Teams are big business today. Most businesses understand that it takes teams of people to achieve ambitious goals and objectives. Many of our clients are using “project teams” to get work done more efficiently and to execute on key strategic initiatives. We are using “team” based language now to describe everything from call center supervisors – “team leads” to cross-functional, multi-departmental temporary “teams” for large-scale projects.
In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership Captain Steve Ahlberg, retired Navy SEAL Commodore turned business consultant on high performance teams, tells us that most of the “teams” we refer to in business today are not actually teams but work groups. Teams take time and commitment to build. In the April 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, MIT Human Dynamics Lab director, Alex Pentland, noted the mystery of poor team development in most organizations comes down to an assumption that team building is an art and not a science. Some people can lead them and some people can’t, some teams work and some don’t – what can be done?
The research showed that high performing teams – “those blessed with the energy, creativity, and shared commitment to far surpass other teams” – had dynamics that were observable, quantifiable, and measurable. In short, great team building can be learned and taught. The characteristic that separated high performing teams from other teams “lay not in the content of a team’s discussions but in the manner in which it was communicating.” Teams that spent time communicating outside of regular meetings were overwhelmingly the highest performing teams. Pentland suggests leaders consider ideas like shared team break times, lunches or other non-formal communication experiences to be built into the regular workings of the team to achieve top performance. Similarly, Captain Ahlberg tells us in Evolutionaries that real teams, as opposed to work groups, devote time to “bonding” the team together through shared experiences, training and communication.
In our work with clients, we have created a similar team approach to strategic initiatives. We call these high performing teams “Evolutionary Teams”. Evolutionary Teams are special because they combine the design and bond of high performing teams with an Evolutionary emphasis on pursuing a cause or mission greater than any individual effort or ego. For this reason, Evolutionary Teams are more likely to execute on the organization’s big strategic objectives. Because they have the ability to balance between organizational traditions and pioneering vision, Evolutionary Teams can do what other teams can’t: they can raise the bar for what is possible in your organization, your industry, and even the world.
Here’s our secret recipe for building Evolutionary Teams:
- Step 1: Prepare the culture for teamwork. You do this by making short-term, highly manageable assignments to pairs of people. Just as Captain Ahlberg tells us that “if you can’t work with one other person, you can’t work with a team,” you first have to socialize your people to sharing work and sharing accountability in every part of the organization. This does not come naturally to most people! A “two is one, one is none” philosophy has to become a part of how all work gets done in the organization. At first this will seem odd, but within six months you will have the foundational base you need for a highly effective, motivated Evolutionary Team culture. Within three months you can begin asking teams of four and six to do the same thing on a larger scale.
- Step 2: Create a Charter for the larger cross-functional team you build for your next project that clearly defines the strategic objective this team will be responsible for executing. In a perfect world, people would volunteer and apply to be on the team and would be tested or auditioned for the team. The participants would both volunteer for and earn their right to be on the team. That’s in a perfect world. We know that cannot always happen.
- Step 3: Form the team. There are hundreds of books dedicated just to this topic alone – project teams. There are also hundreds of processes for forming project teams. We recommend you read them and choose a process best for your organization. But, to get you started, here are some of our most basic guidelines for selecting team members and forming an Evolutionary Team:
- Don’t choose all managers or supervisors (this is a classic mistake).
- Have at least three departments represented on the team.
- Limit the size of the team to the size of the work. The best teams are five to fifteen people.
- Unless you are going to fundamentally change a person’s job to be solely the work of the team, ask people to serve for only 90 days at a time.
- Give the team space and time to work on the project.
- Team members should end each meeting establishing clarity for what needs to be done and how the team will communicate those ongoing efforts with the rest of the organization. Like all good teams they will speak with “one voice.”
- The team should make progress presentations to senior leaders on a regular basis.
- The team should have a team sponsor that is a senior leader in the organization, and a team leader.
- Step 4: Identify milestones and key performance indicators that the team will use to measure progress and develop a project plan.
- Step 5: End the project on a fixed calendar date. If the goal has not been accomplished another team must be ready to take over and the first team will need to account for their failure.
The team becomes Evolutionary when a strategic organizational goal is accomplished and transformational change occurs, but it’s so seamless that no one really knows how it happened or whom to thank. Much like the SEAL teams, success often means that the bomb did not go off, the hostage came home or the evil dictator is dead. The outcome is what is noticed, but the team is in the background. Often no one even remembers their names. That’s OK, Evolutionary Teams kind of like it that way.