High-Performing Team Series - Why Fuss over Teams?

I can’t remember when there wasn’t some emphasis on participating in a team—starting back in college when our assignments moved from individual to team assignments and continuing into every single job I’ve had since. Even when moving into consulting, most consulting agencies prefer to send consultants out as a team.

Yet, almost without fail, the word team is window dressing on the reality that we are nothing more than people assigned to work on the same thing in close proximity.

However, there were glimpses early in my career into what it was like to work with people more than their assigned tasks. Some might say an actual team. Those experiences were so powerful, and our results more pronounced that I never could let go of the thoughts in my head about the differences between the typical assignments work has compared to these bright spots.

So what was so good about those times when I was a part of a team? Here’re a few things that come to mind:

  • My teammates had my back, and I had theirs
  • We could solve the most challenging problems the company could throw at us
  • All levels of leadership knew and trusted us
  • I grew more in my knowledge and skills
  • We laughed more
  • When a crisis arose, we responded together
  • We recovered from setbacks sooner
  • Our recommendations came with many voices and were harder to ignore
  • We experimented more

This is an incomplete list, but for most people, I suspect reading it will have at least one thing you wish you had more of in your job. That is part of the significant reason for investing in teams. Your job is better, the results are better, and isn’t that worth having?

Now, I should say there is a sort of inconvenient side to being on a real team. Teams tend to act together and feel things together. One person’s dissatisfaction is a whole team’s. While the team is generally more resilient to this type of sentiment, when it takes root, it can lead up to 50% attrition. I’m saying 50% because that is what I’ve seen over the past decade of team building. So if you invest in a team, know they will do incredible things, but if they become dissatisfied, you’ll lose that team too.

Maturing A Team in 3 Months

A client hired me to do a transformation for one of their groups, and we would assess progress according to multiple maturity models. I approached the group, and at the end of three months, that team assessed higher in every model than a similar team that had eight months of individual coaching.

To put it another way, the team accomplished in 3 months what another group could in 8. There were other benefits as well. The team worked more closely together, expediting their work and allowing them to improve their processes. The team even learned about each other for the first time in seven years and found similar hobbies that they shared after work. The manager reported he was happier than ever since there was a team that could handle issues instead of feeling like he had to respond to everything.

My approach to this group was to focus on who they were as a team. As they found their identity as a team, their maturity accelerated and continued to do so.

Teams Make Good Management Sense

I try to impress upon leaders that focusing on building teams is a smart move. Without it, they’re like the manager from my story that had to intervene constantly and check in. So if they need more time to focus on dependencies, planning, and strategy as most do, knowing they have a team they can trust, takes a massive load of crisis management off their plate. There are other benefits for managers to consider:

  • Better personal growth and development
  • Less time having to manage toward individual strengths
  • Less remembering who to ask for updates
  • Better solutions to a problem
  • Support for a change in numbers
  • Increased sense of responsibility and accountability
  • Rapid improvements to effectiveness and productivity

There is another side to this: if you want to build a real team, you will likely find yourself adapting as well. That team will grow rapidly and push boundaries around them as they become stronger. Those boundaries might be ones you put in place or were never willing to cross. Similarly, their expectations of their managers, leaders, and peers will also change. Typically, teams will expect their managers to treat them like partners and adults, not as individuals needing instruction. So the reward for creating a team is great, but this isn’t a journey you get to observe from a distance. You will be in the blast radius of change as well.

A parting thought, though, as to why investing in teams matters. While I did mention the side of attrition when dissatisfaction takes root, the opposite is equally true. When the team has satisfaction and room to grow, they will want to stay. The team members find a home, and leaders reap the benefits of having a team that can handle problems, improve rapidly, and demonstrates higher stability. Even though I’ve framed this in terms of attrition and growth, the improvements teams will make to their processes and how effective they are cannot be ignored.

Some of the results I’ve personally seen and experienced:

  • Cutting development time to 1/3rd
  • Eliminating bugs and defects
  • Stabilizing infrastructure
  • Conducting user research
  • Removing multi-day bottlenecks from the process (Code reviews, manual deployments, etc.)
  • Pitching new product ideas
  • New ideas and proof-of-concepts regularly
  • Higher attention to detail in terms of performance, quality, stability, and security
  • Reducing and eliminating late-night support
  • Solving for continuous delivery
  • Learning new tech stacks

This list goes on, but the thing about this list that I want to point out is that these benefits are typically emergent from a team and happen without the need for oversight or assignment. Teams will naturally solve problems in these areas and make improvements. So if you think of the issues your groups have that seem the most stuck in place, most of the time, a team will solve those problems as if it were magic.

On Time, No Bugs, and More

A VP asked our team to build an MVP within three months. It was an aggressive deadline for an ambitious project. We completed the MVP one day after the deadline, which was just there for false urgency like most deadlines. We didn’t work late or on weekends. Our software had no defects. We also implemented the company’s first continuous delivery pipeline simultaneously, saving an estimated $120,000 in cost. This all happened with a team of four in less than three months.

It’s a no-brainer to invest in building teams, but what it takes to build them is a subject for another day. Though I’ll let you know now that you can get started in less than three days.