Ensuring effective teams

Well-functioning teams require a common vision, well-established rules for engagement, and good interpersonal trust (Photo: The patriot jet team - Flickr - Ian Abbott)
Well-functioning teams require a common vision, well-established rules for engagement, and good interpersonal trust (Photo: The patriot jet team – Flickr – Ian Abbott)

Teams are an important element of many organizational initiatives. This post looks at a three phase approach to setting up effective teams. It outlines a number of key aspects that underpin success in each phase, and provides some key tips for effective teamwork.

The use of learning and team approaches within organizations is well accepted as an integral component of many such initiatives. There are a variety of factors that drive this acceptance. Predominantly they stem from the reality that many activities are just too large for individuals to handle alone. Another is that teams are more effective at addressing complex issues, and learn more rapidly than individuals. Moreover there is ample evidence that harnessing the potential power of a team can have a dramatic effect on an organizations’ ability to simultaneously meet targets, innovate,  and improve employee job satisfaction and engagement.

When a team is functioning efficiently (be it a work team, sports team, or community group) the group dynamics and sense of belonging and acceptance can bring out the best in people. Groups can work together to enhance understanding, creativity and problem solving. Most of us have enjoyed being part of an effective group or team. However, while teams may be a necessary part of successful organizational change their presence certainly doesn’t guarantee success. As most of us can also testify, teams can equally provide inefficient and/or frustrating environments in which to operate.

In order for team initiatives to be successful, there must be a unified effort by company leadership, adequate direction and support for the team initiative itself, and ongoing measurement and adjustment of progress towards the desired change. A team based approach to supporting a sustainability initiative can be usefully thought of as comprising 3-phases. The starting phase is about establishment, then there is a focus on team operation, and the final phase emphasizes evaluation and adjustment. The three phases are not necessarily linear. Each phase is a work in progress, with overlap into each of the other phases.

Getting started

Management can support the process by recognizing and agreeing the need for change, and helping align the right people to the team. in wider contexts this phase draws heavily on stakeholder mapping and analysis techniques. The team will also need resources in terms of time/facilities for meetings, administration support, costs for research and information gathering and access to organizational decision-making. There are a number of aspects to ensuring the right balance of skills in the team including:

  • Identifying people and selecting those that are willing to participate, rather than calling for willing volunteers.
  • Looking to select both representatives of the key areas of operation in the organisation, and those with good networking skills to feed information from the group to the rest of the organisation and vice versa.
  • Limiting the size of the team (5-12) unless it is highly structured and has clearly identified individual functions.

Team operation

It is essential to convert the group of assembled participants into a team with a common vision, well-established norms of behaviour and a good level of interpersonal trust. So some form of self-led or externally facilitated team-building can be useful at the start. There are several practical aspects to getting the job done including:

  • Developing roles, particularly for facilitation, chairing, administration and resource provision; and determining a method of rotating these if necessary.
  • Undertaking basic research, including a literature review, to become informed.
  • Developing procedures for diagnosing, analysing, and resolving team work problems and conflicts.
  • In addition it is useful for teams to understand the kind of process in which they are involved and be able to look for ways to move through the stages of group development.

Evaluation and adjustment

Monitoring and evaluation are vital if organisations are to judge whether change efforts have succeeded or failed. Conventionally, it involves measuring performance against pre-set indicators – often with the help of outside experts. Often too, this is done at the end of the project cycle. However, monitoring and evaluating in this way does not help improve ongoing projects, nor can participants learn from ‘surprises’.

Alternative approaches to monitoring and evaluation have emerged because of a growing recognition of the limitations of this approach. These are usually more participatory and focus also on the process of reaching the final results, rather than just assessing whether the group reached defined objectives. This approach encourages monitoring of intermediate indicators of progress, and therefore can serve to guide and motivate the team as it proceeds. It also facilitates an understanding of the link between team process and results. Evaluating the process in this way enables determination of issues such as:

  • How well the team are able to adapt the approach and goals to their particular context.
  • Whether others in the company participate and have a role in shaping the process and design of the project.
  • Whether there has been a positive move towards desired outcomes.

The participatory nature of these reflections encourages the use of monitoring and evaluation as a social learning tool and allows the perspectives of different team members to be articulated. It also provides information to feed into project design, enabling the team to rethink and adapt goals and methods during the project according to emerging issues.

Easy tips for effective teamwork

A few key elements are worth highlighting because they contribute so strongly towards the environment that the team building approach is designed to support.

  • Create clear goals – members need to understand the goals, believe they are important, expect to accomplish these and be able to identify when they have done so.
  • Encourage teams to go for small wins – building effective teams takes time, and teams should aim for small victories before the big ones. Short term goals build cohesiveness and confidence.
  • Build mutual trust and a sense of belonging – it is important that team members are kept informed and a culture of openness is created where people supported to discuss ideas and problems.
  • Provide the necessary external support – if success is dependent on resources then the organization needs to make sure they are available.

This post supports the related Team building, CoPs and learning groups page.  Other Learning for Sustainability site pages providing links to related resources include Managing participation and engagement, Building networks and Reflective practice.

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An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management.

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