The development of high-performing teams is often undervalued in business because it does not seem to directly impact the bottom line. However, failure to build teams with intention can lead to minimally acceptable performance at best, with less than optimal bottom line results. At worst, it can produce hard feelings and diminished trust, both of which undermine future team performance and significantly undercut long-term results because team members are contributing well below their potential.
In today’s business world of highly matrixed organizations, increasing numbers of geographically disperse and virtual employees, and volatile, uncertain and complex conditions, it is more important than ever to pay attention to team development.
A team development model
An effective team-building process (sometimes called team optimization) can help a team improve its performance significantly. It is fundamental for a team to know its purpose within the organization. Team members must understand their roles on the team and how their work supports the larger purpose. The team needs to understand where it is in its development process. And the team should be able to identify what is and what is not working in its group processes.
It’s also vital to understand how the team perceives its strengths and opportunities for improvement, as well as how others perceive them. It’s useful to understand how individual personality preferences and characteristics influence the group dynamics, too. With this solid foundation, teams can create a growth plan that addresses their specific development opportunities.
These imperatives coalesce in the classic framework and team-building sequence conceptualized in four phases by the late educational psychologist, Bruce Tuckman.
All teams have the opportunity to move through all four stages of development. Unfortunately, many teams stall out somewhere between storming and norming. Few teams actually reach the performing stage or beyond. Avoiding the pitfalls requires understanding and knowing how to anticipate and recognize them. Here are the main culprits that hold teams back.
Pitfalls to avoid
A common pitfall is allowing group processes and group dynamics to happen by chance. The result: teams miss opportunities to develop, be intentional about moving through the development stages, collaborate effectively and find synergies.
Teams sometimes also forget to reset when there is any type of change, such as when someone joins or leaves the team, the team is given new responsibilities or a new team leader is assigned. Such events typically send the team back to a previous development stage, often all the way back to the forming stage.
Another common challenge is when teams appear to exist in name only, based on formal reporting lines. Members of these teams may work in functional silos, coming together primarily to share information. They may not recognize the need to work together effectively to yield desired results for the larger organization. In particular, these teams often miss the opportunity to manage the team-oriented aspects of their work, such as providing direction and strategy to the downstream organization.
Finally, teams sometimes believe development is a once-in-a-while or once-a-year activity. The problem with that approach is team dynamics are always in play, so team building needs to be an ongoing process. Teams that pay attention to their group processes and dynamics on a consistent basis, and get support for appropriate interventions, can move more intentionally through the stages of development.
Seven critical steps
Overcoming these and other pitfalls to build the best teams possible requires following seven crucial steps:
- Define the team’s purpose. The more concretely the purpose can be defined, the more successful the team is likely to be. If the team will remain in existence indefinitely due to ongoing responsibilities, it can be helpful to state the team’s near-term purpose in addition to its long-term function. When appropriate, the description of a team’s most immediate purpose can include a deadline. Ordinarily, the team’s purpose definition will be subject to review and concurrence by all team members, instead of entirely dictated by someone who will not be an active team member. It will be difficult for a team to grow effectively and reach its potential when team members cannot agree on a statement of purpose.
- Determine high-performing characteristics needed to deliver on the team’s purpose. Different team strengths may be required for different team purposes. For example, a team charged with developing a vision of the organization’s products or services a decade into the future will demand different strengths than a team charged with finding ways to cut the company’s expenses during the next six months. Or consider a team whose purpose is to write an analysis of a diversified company’s competitive strengths and weaknesses. It might require members, each having a unique field of expertise, who can produce their own section of the report without a need for much interaction from other team members. Such a team might not require the same collaborative skills as the team envisioning the company’s future. Having an appropriate model of high-performance team behavior can provide essential guidance for ongoing team development.
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