ENABLING EFFECTIVE TEAM WORK
Everything is continually evolving, and so it’s important to remember to recognize that teams are guided by a dynamic process, even if we wish for them to remain constant. Now with the rate of change nowadays in the digital and science world seemingly on a non-linear rise, it’s likely that team members are even more subject to change than they were in the past. As Heraclitus was recorded by Plato as saying “The only constant in life is change,” over two millennia later, we can see clearly that he was right.
This idea of constant change however can make it difficult to set scopes to develop teams that can be taught and used by leadership or managers over a longer period of time. This chapter will focus on what enabling conditions a team needs, while still allowing for a dynamic process.
In the 1970s, organizational behaviour pioneer J. Richard Hackman began researching teams across many disciplines including The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Apollo 13 Mission Control Team, The U.S. Navy SEALs, Pixar Animation Studios, and working with US Intelligence in war games on Project Looking Glass. These are only a few examples of his studies.
Through studying teams across so many disciplines, Hackman was able to make revolutionary discoveries during his tenure. While there were some differences in what made these teams successful, he was able to observe and codify three broader core themes relevant to all teams in all disciplines that helped enable each team to perform.
Hackman observed that the team members’ personalities, attitudes, or behavioral styles are not what matter most when it comes to teamwork. Instead, what he calls ‘enabling conditions’ are what teams require to succeed. He codified these as the team needing a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context.
While these are the core fundamentals which can be encouraged and supported externally. There was an internal study in 2012 by Google ‘Project Aristotle’, led by Dr Meredith Belbin, which questioned why some of the work teams were more high performing and sustainable than others. The results to this in-depth study showed that teams who feel comfortable enough with each other to take risks, produce more, and achieve better results than teams who do not. So instead of members thinking in terms of ‘me vs. you’, or ‘us vs. them’ they had a common mindset that trust between members was very important. Google called this concept Team Psychological Safety (TPS) which was first proposed by Amy C. Edmondson in 1999 who argued that “A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking, creates higher performing teams.”
As noted earlier, due to creativity in the computing and sciences sectors changing so fast, trust has become more important than ever between members in this fast changing world.
Though we have shown briefly what core conditions help to enable a productive team environment, to maintain these core conditions, there needs to be continual reviewing of the external structures and internal evaluation of the teams. This is best done in an off-handish manner to continue allow for the dynamic process and productivity of the team. This will be discussed at the end of the chapter before the conclusion.
“The increasing speed in the dynamic change in teams makes it difficult to determine core needs cross-disciplinary team types, but human nature allows for a base start point to allow positive development from that point.”
As we delve more deeply into Hackman’s enabling factors below, we want to emphasize that we’re focusing on productive teamwork. But here we will also introduce the need to consider the level of trust, empathy, commitment, and accountability in teams if we want to build high-performing teams, which will be discussed more in following chapters.
The most important lesson to be learned from this chapter is that teamwork is influenced by a continuous sophisticated set of dynamic difficulties, but that just a small number of enabling factors can significantly affect the success of a team.
Having a goal that motivates and engages your team is the cornerstone of effective teamwork. Firstly, if team members are unaware of the goals they are working for, then what should they begin working on? It is impossible to be inspired in this sort of environment. Further, the more compelling the goals are, the more inspired the team can become.
Pixar Animation Studios is a great story of a smaller outfit who was able to compete with other major competitors to become one of the greatest animated feature movie producers we have ever seen. In his book ‘Creativity, Inc.,’ Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull describes how the studio’s first film, ‘Toy Story’, had a clear and meaningful goal: to make the world’s first computer-animated feature film. This goal was both tough and achievable, as it had never been done before but was within the realm of possibility with the technology and talent available. The team members were passionate about reaching this goal, as they believed that they were breaking new ground in animation and storytelling. This goal motivated and engaged the team, and they were able to produce a groundbreaking film that paved the way for many more computer-animated films.
In today’s more scattered teams, it can be challenging to ensure that all members have a clear understanding of the team’s goals and that they care about reaching them. One way to address this challenge is to provide extra guidance and communication to team members. This can be used to help provide meaning to the objectives, and whether they stand to obtain benefits (like recognition, money, and promotions) or intrinsic rewards (like contentment, success, and a sense of purpose). So it is important for team members not only to be clearly aware what the goals are, but also to remember that the more compelling the goals are, the more motivated members will be to achieve.
Be aware also, that the clearer these things are communicated, the easier it is for teams to act in sync. For instance, the more varying perspectives on the team’s mission, each member may place different value on varying objects. One may place a higher priority on product quality accuracy, while the other might be more concerned with increasing a product’s price competitiveness.
Thus the goal should be clearly communicated and understood by members, and the more compelling the story about the goal is, and the belief that it can be achieved, the greater the motivation of team members to succeed will be.
“The more clear and compelling the goal is, and the greater the belief that it can be achieved, the greater will be the motivation of the team members to succeed.”
Having a strong team structure is another essential enabler for effective teamwork. The team’s size and makeup are critical, as discussed in the previous chapter. A well-designed team structure includes the right mix of members with the necessary skills, tasks, and processes, as well as standards that promote positive behavior and discourage negative dynamics.
To function well together, teams require a good balance of technical and interpersonal skills among their members. It’s not necessary for every member to excel in both areas, but having diversity in expertise, opinions, viewpoints, age, gender, and race is beneficial as it helps to prevent groupthink and fosters creativity.
Teams with individuals from diverse backgrounds tend to have an advantage in this regard. According to study done for the World Bank by Hass Martine and Mark Mortensen, teams with members who have ties to the area and speak various languages, as well as those who have lived in different nations, perform their duties more successfully. While locals provide national knowledge and insight into areas like politics, culture, and organization, cosmopolitan members bring technical knowledge, skills, and expertise that are applicable in various circumstances.
To acquire all skills necessary, expanding the team size is not always the best course of action and can incur costs. It’s essential to maintain the team at the smallest size possible for all of the required skill sets. When a team requests new members, the leadership should inquire about what additional abilities or contributions are needed to strengthen the existing team. If the team has reached its capacity, a team member may need to be replaced.
The distribution of team tasks is also crucial. The team leader must keep the group engaged, especially since not every assignment requires a lot of creativity and inspiration. Giving the team control over how to manage the work and making them responsible for a significant portion of the assignment from start to finish fosters a strong sense of buy-in.
As organizations grow, teams tend to expand and can more easily result in creating new or more unhealthy team dynamics such as clichés, hiding information, too many opinions, groupthink, evading duties, casting blame, or free-riding etc.
Though it is not the only solution, Jack Welch achieved this by enforcing a yearly 10% staff reduction across all General Electrics companies and departments. Later some stuff could reapply to different positions, but it forced a restructuring of teams, goals, and responsibilities amongst stuff.
When teams get too large, it can result in your performing members to become resentful of their position due. So it’s important to remember to continually try to keep teams as small as possible for the required skillset to achieve the desired goals.
“Continually try to keep teams as small as possible for the required skillset to achieve the desire goals. But note that this can only work if a strong structure is in place.”
Supportive context refers to the resources and conditions that enable team members to perform effectively. According to Hackman, supportive context includes three key components: adequate material resources, a reward system that recognizes team performance, and organizational support.
Adequate material resources refer to the physical resources and equipment necessary for the team to perform their tasks effectively. This includes everything from access to appropriate technology and tools to adequate physical space for the team to collaborate.
The reward system is an essential component of a supportive context. A reward system should be designed to recognize and reward team performance rather than individual performance. This helps to promote a sense of collective responsibility and encourages collaboration among team members. Rewards can include anything from bonuses and promotions to public recognition and praise.
Organizational support is the final component of a supportive context. This includes both the formal and informal support systems within the organization. Formal support includes policies and procedures that enable teams to function effectively, such as clear communication channels and standardized processes. Informal support refers to the social networks and relationships that develop within the team and the broader organization. These relationships can provide valuable emotional support and help to facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Thus, for leadership, this entails keeping up a system of rewards that encourages high performance, a system of information that gives users access to the data required for the tasks, workshops, and, of course, acquiring the physical resources needed to fulfill the tasks. To achieve this, appreciation and constructive criticism are crucial and unfortunately, are frequently ignored components.
Supportive environments for the team themselves help to open up a completely new avenue where team members unreservedly support one other and keep each other accountable.
“Supportive environments for the team themselves help to open up a completely new avenue where team members unreservedly support one other and keep each other accountable.”
It’s critical that team members develop a similar perspective. We propose that establishing teams that believe in trusting each other as their core perspective can give the group a shared identity and understanding while avoiding groupthink. Team leaders can encourage this.
We believe that trust is the base foundation in creating high performance teams. If members cannot trust each other, it only pushes members further apart. Note however, that achieving the previous three enablers core for channeling the ability to nurture this in team members to get to a position where they feel they can trust each other because all members know that they have the support from their leaders, managers, and the organization.
The atmosphere has evolved from the days when teams were made up of a consistent group of homogeneous team members who collaborated in person and shared a common worldview. These days in the work place, instead of seeing themselves as a single unified group, teams tend to see themselves as a smaller subgroup. As corporations became larger and teams became more complicated, cognitive team members responded by breaking the group into smaller groups and being more critical of all the smaller groups they are a part of. Thus enabling the first three issues by upper management will allow teams to focus on trust within their members so they can focus on achieving together.
Trust is such an important part of teams that we will dedicate a chapter to team psychological safety later in the book.
“Trust is the base foundation in creating high performance teams. If members cannot trust each other, it only pushes members further apart.”
Regularly evaluating teams is crucial to ensure continuous progress and effectiveness. Evaluation should focus on team psychological safety, individual growth, and collaborative production. One way to accomplish this is through routine light-touch monitoring, with more thorough checks performed if issues arise.
To conduct light-touch continuing monitoring, brief evaluation meetings with the team can be held every two months, with a focus on each of the four enabling circumstances and the team effectiveness criteria.
When a crisis or poor performance occurs, it is recommended to conduct an intervention evaluation, closely examining the connections between the team effectiveness criteria and the low-rated situations. As a manager or leader, you can identify distinct connections and offer forward-thinking solutions.
If intervention is necessary, convening a large-scale workshop with the entire team is the best course of action. This allows participants to compare and discuss their evaluation findings, emphasizing conflicting data points and divergent points of view.
“Evaluation should focus on team psychological safety, individual growth, and collaborative production. But mostly should be off-handish.”
Teams are guided by a dynamic process and subject to change, requiring enabling conditions for success.
The three enabling conditions for teams include a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context.
The more compelling the goal, the more teams are inspired to perform.
A strong structure involves clear roles and responsibilities, accountability, and effective communication channels.
A supportive context involves resources, rewards, recognition, and a positive team climate.
High-performing teams require trust, which can only be achieved if upper management are supportive of the enabling conditions.
Reviewing of teams is important but should be a light-touch approach unless there is a crisis.
What did J. Richard Hackman identify as the three main enabling conditions for successful teamwork? Does your team lack or excel in any of these?
What is the compelling direction in your current team?
If you ask other team members about the compelling direction, would they have the same answer as you?
How do you see your current team structure? What could be improved?
Would you consider yourself a team member that needs support or provides support?