve that purpose.
Team efficiency goes beyond the ability to execute and is concerned with optimum functioning – nothing more could be achieved without adding extra resources (time, people, money). Extensive research at Harvard Business School found that there are 5 enabling conditions for efficient teams. They need to:
- Form a real team and feel like a team
- Share a compelling purpose
- Be organised in a structure that supports the purpose
- Operate within a supportive context
- Have access to expert coaching
These are just the enabling conditions – they are necessary but not sufficient to achieve team efficiency. Nevertheless, in most businesses it wouldn’t be difficult to find plenty of teams where some or all of the enabling conditions are not met.
Let’s look at an example of a senior management team we came across not too long ago. This team is responsible for a capital works budget in excess of $200M per year, delivered by external contractors. The leader of the team had been fighting a losing battle to implement a culture of excellence in project management in his wider team. The 5 managers on the senior management team neither felt like a team, nor formed one. They shared a common purpose looking in from the outside, but their widely different interpretations of that purpose meant they often had competing priorities and were sometimes suspicious of each others’ motives.
The structure of the team was well-designed for delivering cap-ex projects, but the wider company culture did not provide a supportive context for the pursuit of excellence. The nature of the specific market the company operates in meant that excellence in execution and cost savings would not be rewarding to the wider business.
Whilst the team had access to coaching, the expert bit was missing when it came to leadership and acting strategically. So with 4 out of 5 enabling conditions for team efficiency unmet, it was no surprise to us that the managers were frustrated and unhappy in their job.
Through an intervention acting as expert coaches on team efficiency and leadership, we were able to address the shared purpose and got the managers to act and feel like a team. This resulted in a marked shift to efficiency and effectiveness within an 8-week time frame. Because the company culture remained unsupportive, the intervention failed in the longer run. Within just 6 months of us finishing the intervention, 3 of the 5 senior managers had decided to leave the organisation.
This example shows how difficult it is to form and maintain efficient teams if the company culture is unsupportive. Similar problems arise when the organisation is ever-changing. To achieve efficiency, purpose, culture, leadership and team, members need to remain stable for sufficiently long periods of time – measured in years, not months.
So how do you go about creating an efficient team if you have a supportive company culture and a sufficiently stable environment? Before you embark on a journey to higher team efficiency, you need to focus on team effectiveness. This means you need to have the right people and right mix of skills in place.
The second step is team building. Most organisations do this well already and there are plenty of tools and exercises available to form strong professional relationships between team members.
Team building will come to nothing in the long term if you fail to provide the team with a clear, common purpose and a way of measuring its performance against that purpose. This may sound easier than it is in practice. For example, the managers of a call centre we worked with recently were looking for business growth and continuing improvement in the performance of all operators, whereas the team leaders defined their purpose as achieving monthly call quality and revenue targets. Only when we brought the team leaders and managers together did they agree on a common purpose and a way of measuring it.
Once you have an agreed, compelling purpose you will need to look again at the team structure and if it is supportive of that purpose. A prime example of such efficiency we are all familiar with is the team structure and organisation in a fast-food outlet. It is very well suited to the purpose of providing fast and friendly service – front line staff deal with the customer and payments and kitchen staff deal with preparing the food quickly and efficiently.
Next you need to ask yourself in which direction you wish to drive efficiency:
- reduced resources,
- higher output, or
- higher productivity (less time).
Based on the direction you chose, your strategy for achieving efficiency will vary. But there will always be a number of elements that are common to all 3 scenarios. These include:
- Providing effective leadership in all situations (flexibility)
- Implementing efficient information flows (e.g. less email!)
- Effective means for dealing with conflict
- A clear and accepted decision making process
- Optimising the mix of skills and experience in the team
- Reducing waste caused by unclear or overlapping roles and responsibilities
- Increasing the clarity of individual and team purpose
- Matching individual tasks to individual productivity
- Tweaking the team structure and levels of autonomy
- Providing ongoing team learning and development
If you are now asking yourself how you could possibly find the time to do all of this and your job, then you should consider bringing in expert coaches to assist you. A transition to team efficiency has many rewards for the business and the individuals involved, so utilising external consultants to assist and accelerate the process may provide the best possible return on investment.