Seeds contain the information necessary to germinate, grow and reproduce. However, absent the amounts of soil, air, water, and sunlight most appropriate for that species, the seed may fail at any point along its maturation cycle. We can reduce the risk of failure and multiply the eventual yield by preparing the soil, planting at an appropriate time, cultivating the field during the growth phase and harvesting at the most opportune time. These external factors do not change the basic capabilities of the seed; however, they will heavily influence the quality and quantity of the harvest.
This intelligent design from nature provides us a wonderful example for building effective teams. Akin to the information encoded in seeds, the people on your team bring to any effort certain raw talents and capabilities. Similarly, certain external environmental elements of the organizational culture will influence whether individuals flounder or flourish.
My leadership experience has distilled five environmental elements leaders must provide to build effective teams.
1. EXPECTATIONS. At the broadest level, we establish expectations by painting our vision and defining the mission for the organization. At the project or team level, we define success in terms of desired outcomes. In other words, we identify where we’re going without getting into “how” the team should accomplish those objectives. Equally important, we set boundaries for acceptable behaviors in terms of the values and culture which will define the character of the team.
2. EQUIP. Provide the resources necessary to achieve the expectations. These resources commonly fall into four buckets
- Talents – Staff the team with the necessary blend of talents; identify other resources (such as subject matter experts) available to the team
- Tools – Allocate suitable amounts of money, equipment, space, software, etc.
- Techniques – Define and inculcate reusable standard methods and processes into the daily habits of the organization; particularly around problem solving and reporting
- Training in the skills needed to effectively leverage the available tools and techniques
3. ENABLE. Emotionally prepare the team for the challenge. This emotional element is crucial for building self-reliant teams that are not constantly running back to you for guidance or encouragement. Effective emotional preparation addresses at least these three components:
- Define success so people know it when they see it. Defining success establishes a built-in course correction mechanism that allows the team to adapt to the inevitable surprises of any human endeavor
- Clarify why it’s important to get there. Understanding not just “what” (the expectations) but “why” equips the team to deal with ambiguity which arises in the course of the journey. Whenever possible anchor “why” messages to the broader organization’s vision and mission.
- Explain the challenge (“what will it take”). Understanding the scope and scale of the challenge prepares team members to mentally and physically calibrate themselves for the journey. This is especially true if the challenge will impose upon their private lives. Anyone who’s done open road running or cycling knows the frustrations of struggling to reach the crest of the rise only to discover the hill continues.
4. EMPOWER. The crucial element of empowerment is transferring ownership for the objective. Ownership involves two elements—transferring authority and establishing accountability. Transferring authority to accomplish the objective(s) means transferring relevant decision-making. If you’ve effectively defined expectations, the team will already know the measures of accountability, but also establishing the method of accountability (when and how the team reports on its progress) creates a healthy transparency and makes interventions an exception. If you find your team frequently seeking guidance or clarification, look first to your ineffectiveness in enabling, equipping and setting expectations.
5. EMBRACE. Once you have empowered the team be available but resist the natural urge to jump in and start dictating solutions. These disempowering actions will rapidly deflate the team and make you the chokepoint. Remain resolute. Adversity will come. Expect it and commit to remain in a coaching mode. Spend more time questioning and listening than talking (take a lesson from the LEAN leader practice of going to the gemba). It is important to display consistency in your behaviors, because unpredictability will undermine your credibility.