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  • Writer's pictureAwatif Yahya

Building Effective Teams

Very few people work in pure silos, most of us work within a community of some sort, be it a professional affiliation or geographically bound. Teams are crucial for the success of work we do.

Let’s begin by differentiating a “working group” from a “team”. A working group consists of people who share ideas and learn from one another but are not interdependent and are not working toward a shared goal.

A team on the other hand, has specific characteristics as defined by Leigh L. Thompson, author of Making The Team, A Guide For Managers:

҉ A shared goal

҉ Interdependence

҉ Memberships bound over a specific period (typically 1-2 years)

҉ Members have authority to manage their work and processes

҉ Operate in large social systems (e.g. organizations)

҉ Draw upon resources from outside the team and vice versa

Organizations put teams together to encourage innovation, improve productivity and customer service, tap into different skills and experiences, gain competitive advantage, drive for diversity and global view, get commitment and ownership for the work delivered.

For those reasons, it pays off to design an effective team from the very beginning and avoid potential hurdles in the future. Here are some good questions to ask when designing a team:

1. What work needs to be done?

2. Is the goal clearly defined?

3. How much authority does the team have or are allowed to have?

4. What is the focus of the work the team will do?

5. What is the degree of task interdependence among team members?

6. Is there a correct solution that should be readily demonstrated and communicated to members?

7. Are team member interests perfectly aligned, opposing or mixed in nature?

8. How big should the team be?

9. Will time pressure be good or bad thing for the team?

How do I design an effective team?

Organizations are not confined to one particular design for their teams, there are several types of teams to pick from, and a mixture of styles. Organizations should adopt a best-fit style depending on the nature of work needed and organizational culture.

The table below summarizes four team types identified by Leigh L. Thompson:

It is important to note here that conflict among team members is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a bit of conflict can lead to innovative ideas, increased accuracy, and ultimately better decision making. It all depends on the team dynamics and their mindset.

Instead of using “retreats” to resolve each and every team conflict, companies should encourage members to adopt a Growth Mindset, embrace conflict, look for the root-cause and potential for opportunities. Retreats and team activities should be used to build mutual trust, enhance interpersonal relations and as means of celebrating success.

Whatever team type an organization chooses; it is crucial to take into consideration the team size. A good formula to follow is:

where “n” is the number of members in a team. A model team size is fewer than 10 people.

Beware of bad team habits:

Social Loafing: happens when people in a team do not work as hard as they do when they are working alone. This is an indication of motivation loss. To minimize social loafing, the team needs to be reminded of the goal, the importance of involvement and given visibility of the reward.

Free Riders: happens when members benefit from the efforts of others in the team while contributing little or nothing themselves. To tackle this issue, inject individual expectations as well as team performance metrics into contracts for the team.

Group Thinking: happens when members place consensus above all other priorities including good judgement. This behavior is often observed in groups who regard themselves invulnerable and at the same time morally correct. To address this issue, monitor and reduce the team size, remove pressure towards uniformity and encourage diversity of thought. Assign facilitators, people who can play devil’s advocates role and invite external perspectives to encourage different viewpoints.

Escalation of Commitment: happens when teams persist with a loosing course of action even when faced with clear evidence to the contrary. To avoid this, make sure you set limits to continued investment, recognize sunk costs, appoint external reviewers, avoid the bystander effect and/or tunnel vision.

The Abilene Paradox: happens when members seek consensus in order to avoid conflict. If this is a common behavior in a team, allow members to have a private vote system and provide a formal forum for controversial views (e.g. segmenting the discussion into pros and cons).

Group Polarization: happens when team discussions intensify team opinion producing more extreme judgement than by pooling individual views separately. This is driven by two factors: “the need to be right” and “the need to be liked”. Introducing scientific facts and numbers can help address this issue as well as appointing external governance body for review.

What about Virtual Teams?

More and more teams operate virtually nowadays, this is driven by global expansion, millennials and gig economy among other factors. If you are part of a virtual team and wonder how you can build effective teams checkout the Virtual Power Teams book by my good friend Peter Ivanov.

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