Context matters in solving teamwork challenges

February 4, 2021

We are deep into researching team performance. What makes a high performing team? Which factors are most predictive of good performance? What’s the one thing a team should do first? We have suggestions based on significant research we have undertaken. But one word always crops up to challenge any simplistic assumption…


What’s the context that the team is facing?

We’ve been speaking to coaches, reviewing research, reading books on team performance. Some get the importance of context — others offer a more formulaic solution. One of the books we’d recommend is Committed Teams. Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer and Derek Newberry reference research from Wharton’s Executive Development Programme. They understand that context is important and so they offer tips for different teams and the challenges they may face.

Virtual Teams

The first context they highlight are the extra challenges that virtual teams face.

Success rates in virtual teams is often low. “In their 2001 study of 70 virtual teams, Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta found that 82 per cent of virtual teams fell short of their goals and 33 per cent rated themselves as largely unsuccessful”. Three areas where virtual teams need to be mindful are communication, trust and establishing team norms.

  • Communication. If you are in a remote team then you need to over-invest in how you address communication challenges. Suggestions include: “update, update, update”. “Choose the right communication channels”. They offer a contemporary nod to Slack that “functions like a virtual water-cooler”. Less obvious is the suggestion to “make socialising an agenda item”. They reference the challenge in of global working. “Establish deadlines in a standard timezone, build in extra time in case of emergency”.
  • Trust. Establishing trust is one of the most predictive factors of success in any team. “For virtual teams trust is the essential glue to bind teammates together across distances and time-zones”. Research at MIT indicates that face to face communication is four times as effective as electronic. If you can — get the team together. Learning how to build trust when you are remote is a lesson for the modern world.
  • Create team norms. Develop and document agreed ways to behave when remote. Turning up late for a remote meeting is even more annoying that poor face to face meeting etiquette. Agree how you will behave. Check you stick to those behaviours!
Start Ups

The next team environment they tackle are “start up teams”. We know this territory well and again the perspective is insightful.

  • Resilience. Early stage companies experience ups and downs. The authors reference Julie Livingstone of Y Combinator. “If the founders I spoke with were super-human in any way I’d say it was in their perseverance. When picking the members of your start up team prioritise bringing people on board who have proven that they are able to drive doggedly towards fulfilling a vision”. It’s important to hire for resilience but can resilience be learned? Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology offers some tips.
  • Network. Less obvious that the need for resilience is the network required to grow. We’ve seen this with many start-ups. They need reminding to communicate with the network. “Successful start up teams cultivate a robust framework of external relationships”. This includes:“supporters (who give you the financial or technical support), advocates (who are willing to go to bat with skeptics and open doors) and advisers (who can help you polish ideas).”
  • Reflection. The third tip for start up teams is to reflect on past actions and decisions. In our experience many start ups are actually better than this than other teams. Many start up teams work agile where reflection is one of the core principles. Yet there is no denying how important reflection is for a start up. “Start-up teams are on a seatbelt free roller coaster ride. In this environment reflection can go by the wayside”. The suggestions are well established. Establish checkpoints for key team issues. Check the participation & engagement of individual team members. Flag problems when they arise. Making pivots where necessary”.
Innovation teams

Next up; innovation. Teams with an “innovative culture have a few distinctive habits”. ‘Innovation requires discipline. It depends on social interaction. It can be learned”.

  • Values. The first recommendation is again close to our hearts. “A team that has committed to a well defined set of values knows how to spend its creative energy”. Saberr research shows how important values alignment is to team performance. The fact that this is even more important in teams needing innovation make sense. “Values help orient your team and guide exploration of multiple perspectives on a problem.”
  • Diversity. The flip side of this is again in line with Saberr’s research. High performing teams are aligned on values. They also recognise the need to bring divergent perspectives to a problem. There are many ways to do this including when you’re forming teams. It’s also possible to source new ideas through “reading, sabbaticals, prototyping or competing”.
  • Evidence based decisions. Innovation teams experiment, measure and adapt. Authors point to Steve Blank, and the Lean Start up movement. Obsess about the question, “how can we create work-based experiments to test and refine our ideas?”

Next up leadership teams. Many of the coaches we have been working with work with Leadership teams. Often their advice is to show some vulnerability. Don’t act (or even worse believe) that you have all the answers.

  • Goals. As expected setting goals is key. It was interesting that this was set in a broad context. “Members of a top team need to make sure that they are aligned behind shared priorities”. “The whole top team should ask whether it is aligned and connected enough with the rest of the organisation and the broader environment.”
  • Network. Great leadership teams are rooted in the organisations that they run. “Top teams tend to insulate themselves from the operational and customer facing realities of their organisations”. That’s not healthy. “They also have trouble seeing beyond their own opinions”. That’s dangerous. “Groupthink makes ideas nearly impervious to decision.”
  • Decision making. “Periodically assess decision making processes and leverage social networks”. The focus on decision process is key here. A good decision is not replicable. A good process is replicable. Daniel Kahnmann offers some simple but elegant advice later in this lecture.

Finally they tackle everyone’s favourite team: the committee. If you are setting up a committee you have to ask the existential question: why? You then need to get quite practical about how the committee will operate.

  • Purpose. We love this suggestion! “The first question you should ask about your committee: Does it even need to exist?”.
  • Roles. The next questions become more practical. “The key considerations for committees are what we call the 5xS factors: size, schedule, skills, social capital and styles”. “Answer the WIIFM question.”
  • Accountability. “In committee environments you have to work hard to hold people accountable”. Sounds like they’ve been on some committees huh! “We are generally not big fans of wielding the stick of accountability” but needs must.
  • Decision. Finally again the need for good decision processes. One tip “uncouple authority and seniority. Sometimes it’s the junior person that needs to take charge”.

We highly recommend Committed Teams in part because it the model is not over simplistic. The book describes how teams should commit to goals, check progress and close gaps on a regular basis. It’s practical useful advice but suggestion are made with an understanding of context.

The context of a team is also broader that the focus of the team. There are many other questions to consider. Where are the team located? What’s the profile of the team members? Is the team is set up mode or more mature? The complexity could become daunting. But AI can help recommend context specific solutions to teams problems. If, Amazon was able to suggest Committed Teams to us based on reading habits, it’s time to apply that level of personalisation in workplace technology.

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