Secrets of Great Teamwork

The Secrets of Great Teamwork: Collaboration has become more complex but success still depends on the fundamentals
HBR, June 2016, p71
By Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen

It is often the case that the people running a team are their own worst enemies. According to the article, Teams depend on four critical enabling conditions; compelling direction, strong structure, supportive context, and a shared mindset. The first three enabling conditions are positive and the last, a shared mindset, overcomes the pitfalls of “us versus them” thinking and incomplete information. If you think that these are easy to implement then perhaps you either don’t need to read the article or you need a coach to strengthen your grasp on reality. In my experience the team members know how much time, money and resources are needed to get the job done. Managers almost universally challenge the team to reduce the amount of time and money. The resulting stress on the team to do more for less usually results in doing less for more. The unspoken issue is to match the design with the resources available and to be sure that the design is firm and documented before ramping up the project.

People need to care about achieving the team’s goals and it is a compelling direction that makes this happen. The standard advice, used again here, that goals should be challenging but achievable and should contain a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards is apropos. Although not mentioned in the article, one of the more effective ways of determining whether the right mix of direction has been set is to ask the team for their input. If the request is sincerely made the team is likely to respond in kind which can relieve the manager of the guilt associated with not getting the mix right.

Setting a strong structure is about balancing the assets of the team, the work and the processes. The mix of people and skills, and diversity and commonality, and the mix of age, gender and race all contribute to creativity and alleviate groupthink. They also contribute to interpersonal conflict so one needs to go beyond norms and rules for behavior to anticipate issues and help the team members appreciate the diversity. They should appreciate the commonality on their own but sometimes don’t. This also relates to creating a shared mindset and a supportive context.

A supportive context is the manager’s domain. Does the team have access to the resources that they will need to get the job done? Funding, technology, equipment, space, software and more are important “hygiene factors” that need to be in place to keep the team from hitting roadblocks since if the hygiene factors are not in place it can be very demotivating to team members. Hygiene factors are the things a project needs to support the team members and if they are present no one notices them. They are only noticed when they are not present, thus, the name hygiene factors since no one recognized good hygiene. Problems often come when hygiene factors are under the control of other parts of the organization and not under direct project control.

A shared mindset is based on a common identity and a common understanding. A good manager monitors the team’s interactions and fosters a context of respect for everyone on the team. This includes anticipating the problems that crop up such as interpersonal conflict or access to resources.

These are not difficult things to do and most managers can figure out how to do them as long as they are operating from a cooperative mindset and not a command and control one. Still, these things take time to learn and to do. They can be overwhelming as well on a large project and often get overlooked, to the detriment of team performance.