The first answer I most frequently heard in the business environment was that “we were appointed/promoted there”. The second most common was that “we are reporting to the same manager”. The third is “to deliver one or more targets”. Most teams spend their entire life cycle confined within these restraints. And they sometimes produce good results, other times poorer results, but they fall short of delivering sustained high performance.
There are only a handful of teams which have leaders who initiate, fuel and finalize deeper conversations of clarification and alignment. These conversations are needed because the first level of the correct answer is that any team exists to create value for someone outside of it. But from this point onwards, the conversation is not that simple anymore. There is an exercise you can do within your team, that I frequently do with my clients: ask each member to write one’s answer to 3 questions, without talking to others about this beforehand: for whom should the team you are leading create value, what kind of value for each separate stakeholder, and what is the hierarchy of importance of these stakeholders? Then compare the results. It is a very good starting point so that the team can give its best answer to the question “why are we here?”.
Moreover, this exercise also creates the premise for a correct answer to another question that is essential for a team’s performance: what do we need to do together and what do we need to do separately in order to create the value we want for each individual stakeholder?
The notion of team has in its core the interdependency for a common goal. I am going to do a short, hopefully useful, digression now, on something that I’m struggling with for quite a while.
Almost every book and article about team performance encourages the business environment to follow the examples set by teams in domains like sports, medicine, army or arts (orchestras, dance crews, theatre etc). They are all very good sources of inspiration, if we can correctly comprehend their limitations. The intrinsic characteristics of a team’s performance, be it a sports team, a surgical or a musical one, are that they are always performing in a well-defined space, in a clearly defined period of time, with all the members in direct contact throughout the activity, so that the team can course-correct in real time any deviation made by one of its members, or can together exploit any of its members’ success.
None of these preconditions is valid for the vast majority of the teams in the business environment. Beyond the team meetings, each member contributes to the team’s performance from a different place, in a different time, and not being connected, de facto and in real time to the achievements, failures, or deviations of other members of the team. The majority of communications inside a team is asynchronous.
These major framework differences create substantial differences in dynamics, structures, processes and results. An important thing we can learn from the examples above is that a team becomes stronger as it does more things together, in the same place, time, and in direct contact. In the natural life of a business team, especially at the top levels, this barely ever happens organically. Meetings are considered a necessary evil. It takes a leader who correctly understands the mechanisms of performance and who is seeking, together with the team, the answer to the question: what motivating result can we produce by working all together, really together? These opportunities can be about current operations, about new projects, or about extraprofessional projects. The important thing is for the team to produce a relevant result within these 3 constraints: place, time, direct contact.
These being said, the effectiveness of a team is also informed by its efficiency. For this, a successful leader always has this question on the table: what is the smallest number of people who can produce a result a stakeholder needs from the team? This answer is apparently pulling in a contrary direction to the one above. I say apparently because, in the reality of the highest performing teams, these two answers are perfectly complementary. It means that, to all members, it is clear and motivating what, when and where they need to do together, and what, when and where they need to do individually or in smaller sub-teams in order to create the value each stakeholder needs.
One last thought about stakeholders: the most difficult thing for the leadership teams I have worked with was to differentiate between the team’s stakeholders and the organization’s stakeholders. The first reflex is to overlap them, and this doesn’t help because it’s not real. A team’s stakeholders are the people and entities the respective team can directly affect through its activity and results. Which is frequently different from the people and entities the organization affects through its activity and results. The impact of the correct decision here can have very important consequences. For one of my clients, the effect of this conversation in the leadership team was remodelling the entire management structure of the company. For another client of mine, one of the stakeholders considered relevant for the leadership team was the planet. Here the effect was a conversation that would help us come back with our feet on the ground.