What is the secret to successful teams?
Why is it there are some teams that perform better than other teams?

If you are a manager or a team leader, you are likely to spend some time thinking and questioning if your team is performing, or what you can do to improve team performance. It is a question even the tech giants Google have tried to answer. Google spent 2 years interviewing 200 staff to try and answer this. (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/28/what-google-learned-in-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html)

I do not want to spent too long talking about Google's research rather I wanted to write an article based on my experiences and beliefs of what makes a successful team.

For over 15 years in my role as a software developer, working in different teams to help solve complex business challenges, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have seen the highs and the lows but throughout my time I have observed and listened as a team member. As a team leader I have learned, made mistakes and achieved successful results. As a result, I have become addicted to the prospect of creating high performing teams. I do not expect everyone to agree with my comments but I do hope that reading this with an open mind can help you look at your teams, evaluate them and identify areas that perhaps you can relate too and refine. It is also worth mentioning that although I work in Software Engineering I believe the following article is applicable to any team.

Everyone needs to be pulling North

There are probably lots of definitions of what a team leader should be. My article starts by explaining what I believe a team leader should be. A leader is not about being in power; it is not an excuse to have an ego. I have seen many “leaders” who go on a power trip and neglect the team.

A phrase that I often use is that “Everyone needs to be pulling North”. If no one is working towards the same goal with a common set of rules, the team will ultimately fail. During the early formations of a team when everyone is finding their feet the team will be under performing. Part of this reason is not everyone is going to be sharing the vision with the same passion, effectively working as independent people. The team leader plays an important role throughout the lifetime of a team however a strong team leader at the start can make or break the success of a team. Qualities of a strong team leader, as a minimum must include:

  • Enthusiasm;
  • Empathy;
  • Consistency;
  • People Orientated;
  • Goal Focussed;
  • Humble.

They must be prepared to help on-board team members and install the vision of the task in hand and approach it with energy and enthusiasm.  They must believe in the problem they are trying to solve – if the team leader does not believe in the goal, how can the team be expected to believe in it? A good leader is someone who is prepared to give opportunity, empathy and coach the team.

The team leader should be prepared to be one of the team and be prepared to “muck in” with tasks that need completed. The number of team leaders I have seen that hold themselves in so much high regard they become so short sighted they struggle to see problems developing under their nose and yet refuse to get involved. Problems might exist within relationships in the team, struggling team members may be falling behind. Hubris behaviour may cause team leaders to not discover new ideas from junior members of the team. A strong team leader needs to leave their egos and hubristic behaviour behind and form a team with leadership, open mind, empathy and be prepared to help the team.

It is the responsibility of the team leader to ensure that everyone feels confident to contribute and speak up. Some of the best ideas on my projects have come from the junior members and yet I have seen so often junior member’s opinions being discounted or afraid to express their ideas. This might be because they are too quiet, or they cannot articulate the idea strongly enough. The team leader is instrumental in coaching all members and creating a culture amongst the team to express ideas. Recognition of good ideas and implementations is a small gesture but goes a long way to increase confidence. A leader is not someone who has a loud voice and can talk a good game, but is able to listen more and mobilise the right skills within the team to achieve the varying tasks and challenges.

The critics amongst you will read this and say that with so many different opinions a strong leader is one that takes charge and lays down the rules about how things should work. It is easy to understand why this is a common belief - with a new team comes different people each with their own personalities, skills and behaviours; surely the only way is to dictate how people should work? Right?. Yes, the team needs a common way of working but there are better ways to achieve this than dictating, more can be found on this under the Common Agreement section later on.

Tuckman Model

Dr. Bruce Tuckman theorised group development and published his work in 1965 which is known as the Tuckman model. I was introduced to this model in 2016 and been intrigued by it since. There are four pillars to the model with a fifth added later.

·        Forming;

·        Storming;

·        Norming;

·        Performing;

·        Adjourning.

The role of the team leader varies as the team moves through the various stages.

Forming (Team Leader Directs)

The team comes together, generally behaving independently and will require a lot of assistance from the team leader. The leader must be prepared to answer questions, install the vision and explain what is expected from the team. There generally is a lack of trust between members as they do not know each other well enough at this stage.

Storming (Team Leader Coaches)

Storming occurs as team members start to battle for position and establish themselves in the team.  Relationships between the team members and team leader will be formed, successfully and not so successfully. Decisions need to be made and that doesn’t come easy with different ideas floating around with everyone believing their idea is the best. The team leader needs to coach and should keep the rest of the team focussed on the goals of the team to avoid conflict. This is a particularly difficult phase for the team that could have a lasting damaging effect if not handled properly. Conflict in teams is normal and team leaders should remind members that it is normal behaviour.

Norming (Team Leader Facilitates)

As the team settle down and differences work out roles and responsibilities become clear. The team becomes a fun dynamic to work. It starts to develop its process and working strategy. The leader is respected but often takes a step back as the team starts to enter a self-organising phase. Members start to form unity and understand each role played individuals with strengths and weaknesses known.

Performing (Team Leader Delegates)

When a team reaches this stage, they are considered high performance. High performance teams are measured by how autonomous the team is in making decisions which are done by the group. Everyone has an understanding of the goals and requires little intervention from the team leader. The bond is cemented and members look out for each other. Whilst there might be disagreements, the team resolve these quickly and positively. Independence, Motivation, Knowledge and Competence are all key indications that a team is performant. Not all teams will reach this stage and conflicts will never be resolved if members can’t find a way to work together.

Adjourning

The final stage of group development was added to the model later to describe the state when the project is over and goals are complete. The team have grown close and once the project is over the team disbands and a sense of mourning can occur because the experience is over.

A strong leader is consistently making small efforts and adjustments over time to build trust and rapport with the team. True leaders take the time to show interest in their team members. Small gestures such as saying “Good Morning” or taking an interest in their lives, not just in the work, but showing a genuine interest in the person makes individuals feel important. Recognising small successes that team members achieve will go a long way to boosting confidence and reaffirm their position in the team. Doing this consistently gives the team a sense of belonging and will gradually form a bond with each other.

Leadership is not about an ego or dictatorship, it is about removing problems to allow the team to succeed and being able to make a fact based decision to resolve conflict within team members. They have a role to ensure that the team have fun and enjoy the assignments. Their goal is to steer the team to delivering the task and vision defined by the business. In essence, the role of a team leader is to make sure everyone pulls North.

None of us is as smart as all of us.

The team leader is an important role in the team but the team also have a responsibility for its own success. I have found in my experience that there are a number of key factors that are crucial, yet often overlooked. These are:

  • Location;
  • Communication;
  • Team Size;
  • Ownership;
  • Accountability;
  • Common Agreement;
  • No-Ego.

Location

I have worked with teams that are co-located together working on one thing and I have also worked with teams remotely utilising technology for collaboration. The most successful teams I have lead and worked with are without a doubt co-located teams in a dedicated space with little outside interference. There is something powerful about creating that dug in feeling and consistently forming informal communications that serve to reinforce the bond of the team. Technology has enabled teams to work remotely however in my experience there needs to be a disciplined approach for this to work effectively and nothing beats face to face interaction.

Communication

Communication is essential for the correct functioning of the team. In my opinion there are three areas of communication that should be nurtured in a team. Open communication – where the team feel confident and assured to raise any issues and share any knowledge in a team. Sprint stand ups (where the whole team get together for 15mins each day to talk about what they did, what they are doing and if they have any issues) in an Agile team is an excellent forum for this. Informal communication The team should be allowed and encouraged to discuss and have fun on a range of topics, work, personal – anything goes really. As mentioned in the previous section this informal communication creates a bond within the team. Listening – The third strand of communication in a team is active listening, each team member should be listening to what is being said in the team, and listening to peers during activities such as sprint stand up, team meetings, work reviews and assistance sessions.

Team Size

Size matters when it comes to optimal team size. The team size can vary but it is essential to keep a core dedicated team and others are invited if scaling is required. Having worked and lead in range of teams from small to large, I have found the ideal size to be around 5-6 people. The size of team is large enough to create a small unit feel meaning people feel less overwhelmed speaking or taking part in team activities. It is small enough for a bond to form between everyone and creates a sense of family amongst team members. This isn’t just my opinion either, Amazon have the famous 2-Pizza rule. Where team sizes should be able to be fed by 2 pizzas. The science behind it affects a number of things including the number of connections and communication lines required for each increases exponentially. The formula N(N-1)/2 where N is the number in the team equals the number of connections required to maintain. The larger the team the harder it is to maintain. Performance of individuals also decreases as team sizes grow team members feel less socially accountable resulting in less personal responsibility to the team. Performance is hard to measure and often in a large team finding the person/people to help becomes more difficult. In fact, Brook’s law says “adding human resources to a late software project makes it later”.

Ownership

Team members that have a sense of ownership will often drive and work harder to ensure that their part to play in the team is recognised. Ownership can come in taking ownership of a particular area of the team's goals, ownership over responsibility of tools, ownership of a process or anything that allows them to feel part of the team. Often as a team leader I like to hand over some responsibilities to my team members so they take charge and feel important. As well as an increase in productivity this makes for happier staff and helps them find the place in the team. Ownership drives responsibility which can drive successful teams. Calling out these ownership responsibilities routinely in the team ensures everyone understands the responsibilities. It also goes towards helping people understand who can solve particular issues if a team member comes up against a problem.

Accountability

The link between accountability and success is undeniable. Accountability gives everyone the leverage to take action and create results. Fostering accountability in the team allows trust between team members, team leader and the business. Creating accountability partners in a team creates a bond and ensures they remain accountable to each other and the team. Again sprint stand ups are a great way to ensure team members check in and say how things are going. A blame culture is counter intuitive and does not solve issues, if nothing else it suppresses team members. Accountability means members will push harder rather than stand up and say they have failed to do something they said they would.

Common Agreement

All these ideas are great but how does a team leader enforce them, after all the best teams are self-organising and probably don’t respond well to a top down approach. The best way that I have learned to get a common agreement is to arrange a kick off meeting with the team where the team leader offers suggestions on how they think it should work and subsequently opens it up to the floor for discussion and vote. Once a decision has been made the point is placed on the board and remaining points discussed. At the end of the meeting the team have a bulleted list in front of them about how they have agreed to work. The team is able to make suggestions at any point, and meetings can be arranged at any time to discuss. This collective approach ensures there are no surprises and each person is accountable to themselves and the team.

No egos

Quite frankly, I have no room for egos in the team. (I think you understand that from this article by now). Hubris leaders will often lose touch of their own capabilities making it impossible to lead effectively whilst egotistical team members create a toxic atmosphere amongst everyone. It makes people defensive, it intimidates other team members and can destroy the confidence in others. Yes, someone might be technically gifted but in my opinion this attribute has no place for a productive team.  A good team leader should aim to reduce this behaviour and coach problematic team members to use their skills for good.

In Summary

The ultimate goal of a team is to bring together personalities, skills and behaviours to achieve a goal, ultimately the success of the team will be how efficiently the team achieves their goal. There are many factors and challenges leading and working in a team, but equally I find working in a team and leading a team one of the most rewarding parts of a job. Leading a team is not a bragging right for me it is a chance to develop team members giving them opportunity and responsibility. It is everyone working together to achieve the unachievable by your own. It is hard, it is challenging but it is rewarding watching people grow.

How do I measure the success of a team?

Success of a team is a group of individuals who go on a journey together, overcome their challenges, come together and perform as one.

I hope this article has been enlightening and welcome any comments. Please reach out and connect with me on Linked In.