Designing Smarter Teams

Adapted from, and excerpted with permission of publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint, from “Smart Leaders Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results” by Roger Schwarz (2013).

By Roger Schwarz

Who do you think plays the most influential role in a ship’s performance? Most people would name the captain, the engineer, or the navigator. But I’d argue that it’s the ship’s architect—the designer. How the architect designs the ship determines how fast and far it can travel, how quickly it can turn, and how well it can protect its crew while withstanding rough seas. The design determines the limits of the ship’s performance. Of course, the talent of the crew and the way they work together determine how close they can get to reaching the limits of the design. But no matter how good the captain and crew are, they can’t perform better than the ship’s design allows. To do that, they have to change some element of the design.

The same is true with your team. How well your team performs depends on its design. A key part of design is team structures—the relatively stable characteristics of a team. When people think of structure, they usually think first of organizational structure—who reports to whom. But a team’s structure includes a number of elements:

  • Clear mission and shared vision
  • Clear goals
  • Motivating task
  • Appropriate membership
  • Clearly defined roles, including leadership
  • Effective team culture
  • Team norms, including Mutual Learning behaviors
  • Reasonable workload

In this article, I highlight three of these structures and describe how to design them for better team performance.

Clear Mission and Shared Vision

The mission is the purpose of your team; it answers the question, “Why do we exist?” Your team achieves its mission by accomplishing various goals, which, in turn, are achieved by performing various tasks. A vision is a mental picture of the future that an organization seeks to create. Whereas a mission clarifies why the team exists, a vision identifies what your team should look like and how it should act as it seeks to accomplish its mission. Together, a mission and a vision provide meaning that can inspire and guide members’ work. I’ve seen many teams with mission and vision statements on their conference room walls. But the value of mission and vision lies in the shared commitment members make to achieving them, not in the laminated poster on a wall.

Ultimately, it’s your responsibility as the team leader to confirm the mission for the team. But as a Mutual Learning leader, you don’t simply lay out a compelling mission and then expect people to sign up for the trip. Using the Mutual Learning mindset, you’re transparent not only about what the mission is but why it’s that mission as opposed to other plausible missions. You’re also curious about others’ views of the mission, and you seek to incorporate their interests and ideas. When others make suggestions that you finally decide not to incorporate into the mission, you are accountable for explaining your reasoning. You also ask team members to be accountable by saying whether they are willing to commit to the final version of the mission you and the team developed. The idea that members are committed to the team’s mission simply because they are on the team is too big an assumption to leave untested.

Mission and vision are personal. For team members to commit to them, the mission and vision need to speak to them directly. When members aren’t able to commit to the mission and what’s required of them to achieve it, you respond with compassion rather than seeing this as an act of insubordination or organizational treason. At the same time, you help those members find another team where they can commit to the mission.

Appropriate Membership

An effective team has a carefully selected membership. Members bring a mix of knowledge and skills that will allow them to complete the team’s goals successfully. The team also should be just large enough to handle the task. Every added member requires the team to spend additional time coordinating activities. A team with more members than it needs to complete the task will spend time on coordination that could be spent working directly on the task. In addition, as the team grows, members can lose interest in the work and reduce their effort.

Some leadership teams contain so many business unit and functional leaders that they’re unable to coordinate their work, let alone create the time for members to fully explore different views. In a team with a unilateral control mindset, the topic of team membership is out of bounds. It’s a matter for the team leader alone to consider. But in a team with a Mutual Learning mindset, members openly discuss whether they have the right mix of people on the team to accomplish their goals. A real team also must have a clear understanding of who is on the team and a team membership that is stable enough to have the time to learn how to work together well.

Clearly Defined Roles, Including Leadership

In many leadership teams, team members consider the formal leader responsible for the team. As a result, the formal leader leads the meetings, sets team agendas, guides the flow of discussion, and identifies next steps. Members participate, but leave the leadership roles to the formal leader. If you’ve led a team like this, even if the team accomplished its goals, you probably had a nagging feeling that you were working harder in the meetings than others—and you were right.

In teams using Mutual Learning, team member roles are more fluid. Members may rotate chairing the meetings, taking responsibility for coordinating agendas, and identifying next steps. More important, leadership isn’t confined to the formal leader. It’s a shared role and responsibility. Operating from the assumption that each person may see things that others miss, each member is accountable for ensuring that the team is functioning well. When you see something happening in the team that may reduce its effectiveness, it’s your role to raise it with the team, whether you are a team member or the team leader.

Team Norms, Including Mutual Learning Behaviors

Norms are expectations that team members share about how they should behave with each other. Norms come from the team’s culture. They are ways of putting the culture into action. One easily observed norm involves time. For example, some leadership teams I work with place a high value on the precision of time and assume that honoring time commitments conveys respect. As a result, they have a norm that meetings start exactly at the designated starting time, regardless of who is absent. Other teams I work with have different values and assumptions about time. They have developed a norm that leads them to start meetings after everyone arrives, which could be 15 minutes later than planned.

Teams can have norms about anything, including who talks when, how to manage time, and who to involve in decisions. Unfortunately, team norms often develop implicitly. When that happens, your team finds itself operating with a set of expectations that mysteriously evolved over time and may not serve its needs.

Smart teams explicitly discuss the expectations they have for each other. Because they are transparent about the norms and make an informed choice about adoption, they are able to hold each other accountable when they see others acting in ways that don’t meet a team expectation. In fact, in Mutual Learning teams, it’s a norm that all team members give feedback when they think others are acting inconsistently with a team expectation. In this way, team members share accountability for supporting each other in creating the behaviors they have agreed will lead to better results. Download my article “Eight Behaviors for Smarter Teams”for a discussion of essential team norms.

By carefully designing team structures, you enhance your team’s ability to perform.

This article is adapted from, and excerpted with permission of publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint, from “Smart Leaders Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results” by Roger Schwarz. Copyright © 2013 by Roger Schwarz. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

Roger Schwarz is a best-selling author, an organizational psychologist, and president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates, an organizational development consulting firm formed in 1996.

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