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  • 01.12.15

The Key Habit Of Highly Effective Teams

Commit to these new strategies, and the rest will follow suit.

The Key Habit Of Highly Effective Teams
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Cardus]

In Silicon Valley, where I work, teams are obsessed with crossing the divide between having great dreams and actually achieving them. It’s the difference between world-shaking impact and dreaded obscurity. I’ve personally been on teams that have experienced both, and I’ve observed many more in action. I’ve learned teams that achieve great things share one key habit–they are committed to clarity. Clarity is their hidden, often unspoken advantage.

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Teams armed with clarity know exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and who’s responsible. They hit their deadlines, reach their milestones, and even build billion-dollar businesses. Those without it spin in circles, waste time, and lose steam.

Technology can help teams achieve this clarity. But mostly teams get clarity from leaders who are habitual about creating it. Whether you’re a Fortune-500 CEO or leading a three-person project team, I believe your primary function as a leader is to provide clarity. And that takes commitment to three things: Clarity of purpose, clarity of plan, and clarity of responsibility.

Here are some simple ways to achieve this.

Clarity Of Purpose

Do you know what you’re trying to achieve? Does your team? If you have clarity of purpose, everyone is on the same page when asked, “If we’re wildly successful, how will the world be different?”

“I made a lot of money” doesn’t count. While financial success can be the result of achieving your business’s purpose, it’s not the purpose in and of itself. Some of the best teams in business today are those driven by a purpose connected to a vision for a more helpful, innovative, or thriving world. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Airbnb each articulate a purpose focused on the greater good–while making serious money.

Once your purpose is more defined, your job as a leader is to relentlessly ground your team in it. After all, it’s easy to forget your purpose in the fog of war.

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Not long ago, a developer on my team fell into a funk, leading him to wonder what he was doing with his career. At Asana, our purpose is informed by our mission “to help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly.” I refer back to this constantly to keep us motivated and inspired, so I asked him what the next piece of work he had to do was. “Repair an old chunk of code,” he replied. I asked him why he was repairing the code, and he answered, “to improve the product.” I continued to ask him why. He was soon struck with clarity of his work’s purpose. “So teams can collaborate better and achieve their goals,” at which point he smiled and dove back into his work, motivated that what he was doing had meaning.

Clarity Of Plan

The only thing more frustrating than having no purpose is having an exciting and meaningful purpose that nobody on your team knows how to achieve. If clarity of purpose provides the “why,” clarity of plan provides the “how.”

Clarity of plan takes an investment of time. I recommend spending a few days in focused planning with your team. As part of this foundational planning, lay out a handful of pillars that you believe will lead to success in your mission–your “master strategy.” At Asana, key pillars include marrying simplicity with power and speed in our product strategy; creating a pricing model that balances ease with growth in our business strategy; and prioritizing security above all else in our engineering strategy.

Next, establish a set of measurable key results that you aim to achieve by specific dates to support these pillars.

Finally, map out the big projects that your team will take on to achieve those key results, and then the specific tasks to achieve those. Make sure everything the team plans to do for the next several months flows straight back to the purpose of the organization and its master strategy. As the team leader, you’ve now established clarity on when to celebrate and when you need to correct course, because you know what needs to get done.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to spare for this type of exercise,” I’ve found that this investment pays for itself many times over in avoiding weekly and even daily confusion. It’s critical that your plan is not some dusty document that is immediately forgotten or only available to executives. Everyone works together to create it. Everyone has access to it. Everyone knows how he or she fits in.

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Do this, and your team will have two big new areas of clarity they might not have had before. Understanding what they’re doing and why means fewer missed deadlines and far more progress and productivity.

Clarity Of Responsibility

When no one is responsible for something, it doesn’t get done. When two or more people share unclear responsibility, it still doesn’t get done–and it’s easily coupled with politics, territorial confusion, and failure. The final step to establishing maximum clarity across your team is rigorously answering the question of “who.”

Clarity of responsibility ensures that one person holds ultimate responsibility for each piece of the plan. This directly responsible individual isn’t just the person on the hook if it fails. They’re the true owner holding autonomy, delegation duties, and decision-making power. Establish this empowering framework and watch individuals on your team bring their full motivations to work.

Look back at your plan: your big goals should have one person responsible for them. The projects and tasks can then be meted out and assigned to several other people who are the specialists for getting those pieces done. Put decision making as close to the ground as possible–with the person who has the most information and time to think creatively about that area.

As a leader committed to clarity of responsibility, you won’t have to tell people how to achieve their goals. Instead, you’re asking them for outcomes and giving them space to create solutions. Great leaders coach, serve, and help their teams grow; even advise strongly. But if you want to see people achieve great things, it’s best to trust them or replace them, not meddle.

There’s a common but incomplete piece of leadership advice that states, “As a leader, your job is to empower everyone around you.” Ironically, this statement is missing clarity on how to do that. So next time, consider: “As a leader, your job is to empower everyone around you with maximum clarity.”

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By cultivating this habit, teams can go from dreaming big dreams to achieving great things.

About the author

Justin Rosenstein is the cofounder of Asana, along with Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz. Asana's software helps teams work together more easily, without the headache of email.

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