The Simple 1-2-3 (and 4) of Successful Work Teams

The are teams – start up teams, executive leadership teams, project teams – that work. And there are teams that don’t. Here’s how you can get the former, and avoid the latter.

The difference between the two is not so much in who is on the team and who is not, but how the teams are formed and how they go about their business. And in the case of teams at work, just like a number of other things, the difference between between success and failure is a little bit of thought, and a little bit of preparation.

“Success,” John Rohn noted, “is doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well.” The same is true with teams.

In my 25+ years of work with start-up and leadership teams as well as in the research by team experts Jon Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith – there are four key elements that form the foundation of consistently successful teams.

Teams perform well if they have these key elements in place:

  1. A clear sense of direction for their destination(s).
  2. Metrics, milestones, and/or deliverables for which they are accountable.
  3. Agreed and understood roles and responsibilities.
  4. Clear “rules of engagement” – an agreement and understanding on how they will work together.

If you want teams (think senior exec leadership teams, or the ready-to-climb-high-mountains spirit of start-ups) to maximize their opportunity for success, provide settings, resources and opportunities for teams to identify and workshop in sequence those four elements.

Notice that I said workshop in sequence.

The problem with much team working  is that the time and focus is spent on element #4 as if figuring out how teams with work together – the Kumbaya conversation – will significantly change things. It won’t. Why? Like organs or flesh, there is no skeleton, no scaffolding, to keep things hanging together. The work, research suggests, is providing a foundation and context (direction, deliverables, roles and responsibilities) for the “how to work together” to have relevance and application; all things required to make the agreements which can come later to be meaningful and durable.

It helps, if not near-essential, to have some practiced, skillful facilitator – people like me (the author noted modestly) – to design and facilitate this sort of team formation and team building work. Participants can never be objective if they’ve got any real skin in the game, and a little help from a wise team coach will save time, headaches, and likely money.

The work with Dr. Jo Whitehouse / Jumpstart BioDevelopment in early stage virtual team drug development start-ups, described in a white paper titled The Effective Use of Virtual Teams (and reposted here). shows that properly formed and supported teams can do breathtaking work in shorter time with better results than conventional start-ups.

Abraham Lincoln said ” If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.

The same message holds true for teams. Spend the time (and modest resources) to get teams formed, up and running and those four elements established and the dividends, in terms of performance, cost, and value, come back to you in spades.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). J. Mike Smith is a San Franciosco-based career, executive and team coach with an international practice. More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview at WhoHub, as well as participate in a learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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