Main idea: In order for teams to successfully, evolve there must be a conscious effort to set up the right organizational conditions. Once a team is established, leaders should focus their attention on how information is exchanged, knowledge and expertise are developed, and rewards are implemented.
This is the 5th part in a 6-part blog series on teams. Start with the first blog here.
If you’ve been following this blog series then by now you’ve been steadfast in 1) defining who is on your team, 2) ensuring everyone knows where the team is headed, and 3) establishing the norms for how the team should work together.
Unfortunately, here comes the hard part and the point at which it is easiest to give up. As soon as your perfect team settles into a state of awesomeness things out of your control begin to tear your hard work down. Someone from the corporate castle reaches down and picks up one or two of your team members and drops them in another division. The next day someone on your team resigns. The day after next, an email is distributed showcasing the heroic work of one of your team members without acknowledging the other’s efforts. Overnight, a flaw is found in the production system and work comes to a halt until the expert can be called in to fix it.
All your hard work to build a high performing team starts to slowly unravel in front of you, leaving you wondering if the organization has your back.
The problem is that there are so many factors outside of the team’s control that can impact their success. It’s an impossible task for a leader to try and address every roadblock and variable that negatively impacts the team. There are three areas, however, where a leader should focus their efforts to secure support from the organization to build systems and processes that enable teamwork.
The first is reward systems.
A very common deterrent to building high performing teams is reward systems that promote individual effort above teamwork. The levers that leaders have to reward their team efforts are often based on outdated compensation philosophies and software systems. Unfortunately, the design of the system is reinforcing and training leaders to look for individual heroics. These approaches worked fine when everyone was on an assembly line.
A second problem area is how the team is educated.
It is easy to isolate our thinking of education to the traditional sense of formal classroom training. A skill gap is identified and the individual is sent off for a few days to learn. Education needs to be viewed differently by leaders if they are to build a high performing team. For example, customer response processes that bypass the people working directly with the product and customers miss a tremendous educational opportunity. Teams that entirely outsource and isolate expertise to other divisions create dependency and potential for blaming each other when things go wrong. Ignoring the value of intact team training misses an opportunity to develop trust, tribal language, and cross-team knowledge.
A third factor is access to and control of information.
Team members need access to information in order to plan and collaborate with others. Most often information is isolated and on a need-to-know basis. These conditions make it difficult to develop trust, anticipate the needs of other team members, and suggest better alternatives to achieve the goal. A significant amount of wasted work is spent on recreating information and reformatting the same information due to poor information systems.
There are a number of reasons why organizations end up with less than optimal conditions for teams to thrive. Lack of resources, legacy systems, evolving priorities, company politics, and other factors contribute to the problem. This is frustrating for any leader working hard to create a high performing team. Attention is typically not given to understanding the context in which teams operate until a significant problem arises.
In order for teams to evolve and grow they need an organizational support system that has their back.
This is a significant challenge for leaders to address because it requires collaborating with multiple functions and other leaders who have authority over the systems in which they are attempting to change.
Here are a few recommendations for leaders to begin focusing their efforts on rewards, education, and information:
Team performance must be valued over individual heroics.
The current reward systems in place are likely built with the individual in mind. This makes the goal here even more daunting because of internal financial controls and the tools being used are expensive to change. However, the most creative and persistent leaders I’ve worked with found ways around this challenge.
One such leader convinced his peers and the CEO to be a pilot group and redistribute bonus dollars based on team performance rather than individual performance ratings. Another leader implemented an effective system of non-monetary rewards that stretched beyond just the employees, but to their families, and consistently executed it throughout the year.
Examine how compliments and awards are being communicated. Several groups I’ve worked with have eliminated individual awards altogether in an effort to shift towards a more team-oriented culture. This also comes down to the subtlety of leadership compliments given to an individual. The best leaders I’ve worked with were able to compliment an individual for their contribution while also helping the individual understand how their work contributed to the team and how others played a role in their success.
Education must be a team expectation and go well beyond traditional training efforts.
Evaluate the work processes and begin taking an audit on where the knowledge gaps exist for the team. Individuals are not likely to admit they have a knowledge gap, but when treated as a team exercise I have found that teams are very willing to expose areas where they need additional help. When team knowledge gaps exist it’s important to identify where the expertise resides in the organization and how to set up efficient lines of communication.
Assign expertise to teams that are consistent and ongoing. This structure allows trust to develop, better communication, and reliability. Educate the teams on the foundational knowledge of the functions they interact with such as finance or public relations. This is an effective way to establish trust with other organizations, build basic problem-solving skills, and understand how groups are connected to the organization’s mission.
Demand intact team training as much as possible. Sending off individuals to acquire new knowledge and skills and then expecting them to come back and apply the skills often fails. Intact team training allows the team to work on real problems, develop tribal language, share a common understanding of the benefits, and build trust.
Information will have to be easily accessible by the right people at the right time.
It may be counterintuitive, but an effective place to start is by looking at excess information. Data is often put together by individuals not directly tied to the product or customer and as a result, everything gets thrown in. This approach is overwhelming. A simple way to begin addressing this issue is by removing data points one at a time until the team gets down to the most critical information needed. Leaders are often surprised to find that data they have been reviewing for years no longer had any direct impact on the team’s performance.
Share information in context. Data often exists on a spreadsheet or a dashboard, but very little attention is given to the context in which the information was established. This can have significant implications for the decisions drawn from such data. The person compiling the data is usually based on their access to the systems, but not necessarily their understanding of the customer or product. One way to address this is by assigning someone from the team to those groups that produce and report the data. I’ve seen this have a significant impact on how the data is presented and ultimately decisions made that impact the business.
Evaluate the consistency of language. This is a common frustration in most organizations. Information is gathered from multiple sources and often duplicate information is assembled. Different groups need information for different reasons. Functional nomenclature grounded in educational expertise gets embedded in reports. Time must be spent on determining the simplest way to present the information in language that is well understood by all.
Examine the rewards, education, and information systems that are enabling or holding your team back. Discuss the limitations with your team. Reach out to the leaders responsible for these systems and collaborate on ways for these systems to evolve so that they help teams thrive.
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Read the first blog of the series here.
About the author:
Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former Operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.