Laying the Foundation for Team Success

You’re starting up a new project and assembling the people with whom you’d like to work.  You’ve already sketched out how you’ll know you’ve been effective at getting the job done, so now you need to think about structure, design, and process elements.

Structuring the team

Be clear about who will actually be on the team.  Who’s in and who’s not.  Sometimes you don’t get as much say in this as you’d like.  Sometimes there are political considerations that have to be factored in.  Think about whether there are other ways to satisfy these needs that don’t require full membership, if that’s an issue.

Another thing about membership, stability is very important.  The disruption that results from people coming and going all the time is a real drag on productivity.

Although this seems obvious, make sure you have the skills you need, both technical and interpersonal skills.  Find them or build them. 

Finally, size matters.  Try to have your team not be any bigger than necessary to do the job (see above).

Designing the work

Whatever the work you are setting out to do, it should have three characteristics:  

  1. It needs to be meaningful in the eyes of the team. 
  2. People should feel responsible for the outcomes. 
  3. The team should get to see the fruits of its labors; it should get feedback on how it did. 

Also, whether any one member is successful needs to be driven by whether everyone else is.  Mutual accountability is perhaps the central element of building an effective team.  If this isn’t present, you don’t have a team.  That’s not a big deal, it just means you need to think differently about the work. 

Process elements

Does the team have an end objective that is compelling?  Is its purpose and direction interesting enough to sustain it?  Ideally, the authority who gave you the project has supplied this as well.  If not, develop it in the team.

You also need to create some agreements about how you want to behave together to get your work done.  These norms can be about things like showing up on time for meetings and not interrupting when someone else is speaking.  More powerfully, they will encourage the team to continuously scan the external environment for changes and will specify what the team will always (or never) do: e.g. safety always comes first, never give the product away for free.

While it’s a very good idea to have thought about these aspects of structure, design, and process in advance, you don’t want to get too committed to them on your own.  It is crucial to work through all this when everyone is in the room together so that the commitment you build is a shared one.