Not All Teams are Productive Teams

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If we put smart people together as a team, they will perform.  They will innovate.  They will create breakthrough ideas.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  As our experience and academic research tell us, teams consistently underperform, despite the many resources they are given.  Human nature challenges such as power struggles, competition, coordination, and differing motives chip away at the ability to effectively collaborate.

How can you minimize the risk of unproductive teams and maximize the potential for innovation in a team environment? It’s not easy but here are a few steps you can take.

First, not everyone who wants to be on a particular team should be included.  Putting together a team involves critical decision making as to who has the right skills, the right people skills, and the right ability to work together.  We have all been on teams where there was someone who negatively impacted the productivity of the team. Either he/she wanted control, wanted always have the last word, or contributed absolutely nothing to the team.

Second, it’s productive to have some strife on the team.  It’s a fallacy that teams that work together harmoniously are better and more productive than teams that don’t. But in a study conducted on symphonies, the researchers found that grumpy orchestras played together slightly better than orchestras in which all the musicians were quite happy.  When a team is productive and has done something good together, people feel good about what they have done.  Having a little bit of strife allows people to productively work through the strife and feel like they have accomplished something together.  

Third, smaller is better when it comes to teams. As the number of people on the team increases, the number of relationships that need to be managed goes up at an accelerating rate.  It’s these links between team members that gets teams into trouble.  As the number of relationships increases, the potential for strife between just one of these relationships increases. And this strife can impact the productivity and collaboration of the team. A  good rule of thumb is teams should be no more than 5 or 6 people.  This is why having a huge senior leadership team may negatively impact organizational effectiveness.

Fourth, you need a deviant.  You don’t want your team to become complacent.  The best way to prevent this is to have someone be the deviant.  This person can help the team by challenging the tendency to want everyone to agree all of the time. They are the ones who are willing to say the thing that everyone is thinking, but nobody is saying.  The deviant raises the anxiety of the team by asking the difficult questions. Deviants are the ones who stand back and say, “Well, wait a minute, why are we even doing this at all? The deviant and his/her questions allow the team to build more ideas and provides the spark to produce that innovative idea.   According to Harvard Business Review,  “teams with deviants outperformed teams without them. In many cases, deviant thinking is a source of great innovation.”  The challenge is that many team leaders want to remove deviants from the team or try to get them to stop asking the difficult questions.

Effective teamwork requires skills both when the team is working together, and when you are designing the teams.