What makes a team effective?

What makes a team effective is a question I’ve asked myself, and thought about multiple times. I’ve also written a bit about it here and here. More recently, I found myself revisiting this topic as I was preparing for an executive workshop aimed at helping the team work better together. 

The team is the sum of its parts

The more common approach to this question takes the perspective that the team is the sum of its parts. Meaning, the sum of the individuals that are on the team, their traits, strengths, weaknesses, and preferences and the way those interact with one another. This then leads to utilizing some sort of an individual assessment, such as Insights, Hogan, or even Enneagrams as a tool for capturing a simplified representation of the individuals on the team, understanding them in isolation and then looking at the team aggregate to understand their interplay and the areas where the team as a whole is particularly strong in or likely to have blind spots. Personally I prefer exercises that don’t reduce people to a “type” for a whole set of reasons I’ve listed here, but regardless of the method you choose, there’s definitely value at looking at the team through such lens. 

But a team is much more than the sum of its parts

However, to really understand teams we also need to look at them holistically as teams. If we think of teams as complex systems (any human system is a complex system) — some attributes of the system will only manifest themselves at a certain level of the system and not in other, because the attributes are a result of the interactions between the parts not of the parts themselves. I know this sounds pretty abstract but hopefully, the more concrete examples below will make it more tangible. 

So I started looking for frameworks that’ll help the team diagnose where they are currently at and where they should focus on first. Focused action is critical to making progress. My key criteria were a framework whose elements are as MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) as possible, and that’s granular enough to drive focus action. Building on my own experience and additional research, I ended up with 5 candidate frameworks. 

Runner ups

I considered Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of a Team”, Wageman and Hackman’s “What makes a team leadable?”, Google’s “Project Aristotle” and Atlassian’s “Team Health monitor for leadership teams”. All frameworks rang true but didn’t fully pass the comprehensiveness test. Atlassian’s was my strongest runner-up but still seemed to have some fuzzy overlap between the attributes — not as mutually exclusive as I’d wanted it to be. 

Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of a Team”
Wageman and Hackman’s “What makes a team leadable?”
Google’s “Project Aristotle”
Atlassian’s “Team Health Monitor for Leadership teams”

The winner

Oddly enough I ended up going with a framework from an unknown origin. It was used in a leadership team assessment that I’ve taken 3 years ago, but I wasn’t able to track down its source. 

The top-level distinction between impact, governance, and interaction really resonated with me. It creates a clear separation between the work that the team is doing together (impact) and how it’s getting done, separating the latter into the more mechanical/procedural pieces (governance) and the more relational pieces (interaction). The next level down attributes are also helpful in zeroing in on the issue that’s most critical to tackling first. The team will likely end up with solutions that are different for tackling “clarity and alignment issues” vs. “escalation/resolution” issues. Issues around “information flow” will require a different course of action than issues around “decision-making process”. 

What makes a team effective?

Doing surveys right (and some remote work insights)

Long time readers of this blog know that I hold some pretty strong opinions about the ill-use of surveys. More recently I wrote about it in “Working on Work” and my guest contribution in The Ready magazine, “Ending the Tyranny of the Measurable”. At a more tactical level, the overuse and abuse of the Likert scale have a prominent spot on my rather short pet peeves list.  

I had a chance to put my $$$ where my mouth is, working on a recent project where surveying was essential to getting the insights I was looking for. It was a short (17 questions) survey about remote work where I wanted to learn from long-time practitioners about their perspective on the key advantages, challenges, and essential practices of remote work. This was in early Feb 2020, mind you, pre -COVID-19 .

I was looking for relative insights: which advantage do practitioners find to be the biggest advantage? which challenges do practitioners find to be the biggest challenges? etc. Rather than use a series of Likert scale questions where respondents would have to rate each advantage on a 1-to-5 scale from “not important” to “very important”, I used a single question asking respondents to sort/rank the advantages from the one most meaningful to them, to the one least meaningful to them.

The end results, courtesy of SurveyGizmo’s beautiful reporting feature looked like this: 

Top-3 advantages: 

Top-3 challenges: 

In addition to immediately getting the relative ranking, which was what I was looking for, it was also super easy to glean some high-level statistical insights on the responses: the advantages had more differentiated winners (differences in the overall score between #1,2, and 3) and responses were more consistent — most people chose the same advantages to be the top ones, as indicated by the overly positive “rank distribution”. The top challenges, on the other hand, won by a very small margin and responses were more polarized — some chose the winners as the top challenges while others didn’t, as indicated by the rather neutral/even “rank distribution”. 

Top-3 mastered practices: 

Top-3 critical practices: 

The gap between the practices practitioners have mastered and the practices they find most critical for remote work, was the core insight I was looking for, as it highlights the areas where tools, programs, and support can be most beneficial. While the #1 item is shared across both lists, the #2 and #3 most critical practices, didn’t make the top-3 most mastered practices. 

Full survey results can be found here for those curious. 

Conclusion and important disclaimer

While this survey was an awesome methodological validation — using a sort/rank question, rather than a series of Likert scale questions to surface the insight I was looking for — it did not provide me with the clarity and directional confidence I was hoping for. This was due to the low number of total respondents (<100) leading to results that are not very robust/statistically significant, and preventing any further analysis using the demographic/psychographic data I collected. 

Doing surveys right (and some remote work insights)

Remote Work Canvas

In recent weeks, and most likely in the upcoming months, many organizations are finding themselves in the precarious situation of transitioning their entire staff to working remotely. 

Many understand that a successful transition requires more than just making sure that their IT stack functions properly and staff can access the tools and data they need to do their jobs. Working well remotely also means working in a completely different context and collaborating in different ways. 

Beyond a knowledge challenge, it’s a far greater behavioral challenge. 10 minutes of googling will turn up lots of good resources on how to work well remotely. But without creating the time and space for “meaning-making” much of their value will be lost. We need to think through “what does this mean for me, in my unique context?” and “how might I implement this piece of advice?” for their value to be realized. 

I created a simple, remote-friendly, tool/exercise to help facilitate individual meaning-making reflection and peer dialogue around this challenging transition, and I’m making it publicly available below: 

Remote Work Canvas

Remote Work Canvas — Instructions

  • Fill in name + date, and choose a remote partner.
  • Complete a first draft of the canvas, filling the columns in the following order: 
  1. Transitioning to working remotely blurs the lines between the personal and the professional, so start by strengthening that boundary, filling the middle column first.
  2. Then “put your oxygen mask first” and ensure that you have a good personal care plan in place, by filling the middle-left column.
  3. Next, take care of your loved ones and address any outstanding personal items, by filling the far-left column.
  4. Transitioning to the professional, create your individual game plan, by filling the middle-right column.
  5. Finally, consider your team and the way this new setup will impact the way you work together, and address any outstanding professional items, by filling the far-right column.
  • Review your canvas with your remote partner. Solicit feedback and advice on boxes that were more challenging, and make any necessary changes based on the conversation.
  • Set up a date and time a few weeks out with your remote partner to reflect on your lived experience and make any changes to the canvas accordingly.
  • Share your canvas with your team, and invite them to create their own versions.
Remote Work Canvas

The six fundamental problems of organizing [Martela]

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

This paper has been open in a tab for a few weeks now so I can’t recall how I stumbled upon it:

What makes self-managing organizations novel? Comparing how Weberian bureaucracy, Mintzberg’s adhocracy, and self-organizing solve six fundamental problems of organizing

To answer this question, the author, Frank Martela, has been building on work by Puranam et el. First, he adopted their definition of an organization:

(1) a multiagent system with (2) identifiable boundaries and (3) system-level goals (purpose) toward which (4) the constituent agent’s efforts are expected to make a contribution.


Then, he expanded their taxonomy of four universal problems that any form of organization, by definition, must solve, into six. These fundamental problems of organizing are something that I’ve grappled with lately, and I like what Martela has to offer (mapping to the Corporate Rebels taxonomy in parentheses):

  1. Division of labor: task division (CR: Org structure)
  2. Division of labor: task allocation (CR: Task allocation)
  3. Provision of reward: rewarding desired behavior (CR: Motivation)
  4. Provision of reward: eliminating freeriding (CR: Motivation)
  5. Provision of information: direction setting (CR: Strategy)
  6. Provision of information: coordination of interdependent tasks (CR: Coordination)

The two “division of labor” problems are identical to the Corporate Rebels taxonomy.

Compensation receives its appropriate place as a standalone fundamental problem, broken down to rewarding the desired behaviors and eliminating the undesired behaviors (freeriding). My one tweak, in light of my recent explorations, would be to use slightly less behaviorist label such as “provision of value” or perhaps “motivation”.

While at first, it seemed strange to group strategy and coordination together as one seems more strategic (pun intended) than the other, it actually makes sense, since they both have to do with creating shared context: knowing how to orient my work by understanding where are we trying to go together and what everyone else is doing to get us there.

And, if you were curious about how bureaucracy, adhocracy and self-managing organizations differ in their approaches to solving the six fundamental problems of organizing, here’s the answer:

Source: Martela (2019)
The six fundamental problems of organizing [Martela]

The competing values framework & Culture Contract [Quinn & NOBL] 

A roadmap for navigating cultural polarities

The competing values framework was developed by Robert E. Quinn and John Rohrbaugh as they searched for criteria that predict if an organization performs effectively. Their empirical studies identified two dimensions that enabled them to classify various organizations’ “theory of effectiveness”. The first dimension (flexible/focused) differentiates an emphasis on flexibility, discretion, and dynamism from an emphasis on stability, order, and control. The second dimension (internal/external) differentiates an internal orientation with a focus on integration, collaboration, and unity from an external orientation with a focus on differentiation, competition, and rivalry. Together these dimensions form four quadrants, each representing a distinct set of organizational and individual factors.

Astute readers will likely see some similarities to Wilber’s 4Q model and the organizational model archetypes I covered here.  

Each dimension highlights two values that are opposite to one another, building on a different set of assumptions, resulting in quadrants that are also opposite to one another on the diagonal. Each of those quadrants represents a different type of organization, with a different type of culture, orientation, leader type, values drivers, and theory of effectiveness. 

Source: The CFG Group
Source: NOBL

The Culture Contract 

While many organizations subscribe implicitly to one of these archetypes, they rarely make that implicit shared agreement between teammates explicit. Which is exactly what the team at NOBL suggests we should do in: 

The Culture Contract 

It starts off explicitly calling out the archetype that they subscribe to (Elephant Herd/Collaborate in this case), clarifying the core values tension and the choice they’re making (using an even-over statement), explaining the “Why?” behind that choice, detailing the emblematic behaviors. 

Source: NOBL

It then explores the values tension in more detail, looking at it through two different lenses, what the organization owes the individual and what the individual owes the organization, again utilizing even-over statements. 

Source: NOBL

Lastly, it addresses failure modes: calling out the early warning signs that we may not be living up to the cultural contract, and a process to manage the concern that the contract might have been broken. 

Source: NOBL

Taking it to the next level

The act of undertaking an organizational self-reflection exercise and making the implicit culture contract explicit is already a massive step forward in building a strong, coherent organizational culture. The next level realization is that while the four values are competing with one another, we need to integrate all four to build a truly robust, long-lasting organization. And that requires viewing the values paradox as a polarity to be managed, rather than a choice to be made. The good news is that the culture contract can still be an invaluable aid in doing so, with a couple of minor tweaks:

  1. Transitioning from a single reflection exercise that creates the document to a recurring reflection exercise, probably every 6–12 months in which we determine “which pole (quadrant) do we need to get closer to next?”
  2. Since the polarity perspective introduces the concept of going too far from one pole or too close to another, we need to add a section to the culture contract doc that highlights the early warning signs that we’ve gotten too close to that pole
The competing values framework & Culture Contract [Quinn & NOBL]