The term “team” is used so loosely that it is often meaningless, so let’s start with a basic definition: a “team” is two or more people who share responsibility for a common objective, and whose efforts towards that objective benefit from coordination and communication. It is only worth investing the time and energy into building a team when there is a real and specific return on that investment — more successful delivery of objectives, otherwise what you have is a “workgroup.”
Starting with that basic definition, here are four core elements required for building an effective team:
1. Team is empowered by leadership and given clear objectives, expectations, and parameters.
2. Leadership provides the necessary resources – skill sets and availability of team members, budget, access to critical information and stakeholders, etc.
3. Free flow of information – disagreement and conflict are welcomed and resolved constructively.
4. Team meets (or exceeds) its objectives, AND contributes to the organizational knowledge and talent pool, while generating job satisfaction.
The first vital role of team leadership is to ensure that the team understands the parameters it is being given, and that it is empowered within those parameters to make decisions and act. A team doesn’t have to have full authority to do whatever it wants to do, but it does need to have some room to move, and it needs to know how much room it does have.
A common error in constructing teams is “throwing headcount at the problem”. Having “enough” people to work on the objectives is meaningless if they don’t have the necessary skills for what is being asked of them. This is a second vital role of leadership: to ensure that a team has the right skills and resources to fulfill its mission, including skill sets, available time, budget, and access to stakeholders and information.
Another pre-requisite of an effective team is free and unrestricted flow of information among the team members, from leadership on through the team. Surprisingly, the signal that information is actually flowing freely enough to support an effective team is something that many teams avoid: conflict. If information is truly flowing freely, the atmosphere will be rife with disagreements, varying viewpoints, and — yes — conflict. Teams that put too much emphasis on harmony, getting along, or unity of thinking are unlikely to be thinking broadly enough to be very creative or effective.
A fifth and final element of effective teams is the output. Obviously, a team must meet or exceed its stated objectives. But beyond that, an effective team does this in a way that strengthens the organization in the long run by adding institutional knowledge, developing people and deepening the talent pool, generating job satisfaction and company loyalty, etc. Teams that are accomplishing their objectives but are burning people out, generating high turnover, etc. cost the company more in the long run than they contribute. Building and maintaining an effective team requires monitoring and delivering these types of “people” outputs as well as fulfillment of objectives.