As virtual work becomes more common, as we rely more and more on email to communicate with our team (and often via mobile devices!), and as we expand our use of new technologies promising increased productivity, new challenges emerge for managers who want to transform ordinary teams into high performing teams.
J. Richard Hackman, a psychology professor at Harvard and author of “Leading Teams,” opens his book with a bold statement: teams don’t work. But since teams are here to stay, he does offer five suggestions on how to increase team productivity:
1. Not everyone who wants to be on the team should be
Let’s be honest—not all of us work well with others. But we want to be inclusive, we need to involve someone for political reasons, or maybe we’re just short-handed. Unfortunately, these are not good enough reasons to include people who will hinder productivity. To keep things civil, it’s definitely a good idea to solicit their ideas beforehand, check in with them afterwards, or otherwise keep them updated.
Be crystal clear about who is in and who is out. While it may sound obvious, Hackman also points out that it’s very important that team members know who’s on their team; unfortunately, his research shows this is usually not the case! Every team needs a fearless project planning leader that will make these tough calls and is able to communicate clearly, all while maintaining positive working relationships.
2. Encourage some conflict
Team harmony is not necessarily a good thing. In one research study, a symphony orchestra played better when members displayed a slightly grumpy attitude than when there was an easy camaraderie. It is also well-researched that task-related conflict (as opposed to relationship conflict) can be very productive! Accept that team members may exhibit some friction or may even challenge each other in the course of working together. Encourage it even! The harmony that matters comes at the end of the project. When the result is a success, a shared sense of a job well-done will bring the team members together.
3. Bigger is not better
A team of six is optimal, according to Hackman, and teams should never be larger than nine. As anyone who’s tried to do it can attest, keeping a double-digit interdependent team in the loop and on the same page is problematic and time-consuming. Break large teams up into sub-teams, with sub-leaders, whenever possible. The leaders can then take responsibility for keeping lines of communication open.
4. Add new team members carefully and strategically
While new people do bring innovative perspective, teams become less effective as they adjust to newcomers. This is especially true for routine, predictable, or high-risk work. Data from The National Transportation Safety Board shows that 73% of flight incidents occurred on the first day that air crews were working together. In the Strategic Air Command (where mistakes could be catastrophic) teams train and fly together for extended portions of their careers. Hackman suggests that, for R&D teams, the optimum interval at which to introduce a new member is once every 3 to 4 years. While that may be extreme, make sure you integrate new hires and take the time to onboard them.
5. One deviant on the team is helpful
A person who turns suggestions upside-down, plays devil’s advocate, or otherwise disrupts complacency is actually a very valuable addition to a team. Too often, team leaders shut down dissenting opinions and discourage such active opposition. They might be afraid of the negativity and their objections can make others uncomfortable. This is unfortunate; having a team member that questions assumptions and double-checks contingency plans can be priceless. Make it clear that you value their input.