If you want to change faster, then nail the basics first - Part 2


To win today you need to change faster than the world around you – but in a world moving faster than ever, how?

The answer isn’t sexy, its counterintuitive, perhaps a bit dull and ultimately comes down to some basics… but executing them brilliantly is anything but basic.

In part 1 we looked at how purpose driven strategy can create huge commercial and human potential. In part 2 we explore how to convert that potential through the hidden engine of your business, teams.

Every team pulling hard (and in the same direction)

The success of your strategy comes down to whether your people are willing to run through walls to deliver it. However, even when your people emotionally commit to the overall direction it's not a guarantee of sustained engagement back in the day to day.

Whilst it is well understood that highly engaged people deliver better business performance – from higher productivity to lower staff turnover and increased customer satisfaction – when we think about how to improve engagement, too often we focus on individuals, career paths, development plans and individual rewards etc.

In their 2019 study the ADP Research Institute, demonstrate that teams are the single biggest factor that determines if we feel engaged at work. 

People who identify as part of a team, are twice as likely to be fully engaged as those who don’t. Furthermore, “in the top quartile of engaged teams — 59% of members are fully engaged, whereas in the bottom quartile 0% are”. 

Critically, identifying as part of a team is not about being in a box on an org chart, it comes down to whether or not I feel…

…a shared commitment to common goal

…we have high standards (this is a team worth belonging to)

…a commitment to the other members of the team (strong relationships)

…that together we are able to make change happen

There are many studies that show the benefits of teams, from spotting issues quicker and finding better solutions, to building greater resilience to stress. The words “One Team” can be found on many a corporate mouse mat - but do we really take the topic of ‘teams’ seriously enough? 

Teams are the fundamental unit of productivity in an organisation and are key to accelerating change… and yet we don’t put anywhere near enough focus on developing our people’s understanding of teams or what they need to be an awesome team member or leader.

Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’, so called in reference to Aristotle’s famous quote “the Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts”, conducted an in depth study into what the conditions are for creating the perfect team. 

Whilst there were a few factors the standout factor was ‘psychological safety’. Psychological safety is a belief felt across a team that it is safe to take interpersonal risks, such as sharing an idea, disagreeing with the consensus, being vulnerable or sharing a failure, without fear that their reputation, status or career will be hurt. 

The performance of a team comes down to the quality of the conversations and interactions between the members of the team, that allow each individual to bring their best. There is a far weaker correlation between team performance and the collective IQ of the team or the personality profiles of its members.

The majority of team building that occurs is conducted out of context. There is a whole industry out there of ‘team coaches’ using psychological profiles as the basis of team effectiveness conversations. But whilst these exercises can help develop a sense of ‘safety’ by deepening insight and relationships across the group - they are only simulating psychological safety. 

Ultimately high performing teams don’t form in theory, they form in the work, around a common goal, one that is worth putting individual goals aside for, and one that I can only achieve by working with the team.

Psychological safety is hard to achieve. In our business we talk about being “as direct as we are empathetic”. It is the tension between these behaviours that is required to achieve real psychological safety… and to really develop it, you need to talk about the things that really matter. 

In our experience teams form around 3 critical conversations:

  1. Where are we today and what is our impact as a team? Without a shared understanding of their reality it is impossible to progress together
  2. What is it we are going for and what do we need to do/change to get there? Arguing out any differences here, and making sure the team are properly aligned
  3. How will we work together? What do we focus our time on, what expectations do we have of each other, and most critical what is the rhythm and process for how we will work together?

Furthermore, having worked across teams at all levels of some of the worlds most iconic businesses, it is amazing how may neglect the little disciplines of team work - from prioritisation to running a meeting or capturing actions. 

And that’s a problem not just with teams further down the business, but often the higher up you go the less effective teams are at these fundamentals. In fact the dysfunctional meetings and behaviours at the exec team even on these basic things, cast a real shadow across the whole organisation.

Today we are spending increasingly more of our time working in teams and yet the experience of being part of a team is changing. The idea of ‘team’ we are most familiar with is that of a fairly stable group that develops together over time. 

Today this experience is rare. Teaming is a more dynamic experience - we find ourselves members of multiple teams with shifting configurations, virtual teams with people we have never met in person, undertaking ambiguous tasks in rapidly shifting contexts that we don’t necessarily have all the skills needed to address.

Having often neglected the basics of team work, it is also clear that many businesses don’t think enough about this changing context and what is needed to create the conditions for effective teaming when designing operating models; from the way teams are formed and reformed, to the tools needed to work together. 

Some are beginning to recognise the benefits and are trying to figure out how they harness the potential of a team-centred culture:

Cisco has put teams at the heart of their EVP and is investing in team leadership skills, team-based tools and measuring the engagement and performance of teams, not just individuals.

Aviva have reconfigured their operating model to allow them to form and deploy teams with far greater fluidity across the organisation based on opportunity and capability, rather than org charts and rigid budgeting rules.

At Electronic Arts, the UK based studio Criterion constantly reforms teams around weekly priorities, with individuals self-selecting which team to work with based on their passion as well as their development needs. Making it work requires a careful balance of self-organisation, leadership, coaching and an office designed to be reconfigured every week according to the team’s needs.

No business has fully cracked the model but it's clear that if you want to move faster, then you need to fully harness the hidden engine in your businesses, teams

There is no one size fits all solution, but there are some fundamentals to consider:

  • Build everyone’s understanding of teaming mindset, behaviours and skills
  • Reinforce a team mindset through performance management and incentives
  • Create a system that allows teams to form and reform fluidly around the key priorities
  • Tailor the right balance of stability and flexibility for different teams in each part of the business.