Businesses today are big on teams. Managers and employees are 50 percent more likely to collaborate on activities than they were in the past, according to data from the Harvard Business Review.
But creating a so-called dream team can be a challenge for many organizations. When they don't work they can actually drain productivity and waste time, leaving those searching to discover the recipe for building the perfect team scratching their heads and wondering where it all went wrong.
The quest for this elusive secret to team-building is what prompted researchers at Google to begin a study, dubbed Project Aristotle, which shed some light on why some teams succeed and other fail—and why building one that will be successful can take time.
What they found is that teams aren't really about people, it's the architecture that supports teams that makes them succeed or fail. A well-built team, a Google researcher said, resembles a democracy with participants given equal voice, respect from other members, clear goals and meaningful work.
The dysfunctional teams, well, they're probably one of the reasons Americans spend 15 percent of an organization's collective time sitting in meetings, meetings that 67 percent of executives in one poll described as failures.
Creating a superstar team isn't just about throwing together a group of talented individuals; it's about creating a framework so they can work together successfully, said Mike Cardus, an expert in creating and sustaining high performance teams. "I think that with the proper structure in the organization [team building] can happen very quickly," he said. "If the company doesn't support folks in terms of resources, time and clarity, it can take much longer to get done."
What also takes time is setting up your organization so that multiple teams can work effectively with one another, said Glenn Llopis, president of the Glenn Llopis Group. This requires the organization to develop a culture that supports seamless interaction between multiple groups.
So where to begin?
A solid team doesn't start by collecting people, it starts by identifying goals. Establish a clear vision for the team's purpose and perhaps more importantly, make sure you actually need a team to accomplish that goal. Sometimes businesses create teams to work on tasks that are better suited to one person, said Cardus. Ideally teams should work on projects that require input from multiple departments or disciplines.
Just as a team needs a clear vision, each team member should also have a clear idea of what his or her role is on that team and what they will do to help the team achieve its ultimate goal. "People have to know how their skill set and talent fits into that structure," said Cardus. "If the team leader can't explain to the team member how that person fits, there really is no need for them to be there."
Teams also need to clearly outline processes and decision-making procedures."Nothing crushes a team or a member faster than thinking there is going to be a vote and then after a discussion of the issue the leaders said, 'I've already decided to do X, Y and Z,'" said Llopis. Also be clear about how the team should interact with one another, particularly when you have individuals on the team that have different rankings within the organization. Setting clear boundaries can reduce conflict. "Often when team members aren't getting along, it's not a personality clash, it's a system problem that is setting up behavior that is not conducive to getting things done," said Llopis. "When the process is clear the politics of the team seem to go away."
Beware of situations where one leader takes control of the team and no one else has any recourse or way to talk about the decisions that are being made. "This usually happens when there is gross power differential on the team," said Llopis. "That's not a team, it's a manager delegating tasks," said Llopis.
Team members don't function well when they're afraid to speak freely. Individuals on the team have to be able to be vulnerable, said Llopis, for example, being able to speak up and ask questions when they don't understand something. They also have to be courageous, he said. "Great teams have to take risks, those who don't are the ones that aren't being vulnerable enough to experience a degree of failure," said Llopis. The Google research confirms that teams falter when individual members are unwilling to speak up because of a negative group climate.
Teams also have to be willing to move past the status quo. If a team simply rehashes issues using the same old thought processes your company has always used in the past, it's stuck in what Llopis calls substitutional thinking mode. To make progress businesses need to adopt a more novel approach—evolutionary thinking that moves past what the company has always done and looks for better ways of accomplishing goals. Doing things the old way might get you short term wins-but will fall short over the long haul.
Keep in mind, it's not enough to establish a team and then let it get to work. Teams take time to build because they require constant calibration to ensure they continue to function well, said Llopis. They're not a stationary object but a living organism that needs to evolve with the proper support in order to succeed.