Ever been part of a workplace team that didn’t reach its goals? You’re not alone. Estimates are that 60 percent of teams fail, and that team members are often left with lingering negative feelings as a result.
Yet teams persist, simply because in many cases there’s no alternative. Tackling business problems or doing large-scale strategic planning requires a broad set of skills, and no one employee has this. Thus, companies form groups of experts from different professional areas to examine, analyze and provide a solution to whatever issue they’re tasked to address.
It’s not that teamwork is inherently flawed, or that employees don’t like working in groups. In fact, in a survey by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), 70 percent of senior-level professionals said they enjoy being part of a team, and nearly all – 91 percent – agreed that teams are essential to organizational success. The challenge is to structure and lead teams correctly so that they can get the job done. Here are seven ways to do this:
A team can only be as good as its leader. That’s because a team manager bears overall responsibility for most of the items on this list. This person needs to have both strong project management and interpersonal acumen, and be comfortable tasking work, following up and dealing with conflicts on the team. A team leader must also be able to leverage relationships outside the team to ensure that it gets the needed resources to succeed.
That being said, each team member also needs to feel accountable for the team’s overall performance (more in number 4).
Many teams fail because they don’t have support out of the gate from company leaders. But this can be crucial because teams often need to tap into resources to do their work, and it’s higher-ups who approve such expenses. These could be, for example, a budget for team training, materials, or funds for outsourced administrative support.
Another responsibility of leaders is to ensure that not too many teams are running at the same time. The CCL study points out that a full 95 percent of professionals currently serve on more than one team. Individual team members mustn’t be stretched so thin that they cannot fully focus on their team tasks. Such overload can easily lead to failed teams.
The best teams are ones in which each member brings a different, necessary skill set to the table. Before putting a team together, a company should carefully examine what roles are needed for it to complete its mission. Then, a designated team leader should review the resume, level and background of each person under consideration to put together the right mix.
It’s equally important that each team understands his or her specific role and what is expected as a result. There will often be overlaps in team member skills, and role clarification will help clear up confusion here.
Think getting work done should be a team’s number one focus? Consider this: many teams fail not because the members don’t have the expertise to do the job but because they never learn to work effectively together. Relationship-building should be the top priority of a team, at least in its early days. Group members need to get to know each other and be comfortable communicating with one another in order to be productive partners. This is especially true if team members are at differing levels of seniority, in which case lower-level staff might not otherwise have the confidence to weigh in at meetings.
When conflicts arise – and they will -- teams will work through the problems better if they’ve learned to trust each other from the outset. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a strong teams feels collectively accountable for its success, like a sports team that wins only when its players pull together.
It’s a team leader’s job to facilitate team-building exercises during the first meetings. Throughout the duration of the team, too, teams need periodically to take a break from focusing on tasks to have some fun.
Every good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Teams should have that, too. Defining a goal and scope of work along with a timeline for deliverables from the outset will go a long way to making a team successful. Company priorities change, of course, so flexibility in these areas is sometimes necessary. But, as a rule, if a team’s purpose is not agreed upon and communicated to all stakeholders (team members and the greater organization) from the beginning, trouble will follow.
With so much work to do and so many voices in the room, team meetings often run too long and waste time. At some point, meetings become less productive as attention spans wane. Starting each meeting with a narrow statement of achievement helps keep it focused and briefer. Moreover, it gives the team the sense that they’re making concrete progress, however small, which keeps morale high. It’s better to meet more often for shorter periods of time than to try to cover a larger agenda less often.
If the timeline is established clearly, it should be easy to monitor if the team is on track to meet its goals or if the schedule needs to be adjusted. And it’s important to do this regularly lest work veer off course. Teams will likely fail when they don’t stick to their plan of action, because it shows they’ve lost their sense of purpose or are mired in conflict, or both.
Teams aren’t going away any time soon, and why should they? A well-structured team with a good dynamic can produce excellent results for an organization. It’s all about putting the right people together and giving them the tools to get the work done.