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?

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