Most ‘teams’ are not that at all, but merely groups of people working together towards a vaguely articulated goal.
This is what Elke Edwards, Founder of Ivy House, has experienced from her 20 years working with senior teams across pretty much every sector.
Effective teams, on the other hand, can revolutionise a business’s performance and an individual’s career – in her opinion there’s almost nothing more important for the success of a business than getting teams working effectively.
Teams outperform individuals
They are not the solution to all an organisation needs, and they won’t solve every problem, but they are a critical means to deliver the broad range of consistent change required by a high performing business.
So why then, in these times of change and challenge, aren’t we being bowled over by the extraordinary performances of our senior team – in fact, teams at all levels? Why aren’t we seeing teams leave behind the political infighting and one-upmanship to focus on the good of the company instead?
Getting it right means thinking differently
The fact is, we have spent most of our lives learning, living, and surviving as individuals. When we did a test at school, we compared our marks with those of our friends. When we ran a race, we wanted to win and when we came to work, we learnt about how to be successful by delivering against our personal objectives i.e., what was within our control.
From a very early age, much of our focus has been to compete as individuals, lead as individuals and succeed as individuals. This means that when we are asked to put the team first and trust in others for our own success, it’s frightening. What adds to this fear is that very few of us have experienced what effective team-working looks like.
So, what’s the answer?
We must lead ourselves to consciously shift our focus from individual to team success, and recognise the central role we, as leaders, play in orchestrating the success of the team and the business.
What is an effective team?
Before we look at how an effective team is created, we need to be clear about what we mean by effective. An effective team does three things:
- It meets the standards and expectations of its stakeholders, not just the numbers, but the wider scope of their standards and expectations. There are two key issues around this. Most teams don’t even know what the expectations of their stakeholders are (and in our experience most stakeholders have not taken the time to articulate them). Secondly, most teams have multiple stakeholders and they usually have different expectations.
- It creates an environment for consistent improvement, by paying attention to how they’re doing things, not just what they are doing – this makes the performance of the team sustainable over time. How many teams do you know that have built learning and improving into their ‘ways of working’ as an ongoing activity? But this is exactly what they need to do to be effective, otherwise the same mistakes are made, learning is not passed on and growth falters.
- It provides personal fulfilment to the individuals within a team, from how they perform, learn and engage with other team members. If a team does not provide personal fulfilment for the individuals within it, if they don’t enjoy being part of the team, they will leave. If they don’t leave, soon their performance will be well below what it could be.
Team effectiveness manifests in:
• Quicker and more effective decision making
• Shorter implementation times because of collective commitment
• Clarity of roles, effective use of resources and mutual accountability
• A sense of trust that enables challenge, support and better communication
• A collective leadership voice and behaviour that drives cultural shifts
• Higher engagement and retention of talent
How do you make this happen?
Team effectiveness is a learnt skill
The first thing to recognise is that effective teams do not happen naturally. Creating an effective team requires time, focus and commitment. And over and above all else, it requires a clear understanding of why you are doing it. Team effectiveness itself is not the goal; it is the significantly improved performance and the personal fulfilment that it delivers, which makes it worthwhile.
So how do you do it?
For teams to operate at the best of their ability, there are six key elements they must pay attention to. The Team
Effectiveness Framework provides the complete picture of what it takes for a team to be truly effective.
Sarah Wright, CEO of a software development business we worked with, said “I thought that to get better as a team we just needed to get to know each other better, but that’s not it at all. Team effectiveness is far more about clarity of purpose, commitment, accountability, building trust and awareness to drive performance. I now believe it is a critical business tool and will ensure all of my ‘teams’ actually live by the framework.”
The six elements of team effectiveness
1. Team mindset
How people think about themselves, others and the business will determine how they behave within a team. There are three key ways of thinking that will directly impact the effectiveness of a team and create a team mindset.
Most of us are part of several teams, but at a minimum there is usually the team we lead and the more senior team we are part of. The question is, which is your first team? Most people show up championing the team they lead – making sure they get what they need and keep them strong and growing. But what if the best decision for the business is to halve the size of your team or even, for it to disappear altogether? Your first team must be the most senior team you are part of – the team that has the organisation’s goals and mission at its heart.
Team vs individual
We looked earlier at the fact that most of us are brought up in environments where we are ‘playing for ourselves’. If, however, you genuinely want to become part of a real team, that needs to change. What we notice every day when working with teams is that most people’s behaviour is driven by a need to show how good they are, not how good the team is. An effective team member plays for the team, not themselves. They make decisions based on the purpose and wellbeing of the team, rather than focusing on how they get the best out of the situation.
Being a learning team must become part of the team’s mindset. It includes learning about themselves, the team, and the work the team produces. It means it’s ok to make mistakes and discuss them. It’s ok for someone to have a better idea, give feedback or hold someone else to account. It is also ok to call someone on their mindset – or ask them to consider which team they are playing for. Becoming a learning team means having learning conversations daily, as well as more formal structures to focus on team, project, and business learning.
Spending time analysing how you do things as a team can be seen as self-indulgent, but how will you ever improve without taking time to do so? If you went to a tennis coach to improve your game, and he told you to just keep doing what you are doing because there was no time to learn something new, I’m guessing you would feel short-changed. Getting better requires the discipline to pay attention to how we do things and how to improve them. Effective teams build in time to ensure they do it better next time.
Conversation is the primary tool of a team. It is what allows a team to create clarity, to execute and to be creative. As people begin to develop a team mindset, conversation starts to become easier and more productive. However, old habits die hard and for teams to be truly effective they need to develop skills around effective conversation that transcend all the normal concerns of political correctness, being right, winning,
avoiding conflict, and not holding people to account.
Effective teams are clear about the purpose of any conversation; they determine how the conversation will be had and how decisions will be made before they delve into content. They see issues as shared and see differences of opinion as opportunities for learning. They suspend judgement and use all the data available to them, including feelings and observations, to feed into a discussion.
When effective conversation becomes a reality, corridor conversations are a thing of the past, challenge and debate are welcomed, and meetings are run efficiently. When decisions are made, everyone implements them with conviction and rigour.
Effective teams are very clear about why they exist. What I mean by this is that they are clear about why they are a ‘team’, rather than a group of individuals reporting into one person. They have a shared purpose and mutual commitment to making it happen. In addition, they have collaborated on this purpose with their stakeholders. Between the team and the stakeholders, they have come up with a very clear articulation of why the team exists and what constitutes success.
A purpose goes much further than a set of financial goals. It looks at how the goals must be achieved, what else is important and how the team can set itself up for future success.
4. Ways of working
A team must be organised in a way that will enable it to deliver its purpose. Does it have the right skill, knowledge, and resources? Does it use time together in the right way? How does it make decisions? How are people held accountable? In effective teams, individuals hold themselves accountable to the team, not just the leader. They have rigorous performance ethics that are integral to the way the team works and become part of the culture of the business. They have communication channels both inside and outside the formal team structure and pay consistent attention to results.
Effective teams build strong relationships, but not always in the way we may think. It is less about liking each other and more about building trust, mutual commitment, and accountability. It means being conscious of creating a team culture and how that will impact the people within the team and outside of it. It means committing time to finding the best way to work with individuals within the team, as well as the group. Effective teams are flexible. They recognise that
difference is valuable and the quality of their relationship either increases or decreases productivity. They can disagree and debate without resorting to personal or emotional battles. They handle conflict well and can show vulnerability without fear.
6. Stakeholder connection
Stakeholders are one of the elements that is most ignored by teams. Bearing in mind it is the stakeholders (both internal and external) that will be judging the team’s performance, this is a big risk. Finding a way to stay acutely aware of stakeholder expectations and standards is crucial in improving performance. Effective teams must clearly identify all their stakeholders and understand exactly what it is they need and want from the team. They must recognise that those expectations and standards are often not clearly articulated and when they are, they may conflict with each other. The aim should be to negotiate a set of deliverables that is achievable and agreed by all stakeholders.
Paying attention to these six elements is what makes a team work. It ensures that they are focusing in on what the stakeholders want in a way that works not only for the organisation, but also for the individuals themselves.
If you’d like to talk about supporting your team to become truly effective, get in touch.