Did you know there is an ideal number of people in effective teams? The effectiveness of any team can now be reliably assessed and improved, says Dr Achim Preuss, who presents a formula for success.
How effective is the leadership team where you work? Can you accurately measure this? And does it matter? Three intriguing questions! Let’s address the second two questions and you’ll then be able to answer the first.
There’s a widely-held belief in organisations that forming a team is the most creative and productive way to resolve any business challenge. But this isn’t true. Research often reveals that teams underperform and that team meetings are a boring waste of time, because collaboration is difficult to achieve.
This is certainly the case with leadership teams. An executive team is a relatively new concept. Yes, companies have always employed groups of managers, but it is only since the 1970s that senior management teams have really governed an organisation’s entire operation. Over the past four decades, extensive international research has been undertaken on management teams. Professor Henning Bang of the University of Oslo, a leading teams’ researcher, has reviewed these studies and conducted his own research to examine how teams make decisions and the factors that influence their effectiveness. From his findings, here are 13 factors that create a formula for successful and productive teams:
1. Purpose. The late Richard Hackman, who was a psychology professor at Harvard University, highlighted that teams need a compelling purpose. The team members need to know, and agree on, what tasks they’re supposed to be working on together. Without this, there’s a danger that individuals will pursue differing agendas.
2. Size. Professor Hackman also raised the issue of the optimum number of team members. There’s a perception that big teams are better than small ones because they have more resources to draw on. But as a team gets bigger, it becomes exponentially harder to manage. Many companies have come to realise that the ideal-size team can be fed with two pizzas because it consists of seven or eight members. Beyond that, a team starts to exhibit a large group dynamic in which extraverted individuals dominate.
3. Mix. Teams also need the right mix of members. You can put together a group of brilliant intellectuals but there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to work together effectively as a team. Like a successful marriage, the team members need the competencies and the personality that will bring out the best
in each other.
4. Norms. Good teams should establish and agree a behavioural code of conduct for how they’ll work together. For example, if someone’s phone rings in a meeting, will they answer it? Without an agreed code of what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t, teams can run into trouble.
5. Psychological safety. The team members must be able to show their vulnerability, without fear of negative consequences. They should share information and resources and make every effort to help each other. That’s teamwork ... but it only thrives in a safe environment.
6. Preparation. The team members should be fully prepared when they attend each meeting.
7. Focus. The discussions should centre on the challenges set out in the agenda and should not be allowed to drift off the topic.
8. Conflict. People wrongly assume that teams who work together harmoniously are better and more productive than teams who don’t. But studies show that grumpy orchestras play better together than contented ones. Task conflict is an acceptable and necessary part of any effective team, as different perspectives often need to be raised before major decisions are taken. The challenge is not to introduce relationship conflict, which is universally recognised as unhelpful. The team members should not be afraid to disagree with each other; they should be able to clearly express their opinions, whilst remaining curious and open to the opinions of others. Mutual trust and respect are important here. Without this, the team’s discussions will be easily derailed. Task conflict is an acceptable and necessary part of any effective team, as different perspectives often need to be raised before major decisions are taken.
9. Team spirit. Departmental managers will often claim they have a great spirit in the teams that they lead. But when they meet together with their peers, that cohesion is sometimes lacking. A leadership team needs to create a common identity and engender its own team spirit.
10. Deviance. Teams will benefit from having someone who asks “why are we doing this?” This form of deviant thinking is beneficial as it can open up ideas and challenge accepted practice. However, team leaders sometimes crack down on deviant thinkers, either by discouraging difficult questions or removing them from the team.
11. Results. An effective team will make a positive difference and create value in the organisation. It will make good decisions and those decisions will be implemented.
12. Learning. Every team has to meet the needs of external clients but it should also satisfy the personal needs and wellbeing of each member. The individuals within the team should benefit from being part of it. In other words, participation in the team will help them to learn, develop or become better in their own roles.
13. Improvement. The team should become stronger, as time passes, and the team members should become more cooperative and more adept at collaboration.
Assessing team performance
The above factors are important for the effectiveness of any team - whether it’s a leadership team, a project team or even a band. But is it practical and viable to assess them?
At Aon's Assessment Solutions, we’ve partnered with Professor Henning Bang to understand what kind of questions need to be asked to measure these factors. Together, we’ve developed a web-based questionnaire which assesses 24 variables that are important for team performance. Each member of the team completes this and they self-assess the team’s performance, its output, its strengths and any development areas. A separate questionnaire - like a 360-degree feedback instrument - is then completed by peers and ‘clients’ of the team, so that the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ ratings of the team can be compared.
These questionnaires have been trialled across 250 organisations. The team receives a report which details the range of scores across each dimension and provides specific, practical recommendations on how the team and each individual can improve their productivity. The advantage of this tool is that it quickly identifies any difficulties or tensions within the team, making it easier for the members to address the ‘elephant in the room’. Also, the team’s performance can be benchmarked against other international management teams. Used as a one-off intervention or part of an ongoing team development or team coaching initiative, it can provide a useful starting point for discussions around enhancing team effectiveness.
Does it matter whether teams are effective?
It certainly does. Creating a team to resolve a specific business problem may be the default response in any organisation but creating a truly effective team is a considerable challenge, involving the formula of factors listed above.
A collection of individual managers may call themselves a ‘team’ but that won’t actually be true unless they work together effectively to the benefit of the organisation and themselves. Perhaps not everyone who wants to be on the team should be included - and the team may function better if some individuals are forced off.
The negative consequences of an unproductive leadership team include poor decisions, unresolved problems and missed opportunities. Assessing and reviewing any team’s performance is important but this particularly applies to leadership teams.
So embrace the research findings on successful team performance and encourage your senior managers to reflect on their effectiveness. A stronger, more cohesive leadership team is an asset that will help your organisation to make better decisions, improve performance and achieve its goals.
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