Good Teams Don’t Just Happen


Everything in the workplace involves teams, formal or informal. We have grown accustomed to this structure and most of us believe we know very well how to get work done in a team environment. But do we?

Formal teams are established for multiple reasons. Sometimes it is because one person alone cannot complete the amount of work to be done. Often, the task at hand requires expertise from cross disciplines. Or maybe the responsibility for the end product is shared across departments and organizations and all must have input into the way the work is to be done. Informal teams, on the other hand, most often evolve out of necessity. “I can’t get this done alone.” This may still include all the same reasons for creating the formal team: too big to complete, need varying expertise, joint responsibility for the outcome. However, informal teams tend to be more flexible, more productive, and develop and disband, based on the work to be done, not going on forever to become an organizational burden in and of themselves.

Now consider some widely accepted keys to an effective team:

  • A clear purpose
  • Skills and expertise needed for the task at hand
  • Structure
  • Defined roles and responsibilities
  • Communications
  • Processes
  • Individuals who know how to work as members of a team

If the above keys are true for both formal and informal teams, why are informal teams often more effective than the formal ones? Because the informal teams have a clear primary driver, with all the other “keys” subordinated to that driver. And that is the clear purpose, coupled with a motivated champion and motivated team members. “I can’t accomplish the clear purpose alone. I don’t have all the skills and expertise needed to accomplish the clear purpose.” These kinds of teams are very good on continuous improvement projects. As projects increase in size and scope, however, formal teams are required.

With that critical need in mind, an informal team evolves based on the skills and expertise required, combined with choosing team members who have self-selected or who are willing to be on the team and who most likely have demonstrated in the past that they are “team capable.” Team-capable members will know the benefit of and have the ability to implement defined roles and responsibilities within the team. They will function well in any role, seeing the success of the team and achievement of the clear purpose as shared success, not struggling to grab control as leader to impress, as may be seen in a formal, management-spawned team.

Just as with a baseball team, each team member needs to know his or her position and how to play it well. Everyone needs to know who the team captain or leader is, as well as who is responsible for what. If the first baseman decides he is going to be the pitcher or the pitcher is going to be counted on to hit a home run, the game is not going to be won. To have a successful team, competent people with known roles and responsibilities are needed, especially as the size of the team increases.

How will the team get things done? Well, there have to be rules for how the game is going to be played. Those rules are the processes we define for how things get done. These processes are the standards for the moment until a better process or standard is defined. If you don’t have a stable process you won’t know if a change you made to it results in an improvement or is just a random event, so it is important that you establish stability. Things can be changed if it can be shown there is a better way of doing it, which is where the standards come into play. Having these standards allows us to determine whether or not our creative idea is better, and if it is, we can adopt it. Thus we need data to make decisions.

We can’t forget about communication. How many times have we thought we communicated effectively only to find out we haven’t? This all sounds so simple, but it can be very complex. How many of us have gotten into e-mail wars with someone we don’t know or don’t know well? Why does that happen? It happens, in large part, because we make assumptions about the other person’s intent. Those assumptions or perceptions become our reality, even though they may be completely wrong. We infer based on what facts we know about the other person and end up walking up the ladder of inference. What if our assumptions are wrong? We need to check our assumptions before we take them as reality. One might be surprised and find that the other person made a set of wrong assumptions, too. To avoid issues such as this, it is important to establish a human bond between team members by building relationships. Having meetings to get to know people, or even going out to lunch or a sporting event with them can do this. Good communication is necessary for teams to work well so that people don’t walk up the ladder of inference. It’s always important to ask, “is this what you mean” and repeat back what you heard in a non-defensive manner.

The ultimate purpose for any work done in an organization should be clearly tied to creating value for the customer, just as any clear purpose for a team must be articulated in terms of its contribution to creating value for the customer. To that end, it is critically important for individual employees to understand what creates value and how they and their work contribute to creating value for the customer.

Along with the presence of these strong team member attributes there must be structure, including defined roles and responsibilities, good communication, and well-defined processes to have a successful team.

How, then, can we intentionally develop employees and the organization to create effective teams, be they informal or formal, to get the job done? Let them practice. Create a practice field for individuals to come together and experience a situation where they have a task and no clear, pre-ordained structure for how to get it done. In both formal and informal teams people need to learn how to work together, establish processes where required and create open communications to get the job done right. People need to take responsibility for specific tasks and not assume the job will just get done. If the team is effective it does not depend on the leader/boss to make all the decisions. The bigger team becomes a bunch of little teams working together based on clear objectives, which they can define for themselves to work a given task.

This practice field is created through experiential learning. Apprenticeship and trial by fire have long been trusted and effective means of teaching. A practice field that simulates a situation where a team needs to form to survive provides much-needed learning opportunities and does so risk free.

— Eugene Greenstein, Ph.D., is an associate of Pendaran, Inc., based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Additional thoughts on the value of experiential learning for teams and organizations as a whole can be found at the organization’s website