Teamwork – What Does Work

>> Wednesday, August 5, 2009

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Yesterday, I wrote up some things I’d observed over a couple of decades with regards to teamwork and what doesn’t work. You may not believe it, but I’ve also seen some very effective teams (they get less press) and I thought I’d add a list of things I’ve observed do seem to work. Bear in mind, (a) this is my opinion based on my observations, and (b) no guarantees this always works.

What things work to make a successful team?

A single definitive leader/decider. Consensus is a great goal, but attaining it is often challenging (if not impossible). The buck has to stop with someone and a good leader can make it happen, hear all the back and forth and take a stand. Taking a stand/making an actual decision is the key to efficiency of a team, but it also means that the answers coming out are less likely to be mushy or ambiguous. Which means a leader needs to be able to stand up to the rest of the team – if it’s called for. A good leader can dole out assignments effectively, streamline communication and prod the slower folks to make sure things happen on time. A good leader can also help keep meetings from digressing into nonsense or traipsing off onto inconsequent tangents. There are, of course, some things a leader should not do, like micromanage teammates or ignore the inputs of his teammates.

Have a plan. Know your goals, your requirements, your deliverables and your schedule. Put ‘em in writing and get the ones tasking your team to buy into them. Anything that’s fuzzy on this list is going to be time wasted doing the wrong things, following the wrong path, getting corrected. Know what you’re there to do and choose a path to get there as early in the flow as you can. Sometimes things just fall into place. Usually, however, they don’t.

The right people. An effective team has the right players: experts, integrators, users, operators, safety, all the players necessary to ensure each step of the development is addressed, and, preferably, at least a couple of folks with a big picture perspective to make sure it all works together. Each person should be able to contribute something or they are dead wood. And, if you have to go outside the team repeatedly for this or that data or expertise, your team isn’t complete.

Egos in check. This applies to everyone. If someone is incapable of checking her ego at the door, she is going to be a relatively useless, if not counterproductive, member of the team. Each teammate should be a contributor and all must be willing to challenge conclusions or inputs in order to weed out the weak or ill-supported ideas. And that means being able to take that challenging without getting steamed. Leaders must also take care. It’s important to have the self-confidence to stand up for the group’s work, but it’s a poor leader who thinks no one can do anything worthwhile but himself.

Ability to work independently. If you’re idea of teamwork means all the work is done in meetings, you aren’t much help. Meetings are, in my experience, some of the least productive hours in anyone’s day. The time between meetings is the time to put stories together, gather data, analyze information, reach conclusions. Then, you’re making the most of that meeting time by using it effectively to polish and question those stories instead of trying to right them by committee. And being able to work independently shouldn’t mean trotting to the leader every fifteen minutes for clarification. Get your assignment, understand it, then do it.

Know your history. It’s too easy to make assumptions right off in a new project about what to do and what is best. Take a few minutes and look at what’s been done before, mistakes made, missteps, what’s worked. No sense making a mistake others have already made. Go on, be original. Make your own mistakes. Often the starting point to a difficult project can fall right out when you look at the past. And assumptions you thought were a done deal, um, weren’t. You may even know why.

Honesty. A team that decides the conclusion before starting is inherently dishonest. A team that finds something startling (even dismaying) and doesn’t come clean is also dishonest. A dishonest team’s findings and work are useless. They don’t mean anything if not built on an honest foundation. Not only will your product be flawed, but the entire team will be tainted by the dishonesty. People forgive mistakes – we all make them – but dishonesty can follow you the rest of your life.

A documentation trail. Sounds stupid, but it’s pretty important. Put actions, assignments, decisions on paper, and add why. Keep drafts of documents so you know where you’ve been. This is less important on a short term project, but, for something that might last months, it can be the key to not doing tasks because you forgot why you did them, forgot what results you obtained, forgot why you didn’t do them, or even forgot you did them. When the story comes together, you better know how you got where you got and a documentation trail can be difference between success and failure. Rationales, conclusions, data and sources, all should be documented as you find them and then they’re never lost. (Note, there’s often someone tasked to keep up with all this – this job can be as important as the leader and it’s often a key position when it comes to putting it all together, too. Be nice to this person.)

Communication/writing skills. Here’s the sad part. No matter how good your research, your data, your conclusions, your logic, your design, your plan, if you can’t sell it effectively, it doesn’t mean anything. That means being able to express it in terms that any potential audience can understand without insulting their intelligences (which is harder than it sounds). That means knowing how to present it so that it has the most impact, instills the least boredom, sounds the most convincing. If there’s no one on the team capable of pulling this together effectively, the caliber of the team is almost moot.


  • The Mother

    Sure, that would work.

    But in real life, how often do we see this magical concoction?

  • Stephanie B

    I've seen it, over the years. Not nearly as often as I would have liked to, but I've probably been on a dozen teams or tasks where the team was effective because of these reasons (else, how would I know?).

    It can happen. It's just not as often as I'd like it to be. Effective leadership is one of the hardest pieces to obtain.

  • flit

    this is a great article... if I were still teaching Business students, I'd be wanting to use it

  • Relax Max

    I have been reading your interesting observations about teams and teamwork and collaboration in general, and I find myself nodding in agreement. In fact, several times I had to check the blog header to make sure I was indeed still on your blog. :)

    In Charles Garfield's old book, "Peak Performance" he studied the early space program and tried to explain the superior performance of their teams. He concluded that one of the factors was that they all knew, and felt, that they were working on a project much bigger than themselves, and that somehow that exciting fact, in part at least, drove them to higher performance and individual initiative within the team. But there aren't many projects around like that one. I enjoyed your posts.

  • Stephanie B

    You make such a good point, Relax Max, that I'll probably explore it on my post on Friday. Teams stand a lot better chance of success when they're all moving toward an agreed goal, one they all believe in.

  • Old West Mom

    I just have to say, I think that is the funniest LOL Cats picture I've seen yet. Especially since I've always craved a legion of my own minions ;-)

    I heartily agree with Max's point, and in my opinion, is one of the biggest reasons why I see teams fail. Inspiration is a tricky thing for an individual, much less a team. But when they do find and work towards a common goal as thoroughly as you describe, it's a sight to behold.

    I'm looking forward to your post on it tomorrow!

  • Bob Johnson

    Lol, too funny, not the actual post, it was very excellent, your cat image and minions, I love that word, minions that is, great stuff, all items we need for teamwork but so often overlooked or discounted as not needed

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