What does it take to make a team work effectively, to get it to operate as more than the sum of its parts? To answer this question, we need to admit first that without the right conditions a team will operate as less than the sum of its parts – there will be competition, mistrust, lack of commitment, different agendas, freeloading, working at cross-purpose etc. In fact, getting a team to function effectively is probably one of the most difficult challenges for any manager. Why? Because the pre-conditions for effective teamwork are hard to put in place and even harder to sustain in your average corporate bureaucracy.
So what are these pre-conditions for effective team work and what do you need to do to put them in place? First and foremost, your team needs to have a common purpose. Which every team member is able to articulate in substantially the same way. Think about how difficult that is. Here is an example – what is the purpose of a surgery team in the emergency department of a hospital? To save every patient’s life? To do their best to save patients whilst adhering to all rules, regulations and guidelines? To provide the best possible care whilst hitting government targets for expenditure and waiting times? To do their best without risking litigation by patients or their families?
Chances are, the contradicting directives in these possible statements have never been settled and the assumption will be that the team does all of them. This lack of clarity inevitably leads to team members picking and choosing and making their own assumptions on how to settle clashes in priorities. Which is a really poor basis for collaboration and accountability. From what we have seen, most teams never had the ‘common purpose and how to deal with conflicting demands’ conversation, which usually takes between half a day and a full day of facilitated discussion. The result is that effective collaboration is precluded right from the start.
But is doesn’t end there. To be successful, teams need to have stable membership. The idea that you need ‘new blood’ often to reinvigorate a team is not supported by research findings. Teams with clarity of purpose get better over time, as individuals get to know each other, trust is built and difficult conversations are taking place. If you know that you are going to stick with a group of people for a long time, you are more likely to invest in the relationships. Stable membership is not just about what’s on the org chart. It is also about having all the people who work on the same project or task as part of the team. And it is about having the right people in the team, with the right skills to do the job. This is another area where we often find that teams are not set up correctly, usually as a result of silos, turf wars or similar power plays.
The third precondition is adequate resources to do the work, whatever that might mean in your particular case. It usually involves funding, tools required to do the work, access to information, IT resources etc. This tends to be well covered in most organisations. Similarly, access to training and expert advice is usually available and forms the forth precondition for successful teamwork.
The final precondition are agreed behaviour norms and role clarity. Here, again, we tend to see problems which often stem from the lack of clearly articulated common purpose. Let’s assume we have a management team running part of the operations in a larger organisation. If no common purpose has been agreed on, in all likelihood the managers of the individual departments will operate in silos and each run their part as they see fit or in best adherence to how they individually interpret their priorities, targets, incentives etc. The result will be that the group does not engage in any form of collaboration or it falls into competition. In either case, they will never hold each other accountable to achieve team goals. This will give rise to (unspoken) behaviour norms in the team which do not provide the basis for having difficult conversations with respect and empathy, for building trust and maintaining a positive atmosphere in the team.
In our experience of working with managers at senior levels and with executives, it tends to be the management teams that are least likely to be set up to fulfil the preconditions for effective teamwork. But we have seen plenty of examples of project teams or operational teams where only a part of these preconditions has been addressed, undermining effectiveness and employee engagement. Humans are social creatures and we actually really like working together in groups. If an organisation makes that difficult by failing to address the conditions for effective teamwork, we tend to either disengage or simply go off and do our own thing. Neither is helpful and neither solves the underlying problem. Massively advocating teamwork is one thing, but providing an environment in which teams can be successful cannot be neglected as part of the deal.
If you are currently in a position where you can address these issues, we would always recommend that you start with the common purpose discussion. This is not so much about arriving at a one-liner that everyone can memorise, it is more about facilitating an open discussion around conflicting priorities, unclear or overlapping responsibilities and effort diverted into compliance or other non-productive activities. If you can spare a whole day, you should also include a discussion about the team performing to client expectations as part of this workshop. Quite often teams are set up for a specific purpose with particular client expectations in mind, but then the environment changes, or the clients change or the client expectations shift. As a result, the team might need more than a common purpose, it might also need a change in success measures, membership and allocation of resources.