The Truth about Teams
When it comes to team performance and adherence to “best practices,” what works on paper or in a teambuilding workshop and what actually occurs are often two very different things. Not for lack of trying (in most cases!), the practical constraints of time, resources, and human nature often get in the way.
Fortunately, there are approaches to help. What follows are some insights around five commonly accepted best practices for teams and our suggestions for moving your teams closer to the high levels of performance that we all strive for in resource and time-constrained environments. We strongly believe that you need to get the fundamentals right first before trying to innovate. Often “better” practices are what teams should strive for vs. “best” practices so they can continue to grow and adapt to their current situation.
#1. Align around shared goals and priorities.
We are waiting for Joe to join the Teams call, but he’s 15 minutes late, and when he arrives, he admits he hasn’t been able to follow up on his action items from the last launch team meeting since he’s been at the sales meeting for the current in-line product and has been flat out.
There are always competing priorities for the time and attention of team members — team participation can sometimes be viewed as a “side hustle” to the members’ “real jobs.” It would be nice if all teams could agree on overall goals and prioritize efforts accordingly. However, with so many pulls in so many directions, the tactical, “squeaky wheel” items tend to get the attention, regardless of overall objectives.
As a starting point, it is important for those in a group to decide if a team is necessary (e.g., would a “working group” that addresses an initiative and then disbands be more appropriate?). If so, are potential members willing to commit to the team and its objectives? Without that commitment, best to seek an alternative vehicle to collaborate.
Additionally, we need to be realistic about bandwidth constraints. A robust project plan with clear deadlines and assigned degrees of priority to team actions and a dashboard are part of the battle, but that only goes so far. Ultimately, it comes down to member accountability, open communication about what individuals can and cannot do, and the support they may need to empower the team to deliver. (“Joe, do you have time for this? If not, is there someone else from your team that can participate?”) In addition, leadership (team and corporate) plays a critical role in incenting the right priorities, allowing people to make optimal trade-off decisions.
#2. Establish clear governance and team scope.
The brand team for a new NSCLC drug in development was formed three months ago. The team went through the process of establishing a charter and clearly defining roles and responsibilities. New members keep getting added as functions feel they need a voice at the table, and the new drug represents the company’s crown jewels. The program team has also been established, and it has become clear that the decisions of the brand team are being reversed in that forum and work duplicated. UGH, so disempowering!
Even when teams manage to establish a written charter, the document itself often gets mothballed and filed away just minutes after the digital ink has dried. New team members need to be oriented to what had been agreed upon or fully aligned around the purpose of the team. Even if a given team is doing everything right internally, it may still fail to operate optimally in the context of the organization.
It helps to post the charter at the top of the Teams page or Slack channel (or other collaboration tools) so that members are reminded of it regularly. It is helpful if the format is consistent across all teams so people know where to look for the team’s purpose. We also recommend reviewing the charter as a recurring agenda item (quarterly), at which time refinements are made as needed.
Sharing charters and scope across corporate teams can help address the organization-wide challenge of inconsistent application of operating principles, as can conducting occasional roundtable sessions with the various teams. Project managers often function as lynchpins, ensuring coordination both within and across teams and making sure the right topics are brought to the right forum at the right time.
#3. Build a strong team culture with clear operating norms.
Sarah is the only European-based member of the cross-functional launch team for a small, rare disease biotech. She has yet to meet her colleagues in person and has to join team calls via Zoom while the rest of the group meets in person. In addition, team meetings are also often scheduled late in her evening to accommodate the members on the west coast of the U.S.
Team members are often from disparate functions and geographies. Under these circumstances, it can be difficult to develop, let alone sustain, a strong culture and standard way of operating. We each have our preferred way of doing things — that doesn’t disappear just because we are put together in a team. This difference across individuals often results in miscommunication and wasted effort.
Shared purpose and goals are the foundation of team culture but are not sufficient. A real effort needs to be made to bring team members together and break down or at least understand cultural and functional barriers so that all voices are heard. Some teams make the mistake of being all about business all the time without any emphasis on who team members are as individuals. This singular focus really stands in the way of a team “gelling.” Mixing up the type and approach to meetings (virtual, face-to-face, interactive) can ensure that all styles of communication and personality are accommodated and that team members remain engaged.
#4. Ensure productive communication and collaboration.
Steve is really frustrated because he is on a sub-team with Wendy, and she keeps sending him their shared deliverables at the 11th hour before they need to present back to the team. He feels like he looks bad because he hasn’t had a chance to fully prepare or weigh in. He hesitates to say anything to Wendy because he knows she has a lot on her plate, and he hates confrontation.
An environment that fosters an open and honest approach and in which all voices, perspectives, and feedback are welcome is the holy grail of any team. But… this can be challenging to achieve, especially when the players are not well known to each other, and functional divides exist.
Today, there is no single communication channel for the teams we sit on or in life more broadly. We have seen significant benefits when the preferred communication channels and associated supporting tools are clearly defined from the start (e.g., text/WhatsApp for quick, non-proprietary questions; Teams Chat for feedback gathering). This clarity drives improved communication outside of meetings.
During meetings, adding a recurring “ways of working” discussion to the agenda is helpful, especially after the team has worked together for a while and a sense of trust has been established. Training on “constructive conversations” can also be extremely beneficial for teams.
#5. Implement productive and efficient team meetings.
Joan is dreading the APEX program team meeting. Every time she attends, there is no clear agenda, and people go down rabbit holes when she has so much work she needs to get done. The team veers from topic to topic, and no clear decisions are made or actions documented.
We have all attended team meetings that lack an agenda, clear objectives, or strong time management. Team members may cancel at the last minute without assigning a delegate.
Over our careers, we have facilitated literally thousands of meetings; we know how difficult it is to ensure participants leave a meeting feeling it was “highly effective.” That’s just the nature of the beast.
However, some of the things we have seen work well include:
…designating a moderator/leader for the meeting. This role could rotate and provides good developmental experience for participants
… having a longer-term view of agenda topics with owners so that members know what is on the horizon and have time to prepare
…utilizing creative, interactive meeting methods to generate energy and assist people in getting to know one another
…allowing time for pre-meeting chat to support connections among the team members
…holding team members accountable for participation and assigning a delegate if they are unable to attend
…limiting and relegating discussions unrelated to meeting objectives or at a level of unnecessary detail to separate forums
…circulating minutes with actions and decisions immediately following the meeting and kicking off the next meeting by reviewing those items.
Teams, of all types and durations, are highly valuable constructs within organizations. But they don’t just work on their own — they require care, feeding, and lots of planning.
Perfection is not a realistic possibility; chipping away at the things that impact progress and productivity is.
Most of us can remember that amazing team experience that changed the course of a project, relationship, or crisis — keep striving to make the teams you are on today like those that worked in the past.
Posted in All Categories, Decision-Making and Process, Organizational Development and Culture, Strategy and Planning