Many articles have been written about what takes a team–either in sports or in business–from good to great. Experts at Vantage Leadership Consulting, a Chicago-based talent management firm, have reviewed 40 years of research and literature about team performance, as well as 35 years of institutional consulting experience.
Keith Goudy, a partner at Vantage who holds a doctorate in psychology from DePaul University, says high-performing teams tend to have these five aspects in common:
Is everyone on the same page? Are we all committed to this goal together? On great teams, individual goals are set aside for the benefit of the team, Goudy says. They know the way to win is to do what’s best for you, but also what’s best for the team. This is otherwise known in game theory as Nash’s equilibrium, made famous in the film A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe.
“[It’s] driving toward individual goals in a way that helps the team achieve its goals,” Goudy says. It also helps people understand the direct consequences their actions will have on the team and the organization.
Does the team think of it as “our work,” as opposed to “So-and-So’s project?” Goudy and his colleagues observed when teams have an unbelievably high bar they’re trying to reach as a team, the barriers between individuals seem to fall, and they act more as business owners, as opposed to functional leaders.
For example, at a typical team meeting, the leader asks for Round Robin reports on various aspects of the business. While others are talking, people are on their computers or smartphones. This changes, however, when you’re talking about a shared pot of money, when what each person’s doing ties into the whole, Goudy says. This is where a good team becomes a great team. “Having a big stretch goal that everyone’s on the hook for together,” Goudy adds.
Goudy recently worked with a team whose pricing strategy was to maintain prices at current levels after its major competitor went out of business. However, once the team sought to take over the remaining market share, the team leader changed course and raised prices. While it may help the company’s bottom line, the abrupt decision and timing made things harder–rather than easier–for the team, Goudy notes.
He sees this dynamic play out often among teams whose members don’t get the information they need from their colleagues to help them execute their goals. To remedy this, Goudy suggests teams ask questions like:
- Do we communicate in ways that makes it easier for the team to reach its goals?
- Do we know how we can help each other?
- Do we communicate frequently and informally or once a quarter?
- Do we have access to the information we need to do our jobs more effectively?
“When there’s a problem, [does the team] nip it in the bud and fix it, so it’s really fixed?” Goudy asks. “High-performing teams have a wonderful ability to transform conflict into value.”
For example, one team Vantage worked with struggled with who had the final word in making key business decisions. “Adding to the confusion was the tendency to handle issues on an ad hoc basis,” Goudy explains, where sometimes an experienced leader made the decision while other times the corporate office made the decision on a similar issue.
The team used a RACI chart to map key decisions. “For each decision, there was agreement on who had responsibility [R] for the decision, who was organizationally accountable [A], who needed to be consulted [C] prior to the decision, and who would be informed [I] once the decision was made,” Goudy says. Six months after the process was implemented, the team reported much less conflict and better communication surrounding key decisions.
Central to having a strong team is building a climate of trust, Goudy says. And for that to happen, you need to get to know each other. Much of this is established by the team leader, Goudy says. “People can be open and candid and yet aggressive with their ideas, take chances, speak frankly in a way that’s received as respectful,” he says.
For example, Vantage worked with a manufacturing team in Brazil that has consistently improved performance year after year. However, while the individual members were making their numbers, they lacked connectedness and camaraderie.
“They feel they haven’t realized the value of the team as a whole,” Goudy explains. To continue to grow, they realized they needed to come together at another level. Goudy likens it to professional basketball, where the lazy NBA season turns into a battle during the playoffs. Individuals and teams come together at another level. To win a championship, they need to achieve together.