The Secrets of Great Teamwork

The Secrets of Great Teamwork

Today’s teams are different from the teams of the past: They’re far more diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic (with frequent changes in membership). But while teams face new hurdles, their success still hinges on a core set of fundamentals for group collaboration.

The basics of team effectiveness were identified by J. Richard Hackman, a pioneer in the field of organizational behavior who began studying teams in the 1970s. In more than 40 years of research, he uncovered a groundbreaking insight: What matters most to collaboration is not the personalities, attitudes, or behavioral styles of team members. Instead, what teams need to thrive are certain “enabling conditions.” In our own studies, we’ve found that three of Hackman’s conditions—a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context—continue to be particularly critical to team success. In fact, today those three requirements demand more attention than ever. But we’ve also seen that modern teams are vulnerable to two corrosive problems—“us versus them” thinking and incomplete information. Overcoming those pitfalls requires a fourth critical condition: a shared mindset.

The key takeaway for leaders is this: Though teams face an increasingly complicated set of challenges, a relatively small number of factors have an outsized impact on their success. Managers can achieve big returns if they understand what those factors are and focus on getting them right.

The Enabling Conditions

Let’s explore in greater detail how to create a climate that helps diverse, dispersed, digital, dynamic teams—what we like to call 4-D teams—attain high performance.

Compelling direction.

The foundation of every great team is a direction that energizes, orients, and engages its members. Teams cannot be inspired if they don’t know what they’re working toward and don’t have explicit goals. Those goals should be challenging (modest ones don’t motivate) but not so difficult that the team becomes dispirited. They also must be consequential: People have to care about achieving a goal, whether because they stand to gain extrinsic rewards, like recognition, pay, and promotions; or intrinsic rewards, such as satisfaction and a sense of meaning.

positive people

On 4-D teams, direction is especially crucial because it’s easy for far-flung members from dissimilar backgrounds to hold different views of the group’s purpose. Consider one global team we studied. All the members agreed that serving their client was their goal, but what that meant varied across locations. Members in Norway equated it with providing a product of the absolute highest quality—no matter what the cost. Their colleagues in the UK, however, felt that if the client needed a solution that was only 75% accurate, the less precise solution would better serve that client. Solving this tension required a frank discussion to reach consensus on how the team as a whole defined its objectives.

Strong structure.

Teams also need the right mix and number of members, optimally designed tasks and processes, and norms that discourage destructive behavior and promote positive dynamics.

High-performing teams include members with a balance of skills. Every individual doesn’t have to possess superlative technical and social skills, but the team overall needs a healthy dose of both. Diversity in knowledge, views, and perspectives, as well as in age, gender, and race, can help teams be more creative and avoid groupthink.

Team members from diverse backgrounds often interpret a group’s goals differently.

This is one area where 4-D teams often have an advantage. In research we conducted at the World Bank, we found that teams benefited from having a blend of cosmopolitan and local members—that is, people who have lived in multiple countries and speak multiple languages, and people with deep roots in the area they’re working in. Cosmopolitan members bring technical knowledge and skills and expertise that apply in many situations, while locals bring country knowledge and insight into an area’s politics, culture, and tastes. In one of the bank’s teams, this combination proved critical to the success of a project upgrading an urban slum in West Africa. A local member pointed out that a microcredit scheme might be necessary to help residents pay for the new water and sanitation services planned by the team, while a cosmopolitan member shared valuable information about problems faced in trying to implement such programs in other countries. Taking both perspectives into account, the team came up with a more sustainable design for its project.

Adding members is of course one way to ensure that a team has the requisite skills and diversity, but increased size comes with costs. Larger teams are more vulnerable to poor communication, fragmentation, and free riding (due to a lack of accountability). In the executive sessions we lead, we frequently hear managers lament that teams become bloated as global experts are pulled in and more members are recruited to increase buy-in from different locations, divisions, or functions. Team leaders must be vigilant about adding members only when necessary. The aim should be to include the minimum number—and no more. One manager told us that anytime she receives a request to add a team member, she asks what unique value that person will bring to the group and, in cases where the team is already at capacity, which current member will be released.