Teams are complex structures in that, irrespective of their domain, they are made up of a diverse concoction of individuals (who by their very nature are complex); though when one is part of a strong team it can be a massively rewarding experience and the opposite is so true also. There are numerous tenets of teams, in fact, there are countless books on the subject! In this blog, we will discuss a number of those that great teams embody.
Trust and accountability
Trust among team members underpins so much in the team environment. What is ‘trust’ in a team environment? Truthfully, it can take many forms and can be seen in several key outcomes that you want great teams to showcase. If trust exists, team members can show vulnerability and not be afraid to say that they made a mistake or they don’t understand something. They can say it without any fear of humiliation or retribution. They say it in confidence that their colleagues will support them and help. In this form, trust is interchangeable with psychological safety. Trust also surfaces as acceptance of team members to allow another member take responsibility for an area or key activity in the team without looking over their shoulder. They trust the person's capabilities and their transparency were things to go wrong. With trust in this form, it allows for ownership and accountability to occur. If team members become accountable for the team and its component parts, then the load of the team is truly shared. When there are high levels of trust, it removes any fear of micro management. Trust allows the individuals to flourish.
Great teams work in an environment where trust is inherent. What is also very important is that great teams understand that trust is something that takes time to establish. In developing trust, there may be many bumps along the road but the benefits of real trust is worth striving for.
Every team’s aim is to become greater than the sum of their parts. If they achieve this, the probability of success increases. Effective communication is paramount on that journey. What is ‘effective communication'? For us, it's the transition of sufficient information that's easily consumable by all team members as well as all that depend on the team's outcomes. To allow this to happen, there needs to be an awareness across the team of what info is needed by other team members. There are two risks at play here; too little information and information overload. Both of these cause their own problems, from starving the team of vital needs to flooding and therefore an inability to identify relevancy. Finding that middle ground is the key that great teams aim for. Who’s responsible for this in a team? Like a lot of things in a team environment, this needs to be owned by everyone, equally. Team members need to respect each other enough to ask others what info they need from them and how frequent. Once that is roughly defined, there needs to be platforms through which this info is shared, meetings, wikis, reports, dashboards, mailing lists, chatrooms. The info must be readily available to be easily consumable.
A company Chris used to work for, Ericsson, used to have a slogan at one point; ‘It's about communication between people - the rest is technology’. This is so true and don’t underestimate the importance of it.
In a team environment, ‘everything goes well until it doesn’t (i.e. things get difficult or challenging)’ - that's when average teams unravel and good teams rally. It's at these times when communication becomes even more important, great teams stay connected and communicate well when the challenges are greatest!
The philosophy of Continuous Improvement (CI) is to foster an ongoing commitment to improving any aspect of a person, a process, a product, or a service. CI is very much a mindset within a team environment, the team seeks opportunities to improve. It’s also a mindset at an individual level, as the individual forms part of the group and their role and the improvements they make can have a large impact on the team’s maturity. More importantly than the mindset is their reaction to failures or mistakes. Great teams accept that failures and mistakes occur, that is the first real indicator, ‘acceptance’. Great teams welcome mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn. However, accepting and learning is only the first step; seeing the opportunity that presents itself is the real differentiator between good and great teams. Its very much a ‘growth mindset’ at play. The other thing to call out here is that these improvements don’t need to be large or groundbreaking. Great teams make small changes, but consistently. It's this flow of small changes, which can lead to small wins, which accumulate into larger improvements and wins. Even at the individual level, making a small change to how a person works, addressing a bad habit or making an improvement that makes things 1% better, it cumulatively adds up when 10 team members make the same change. An improvement, however small, has a positive effect on the team member or members involved in implementing or using it. It's these small confidence boosts that contribute to the healthy, progressive environment that all great teams have.
Putting in place the platforms through which these CI can be proposed and implemented is important. Equally important is acknowledging the improvement and celebrating it.
Play to your Strengths
Why do the Argentinian soccer team play a lot of ball to Lionel Messi, why not play it to the other side of the field? An easy answer; he's their best player. They are playing to their strengths. A lot of teams, irrespective of their domain, tend to focus on their weaknesses, more so than fully tapping into their strengths. Take a typical cross functional software team with full delivery responsibilities and skills at hand. If you have ae need for documentation in a software business (hint, you should!), and the team has an engineer with deep skills in CI/CD , why not ensure that they have automated pipelines setup that help their release process and make the documentation experience always consistent with the code they release? This can make them more efficient and make time gains in that area because they have availed of the skillset of one of their members.
The other more important aspect of playing to your strengths is the psychological impact it has on the team members. When someone is doing something that they are good at or skilled in, they often are in a happy place. The positivity that this brings can be very worthwhile to the whole group. Happy team members are another key contributor to the positive team environment.
Obviously you can’t ignore your weaknesses, but not availing of the rewards that may be available to your team by focusing on their strengths is arguably a weakness in the teams dynamic.
A team needs to have a goal, vision or target that they are working towards. This target or goal needs to be understood and agreed by all team members. With this in place, there is direction.
People have egos, personalities, emotions and ultimately, most people want to progress themselves. These are all normal human traits. There is nothing wrong with trying to progress yourself, it's actually very important that team members are driven and want to progress. But not at the expense of the team and its goals. It may sound a bit harsh, but this article is looking at the tenets or principles that are at play in great teams and this is one of them; the team members put the team first. Team members try to align their own personal goals with that of the team.