The rise of teams

Publication date: 11 March 2019
Article type: Blogs and Articles

The rise of teams is inevitable, according to Simon Mac Rory, and the most successful businesses will be those that adopt team-based assessment approaches.

What could possibly be said about teams that’s new?the rise of teams

Well, teams are back and are relentlessly moving to the top of the agenda. For the past 20 years, there has been very little new ground covered on teams and the subject has not been a priority for most organisations. The individual agenda took over; talent management and ‘star performers’ was the mantra of the nineties and noughties.

Now teams are back and organisations that want to be competitive tomorrow need to take note today.

For two successive years, Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey positioned organisational design as the number one concern for businesses. Specifically, the deconstruction or reimagining of workplace structure and the shift from top-down hierarchy to a network of teams to deliver faster results and a more agile organisation.

The 2016 survey states: ‘Hierarchical organisational models aren’t just being turned upside down – they’re being deconstructed from the inside out. Businesses are reinventing themselves to operate as networks of teams to keep pace with the challenges of a fluid, unpredictable world.’

The best teams have a psychologically safe environment

Google has invested millions of dollars to identify the perfect team. To uncover meaningful patterns for what makes a perfect team, its ‘Project Aristotle’ focused on data.

Surprise, surprise: the project did not come up with the usual suspects in terms of goals and roles structure, even if these were deemed important. Instead, Google’s data demonstrated that the best teams had a psychologically safe environment in which team members enjoyed equal air time; their views and opinions would be listened to; they would not be ridiculed for any idea; and misappropriation of ideas was not allowed to happen. The teams with these traits performed better consistently despite variables such as goals, process, leadership style and composition.

The revival of interest in teams is not just in the commercial arena. Academic papers have also begun to emerge. The most notable in recent times being ‘Team Reflexivity and Innovation’ by academics, Michaéla Schippers, Michael West and Jeremy Dawson of RSM Erasmus University, Lancaster University Management School and Sheffield University Management School, respectively.

Millennials are rejecting the traditional hierarchy in organisations

Based on a study of approximately 90 healthcare teams in the UK, they concluded that highly reflexive teams will be more innovative than teams low in reflexivity when facing a demanding work environment. The more demanding the work environment the more innovative a team became where reflexivity was practiced. They also uncovered a direct relationship between the quality of ‘physical work environment’ (PWE) and reflexivity, in which a poor PWE and high level of team reflexivity resulted in higher levels of innovation.

Workplace demographics are playing a part too. Millennials (or generation Y) bring a mindset based on a new disposition. They do not think of a career as being for life, let alone a job for life. The millennials are rejecting the traditional hierarchy in organisations. They are not impressed or intimidated by it and do not necessarily respect it. They seek experience, challenging projects that move fast, keep pace with the world they inhabit (including the Internet of Things) and are principally bored by traditional hierarchies which they perceive as being slow thinking and moving.

They want immediate decisions they want immediate feedback; they want to be able to move on now. They seek the dynamism of teams.

Cognitive diversity

Millennials, who by 2025 will represent roughly 75% of the workforce, view diversity and inclusion very differently to baby boomers and those of generation X. For the millennial, diversity is a given and their focus is on inclusion. They view diversity and inclusion in terms of ‘cognitive diversity’, which is the blending of different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives within a team.

Cognitive diversity is seen by millennials as being an essential element for innovation.  As a group, they are also 71% more likely than older generations to focus on teamwork as a way of working.

To the millennial, inclusion is a supportive collaborate environment that values open participation from those with differing ideas, perspectives and attitudes. The millennial does not believe that they should downplay their differences and personalities to get ahead. They want acceptance of their thoughts and opinions but are not prepared to park their identities at the organisation’s door, believing strongly that these very differences are what create value, impact and outcomes.

For the organisation of today and tomorrow to deliver inclusion, there must be a focus on teamwork and, more precisely, teams, teamwork and corporate team strategy must be a key element of any diversity strategy.

Maybe it is time to expand the brief of all diversity and inclusion leaders and functions to include responsibility for the delivery of the team-based culture?

A further phenomenon is advancing the cause of teams and that is the demise of performance appraisal. General Electric (GE), Medtronic, Accenture, Deloitte, Microsoft and many of the Fortune 500 are abandoning peer assessment (PA) at an ever-increasing rate in favour of a more immediate and current feedback process. It seems certain that they are all seeking some means of incorporating team-based performance management and feedback. Not a coincidence one thinks, as we meet the rise of teams head on.

Capitalising on the benefits of effective teams

So, how can an organisation address these issues and capitalise on the benefits of effective teams? How does one develop reflexivity, build safe psychological environments and create organisations of networked teams that can not only keep pace with the challenges of a fluid, unpredictable world, but also meets the needs of the new workforce and generation Y?

The answer for me lies in a concept called Corporate Team Strategy (CTS™). I work globally on team initiatives across the US, Europe and the Middle East. From airlines, healthcare and fast food to financial services, pharmaceuticals and technology, I have yet to find an organisation with a developed CTS™ and more importantly, a deployed strategy for teams.

Even though 90% of organisational output is through teams and despite teamwork being a key element of competitive advantage, few if any seem to have grasped this vital concept.

CTS is about understanding what, why and how teams are deployed into the organisation and how they are supported. It’s also about understanding the difference between team types and how you go about selecting teams.

In addition, CTS creates a structured means for teams to self-assess, make improvements and provides time and supported space for teams to meet regularly – helping people understand what constitutes good and successful teamwork and setting benchmarks.

For too long the assumption has been that teamwork just happens and that we are all naturals when it comes to teamwork. Interventions for teams are only for failing teams or when a team gets into trouble. However, we must accept that all teams can be more effective than they are today. Anything we do for teams must be for all and not just a few, from the CEO and their team to every team in the organisation.

To do this means developing a CTS™, identifying a tool and methodology that supports the team to be self- serving in terms of their onward development. CTS™ is a separate strategy but must be integrated with other people strategies, for example learning and development, while ensuring that the programmes for teams are just that – programmes for teams and not for individuals.

While interdependent on other people strategies, successful CTS™ aims for a team’s self-sufficiency, in terms of improving its effectiveness. If they are given the time to be reflective as well as a reliable, robust and proven methodology, most teams will improve themselves. The research has demonstrated that teams that are reflective are the teams that are innovative.

When the strategy is in place, when there is a proven methodology and tool to support the teams, when reflexivity is a reality, team effectiveness will improve, innovation will increase, and team morale and motivation will continue to build. When all these things are in place then one can finally say that the conditions to deliver a safe psychological environment are also in place.

Teamwork and successful teamwork are not easy. It takes hard work, persistence, commitment and it most certainly takes a well-crafted CTS™. The returns are impressive – up to 25% improvement in team effectiveness, translating into increased productivity. Can you image the impact of even a 5% improvement across an organisation?

Is that not enough of a reason to consider the time for teams is now?

The rise of teams is inexorable and those who get ahead of the game will stay ahead.

Simon Mac Rory is a team development specialist and a Visiting Research Fellow at Nottingham Business School. He founded The ODD Company in 2011 to deliver a cloud-based team development tool and methodology to international markets. Simon’s 2018 book Wake Up and Smell the Coffee has been shortlisted for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) Management Book of the Year 2019.