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How to Build Exceptional and Lasting Winning Teams

Imagine a team that is struggling to perform.

Team members are frustrated and reluctant to help each other. They have differing opinions on what is important. When there is conflict and disagreement, team members engage in back-channel politics. Individuals on the team prioritize their personal accomplishments and recognition over anything else.

All of this comes at the expense of the team’s goal and ultimately results in negativity, wasted time and resources, and poor results. We can all think of a sports team whose star player covets an all-star spot or MVP award even as tension builds and his team compiles a losing record.

Now imagine a team that is firing on all cylinders.

In this team, members have their eye on a specific goal. They trust each other to make important decisions and to do things the right way. When conflict arises, team members voice their opinions without resorting to destructive behaviors. Individuals on the team will make personal sacrifices if it helps the team advance toward its goal.

Kobe was a 5x champion, but some felt he played for himself more than for his teammates. For some fun teamwork lessons from the world of sports, check out this recent article on Inc.com – “Use These Great Examples of Sports Teamwork to Grow Your Business.”

Kobe was a 5x champion, but some felt he played for himself more than for his teammates.

For some fun teamwork lessons from the world of sports, check out this recent article on Inc.com – “Use These Great Examples of Sports Teamwork to Grow Your Business.

A team like this is poised for success, and will be persistent in pursuing excellence, even as challenges arise. This team’s star players would sacrifice their own personal statistics to play within a system that the team believes will lead them to a championship.

In our post “5 Ways to Know When Team Building is Urgent,” we explained why high-performing teams are so important in any business or organization. We offered a framework for assessing and strengthening the teams you have today.

In this post, we’ll provide a time-tested method for building successful teams from scratch.

What is a Winning Team?

The most effective way to develop a high performing team like the one just described, and what we’ll refer to at points in this article as a “Winning Team,” is to set it up for success from day one, right when the team is formed.

This process takes intention and effort, but the payback you’ll receive is well worth the time invested. You’ll see strong results from the team early on, you’ll set the stage for the future, and you’ll prepare the team to grow and thrive as it pursues its goals.

Before we describe the process you should follow to build a Winning Team, let’s take a step back to make sure that we have a clear view of what a team really is. Understanding the characteristics of a team, especially a Winning Team, will give you a clear vision of what you should strive to create and why.

The standard definition of a team, taken straight from the dictionary, is as follows:

“a number of persons associated together in work or activity.”

According to this definition, almost anything involving a group of related people counts as a team. However, there is more to a Winning Team than a handful of related individuals. Here is a more complete and useful definition for our purposes:

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” - The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith

This definition clearly identifies the characteristics and building blocks for a real team, one that has the potential to perform at a high level. Let’s break them down:

  • “A small number of people” - The ideal size of a team is probably somewhere between 5 – 12 people. There is no perfect number, and the size of the team should primarily be influenced by the team’s task. However, in a business setting, a team with more than 12 members may become cumbersome. There is evidence that individuals in larger teams perform more poorly than they would in a smaller setting. Keep this in mind as you design your teams and consider how you will staff them.
  • “with complementary skills” – A team where members have complementary skills is one with balance – one where each team member is able to play to his or her unique strengths while being supported by his or her teammates. This concept can apply to both technical skills as well as leadership and communication skills. You need to be mindful of this as you set up your team. Designing a team that is comprised of members with similar personalities and skills (even if you like them as individuals or think they are high performers) will not give you optimal results.
  • “who are committed to a common purpose, performance goal, and approach” – A team should have a clear and driving purpose that all team members understand and align to. If this is not in place, it raises the question - why does the team even exist? The team should have one or more clear objectives that members are striving for. There should be measures or indicators that help the team assess if they are being successful. The approach should be one that is fully discussed and debated, even if there is disagreement during the process leading up to commitment. Ultimately, team members must clearly understand what they are trying to accomplish, how they are going to get there, and how each member will contribute to a successful outcome.
  • “for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” - Winning teams are founded on trust, communication, and the ability to handle healthy conflict. In a team with trust, team members hold each other accountable for living up to their performance commitments. Each member understands that his or her success is tied to the team’s ability to accomplish its goals. In this environment, team members are more than willing to call each out on behaviors or performance that aren’t moving the team forward.

This definition makes it clear that a team that is created with size, composition, purpose, and cohesion in mind is much likely to be more successful and effective than one that is just thrown together ad-hoc. A properly constructed and developed team will be resilient, will foster loyalty and engagement, and set a standard for healthy organizational behavior.

Team Size in Practice
For years we ran a software organization of between 30 and 40 engineers. Through a well-defined software engineering process (Scrum), we organized teams targeting around 7 members. At first, we didn’t strictly follow this process and found ourselves with some teams of 2-3 team members, and others with upwards of 15. Those bigger teams were not nearly as productive, were not communicating well, and broke into sub-groups of team members who “took sides” on important issues against other members of the same team. The smaller teams were highly productive, but couldn’t keep up with a slightly larger team and couldn’t accomplish our project objectives. Why? Because a team with too many members has too many lines of communication to maintain, forcing people to break themselves naturally into smaller, more manageable groups. A team with too few members doesn’t have a broad enough set of strengths to tackle a complex project. Once we settled on 7 plus or minus 2, our productivity soared and our teams grew in skill and strength.

A Working Group is Not a Team

Leaders and organizations make a big mistake when they confuse “working groups” with teams.

A working group is like a committee – a group of people brought together for a stated purpose. Superficially, that sounds like a team. However, in a working group, individual members are typically invited to contribute their personal perspective and expertise. In other words, they show up to share some information, and then they bow out.

Their top personal priorities lie elsewhere, and their own success is not tied to the deliverable of the workgroup. There are usually good intentions behind the workgroups, and they can be effective for studying an issue or gathering expertise. But workgroups lack leadership and cohesion, and when they are entrusted with an important deliverable, it often leads to mediocre results, frustration, inaction, and wasted time.

Author’s note – Too often, leadership teams operate as working groups. Each leader acts like an independent agent, and the group only comes together when it’s absolutely necessary, such as when an emergency arises. In this scenario, the top priority of each individual is protecting his or her own interests and turf. Leadership teams like this are unable to have healthy discussions, work through disagreements, or make difficult decisions. They are unwilling to give their time or sacrifice resources, even when doing so would help the organization move closer toward attaining its goals. This can have a devastating impact, not only on the effectiveness of the leadership team, but on the entire organization. It also creates another issue - employees know and sense when they are working for a dysfunctional group of leaders. This erodes the employee’s effectiveness and loyalty to the organization. Successful businesses and organizations acknowledge that leadership teams need to be built like any Winning Team, and they put in the work to make this happen. Taking this step may be the difference between breakthrough success and a future disaster.

Developing High Performing Teams from Scratch

We have learned that building Winning Teams requires you to roll up your sleeves and put in some effort. You need to take concrete actions to create shared purpose, to get the right members involved, to build healthy relationships, and to foster trust and accountability.

We have also made the case that it’s worth it to commit to building Winning Teams because of the incredible value and impact of thy can have at all levels in an organization.

If you agree with this, the next question is, what do you specifically need to do to lead the creation of a Winning Team? Fortunately, there is a straightforward and time-tested process you can follow. It’s called Chartering.

Chartering is a process through which a newly formed team comes together to develop the foundational elements of Winning Teams that we’ve already addressed in this article. That includes confirming shared purpose, developing complementary roles, designing and agreeing to strong values and norms, planning communication strategies, and building a foundation for accountability.

It’s a discussion that asks the questions – who are we, what do we want, and how are we going to help each other to do it?

Some leaders are hesitant to embrace Chartering. They see it as rote and formal. Yet Chartering is simply a conversation, one that sets a precedent for a team and establishes values of vulnerability and trust while putting structural elements in place to encourage growth and commitment.

All it takes is a leader who is willing to lead the process.

When should you start? While it’s never too late to take a team through a chartering process, it’s also never too early. As soon as you have the building blocks of a team in place, plan a Chartering session. The depth and sophistication of the meeting should be relative to the team. A small group may be successful holding 3-4 brief meetings where the team goes through the process piece by piece. A larger group with a complex mission may benefit more from a multi-day off-site focused exclusively on a chartering process.

Chartering doesn’t have to be a one-time process. Chartering conversations can be revisited as needed to help get a team back on track. Another reason to start a new chartering process is if the composition of the team changes. That said, doing this properly, in the beginning, will minimize the need to revisit it in the future.

Chartering Step 1 - Team Purpose and Goals

Your first course of action in the chartering session is to discuss team purposes the goals. The questions must be asked

  1. What is the purpose of this team?
  2. What specific goals are we seeking to accomplish?
  3. What would success look like?

Having a collaborative discussion about this is essential. Sometimes the goal has already been defined before the team comes together. That’s ok, but it doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to be discussed.

The team may have the freedom to refine the goal further, and to be creative in deciding how to get there. In this conversation, the leader can begin to model the behaviors of a healthy team. If you’re leading the process, think about how you can be open and vulnerable, how you can facilitate with questions, and how you can encourage discussion even if there is disagreement.

At the end of this conversation, the team should have a small number of clearly stated goals and/or deliverables that it agrees to. Team members should be given every opportunity to offer their input. However, by the end of the session, it’s time for everyone to be on board. Specifically, ask each member to assert their commitment to the goals that have been defined.

Is everyone on your team pulling in the same direction?

Is everyone on your team pulling in the same direction?

Chartering Step 2 – Values and Norms

With the team’s goals in place, it’s time to ask the next set of critical questions.

  1. How do team members agree to work with each other?
  2. What behaviors are accepted and encouraged?
  3. What are the best words to represent and define how the team will behave?

The answers to these questions become the team’s values. Values are guiding principles that the team agrees to adhere to.

This type of discussion usually takes the form of a brainstorming session. Ask the group – what values actually represent what is important to us? What values will you commit to once we write them down? What will we do when a team member does not uphold the values?

Three to five well-stated values will be sufficient. Classic examples of values might include things like Creativity, Honesty, and Persistence. Go with whatever best represents the personality and aspirations of the group. For your team, it may be Passionate, Competitiveness, or Fun.

One warning on values - you frequently see companies and organizations writing values that have no impact. Superficially recycled values can be perceived as hollow and out of touch with the real culture. The way to fix this for your team is to write out what each value actually means and describe how it will be applied in the context of your team or organization. For example, “Commitment” could mean a 100% agreement that all projects will be completed on time, even if it requires extra work and overtime. If a team agrees to that, then everyone is expected to live up to it.

Norms are similar to values but may be more tactical in nature. For example, norms might include banning laptops and cell phones from team meetings. They could include a zero tolerance policy for being late to meetings. They could be specific parameters for which virtual work is allowed. Whatever the norms are, the team is much more likely to understand and adhere to them if they are explicitly discussed and written down.

Chartering Step 3 - Roles and Responsibilities

The design of roles as part of a Chartering process is an opportunity to align team members to certain aspects of work, to put people in positions of strength, and to design complementary partnerships.

It’s a more meaningful process than just filling out a matrix of roles (even if you do ultimately capture them in a matrix).

Incorporate a collaborative discussion about roles and responsibilities into your Chartering process. If you understand your team’s goals and major tasks, and you already know the general roles and associated skills that are needed, you have a good starting point. However, even with this information in hand, it helps to co-opt your team members into the discussion.

  1. Who is best suited for what role?
  2. What role is most intriguing and motivating to them?
  3. What strengths do they have that would help them be successful?
  4. Where do their current skills fall short?
  5. Where will they need help?

One way to capture roles and responsibilities is by writing traditional position descriptions that specify tasks and assignments for each person on the team. Another helpful and complementary way to design and share roles is using something called a RACI Matrix. RACI stands for “Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.” A basic definition for each term is as follows:

  • Responsible: A single person who does the work to achieve the task.
  • Accountable: A single person who is accountable for the completion of the task. It may be the manager or sponsor who will be ultimately accountable for approving the job/work.
  • Consulted: This can be one or more people who will be needed to provide information and support for the task. There is an expectation of two-way communication and regular engagement.
  • Informed: This represents all individuals and groups who should be updated on the progress of the task. The expectation is one-way communication.

To complete the RACI Matrix, identify which team member(s) and/or stakeholders are Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed for each project task. Chart this out visually and post it in a conspicuous place for all team members to see.

Chartering Step 4 - Decision Making

How will your team decide what to do?

How will your team decide what to do?

Having a plan for Decision Making will prevent confusion and indecision as your team moves forward. While there may be some overlap with what you’ve already defined in your Roles and Responsibilities, it is useful to identify some of the key decisions that you expect will need to be made within the scope of the team and to set a plan for how you will handle them.

For example, if your team identifies two potential solutions to a problem, how will they decide which one to pick? For each key type of decision like this that you identify, consider the following:

  1. Who will make the decision?
  2. If it’s a management decision, is there an opportunity for the team to provide input?
  3. If it’s a team decision, how will it be finalized? Is consensus required or a majority vote?
  4. Are any additional reviews or approvals outside of the team required?
  5. Who might need to be informed of the decision?

Document the results of your Decision Making plan and add it into your overall Charter. Update it as you learn what works best or come across new types of decisions that are important to the team.

Chartering Step 5 - Team Communication

A critical factor for any Winning Team is how well team members communicate with each other. As part of the Chartering discussion, plan out the types of communications that are essential for team success. Ask the team:

  1. What communication is most important?
  2. What information needs to be shared?

A typical example of a team communication event is a status meeting. Other examples include planning meetings and customer briefings. For every major type of communication the team identifies as important, ask the following questions and then document the responses:

  1. Who is the primary audience for the communication?
  2. How often should the communication be sent?
  3. What channel (the method through which the communication is sent) is the most effective? Examples could include in-person, via email, virtually, via newsletter, etc.
  4. What key messages will be included?
  5. Who is responsible for the communication?

Much like Roles and Responsibilities, the results of this discussion can be captured in a simple matrix that is easy for the team to follow and reference.

Chartering Step 6 – Assess Risks and Barriers

Will your team know how to respond when things go off the rails?

Will your team know how to respond when things go off the rails?

You’ve almost made it to the end of the Chartering process. But there is one more important step to complete before your team is done.

The last discussion revolves around projecting risks or other issues that might arise and prevent the team from being successful. These may include risks that are internal to the group, such as loss of a team member or specific expertise. These may also include risks that are external to the team, such as a change in policy or technology that might affect the team’s work.

Ask these questions:

  1. What might hold the team back from being successful?
  2. What might happen in the future that could prevent the team from reaching its goals?

Brainstorm and record the answers. Then take the process one step further by assessing each risk. Begin by looking at the probability and impact of each risk to help you prioritize them. Score each risk using the following “Probability/Impact” scale:

Probability
On a scale of 1 – 10 (1= extremely unlikely and 10 = almost guaranteed), how likely is it that this risk will turn into a real issue?

Impact
On a scale of 1 – 10 (1= extremely low impact and 10 = catastrophic impact), how much will the realization of this risk influence the project?

Multiply the probability and impact scores to come to an overall priority score for the risk. Some may be very likely but have little impact; others may have a significant impact but are unlikely to occur.

The ones that merit further analysis are those with the highest overall score. Decide with your team the threshold that seems most appropriate (e.g. any risks that score over 70) and then spend some time evaluating each one. List out any triggers that will help you spot that the risk is materializing and draft a basic mitigation plan for each one.

This process will allow your team to be proactive in managing risks and prevent them from being caught off guard when issues emerge. Repeat this process as needed throughout the team’s lifecycle.

Summary

Are you willing to put in the work that it takes to build your teams to last?

Are you willing to put in the work that it takes to build your teams to last?

It’s tempting to skip past Chartering, especially when there is pressure for a team to come together quickly and get started on a task. It’s also tempting to think of Chartering as an idealistic, “nice to have” activity that team members won’t be interested in. You can hope that goals, values, and other processes will naturally fall into place as a team goes through a forming process.

However, as we have discussed many times here on Modern da Vinci, smart leaders know better than leaving results to chance. They understand that the time invested in developing Winning Teams through Chartering will be paid back many times over. Grow your business through world-class leadership by adopting this strategy and creating lasting teams.

What is your experience either building or being part of new teams? Have you completed a Chartering process before? What did you learn? What are some pain points you’ve experienced because of teams that were not properly set-up? Post your questions and thoughts in the comments and we’ll respond with our own experiences and insights.

Also, please share this with others who lead small businesses or manage teams. When their teams are firing on all cylinders, they’ll thank you for it.