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High-performing teams feel like magic. The way their members work together is mesmerizing and the feats they accomplish are mind-blowing.
So, it is no wonder that we want to know what makes those teams special. A few ideas that come to mind right away are:
- Everybody on the team is a genius and top of their class
- The team’s manager is able to perfectly define and scope the work
- Everybody is paid lots of money for the successful completion of their work.
All of the above scenarios might help, but none of them guarantee high performance. More important for the success of the team is how well people work together. It is the collective intelligence that counts.
Self-organization is collective intelligence at its best. It means a team is able to:
- Set their own goals
- Decide on the team composition
- Define and manage the process
- Execute the work.
This does not mean you can just put a group of people in a room and magic will happen. Self-organization still requires leadership. Teams working this way go through highs and lows like everybody else, but aiming for the above principles maximizes the chances of an effective and therefore high-performing team.
Purpose, mastery, and autonomy can be helpful frameworks to enable self-organization. The three aspects have been made popular in regards to motivation, and they work equally as well when we talk about self-organizing and high-performing teams.
In this article, we will explore hands-on techniques, guidelines, processes, and ideas that can help inject autonomy, mastery, and purpose into a team.
Guide self-organizing teams with purpose
Every team needs a purpose. It provides a guiding light – a north star – that every member of the team can rally behind. It also helps people to find meaning in their work.
Exciting with a meaningful vision
Visions can be an extremely powerful tool. For example, Google’s vision is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. This small sentence can have a tremendous impact on the motivation and focus of employees. They feel like they’re part of something bigger. Something that has meaning. Something that makes the world a better place.
A great company vision is a good start, but it does not end there. We also need to focus on the team’s vision. But what should it look like?
A good vision should – on a very high level – describe what your team wants to achieve and why. In this case, ‘high level’ means a longer-term, almost idealistic target.
In addition, a vision creates commitment and alignment. It is the last escalation point for decisions.
Creating alignment through goal-setting
Goals play a big role for any team, but especially for self-organizing teams. If done well, they provide a clear path between what individuals are doing and how it impacts the company – something I like to call cascading goals.
It all starts with an overall goal on the company level. One level down from that, the team’s goal is defined to support the high-level target. If you take it all the way, you can also ensure that goals for individuals tie into the hierarchy.
The benefits of using this goal structure are two-fold. Firstly, you increase engagement and motivation by setting goals for teams and individuals. Secondly, you create a high degree of alignment and meaning since everyone is working towards the same overall outcome.
Aim for perfection in self-organizing teams with mastery
Having purpose and meaning provides the foundation for self-organizing teams. With mastery, we will focus on the team internals to identify what a team requires to become truly effective and maximize their performance.
Becoming experts at delivering
A team can only have impact if it is able to deliver value consistently. Lots of teams have adopted some form of Agile, Scrum, Kanban, or the likes. When applied in the right situation and with the right intent, these are great tools to enable a team’s delivery and performance.
Every team and situation is different though, and what works in one case might not work in another, so you have to stay open-minded and experiment. The following are ideas that have worked for me in the past:
- The shorter the iterations the better. This dramatically minimizes the time to feedback, both within the team and for the product. It also forces the team to break up the project into small chunks and deliver iteratively.
- Regular planning and retrospectives. A planning session should align the team on priorities. Regular retrospectives give the team a space to reflect and learn. Ideally, both are done for each iteration. The more often you do them (e.g. weekly), the shorter they can be.
Becoming experts at creating value
Running fast (i.e. delivering) is one thing, but it is equally important to deliver something that adds value. The key here is to constantly evaluate the project and adjust the direction when necessary.
The Lean Startup is a good structure to help with that and centers around three product development stages:
- Build a product that can be put in front of customers, often called a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
- Measure against the expected impact. What metric are you trying to move? How can you collect qualitative feedback?
- Learn how your feature performs and analyze the results. You can then use the learnings to build the next version of your product when a new cycle is started.
Building incremental value is a great first step. However, you have to make sure that what you are building solves the problem. The concept of a Minimum Valuable Product – a variation of the traditional MVP – makes sure you keep the customer front and center. In addition, new insights will be available during development and incorporated into the final product.
You also have to be strategic about measuring your impact, not just the what, but also the how. For example, it helps to define your assumptions before you start building. If you know what you want to achieve before you build the next iteration of the product, you will also have a decent idea of how to evaluate the impact. Additionally, though most of the time you may focus on the quantitative results (e.g. by looking at an increase or decrease of a metric), it is extremely valuable to add a qualitative dimension (e.g. through interviews or surveys).
Finally, any context you are able to capture during the iterations now is going to pay back twice as much in the future, so attempt to document everything you can: what you are building, why, how it is tested, the results, and next steps.
Creating an effective team environment
Every team will go through high and lows, good and bad times. This is normal and nothing to be concerned about. What matters is to help the team get from a challenging time back to high performance as quickly as possible.
Often, this starts with trust between members of the team. Trust enables teams to talk about problems in the open and come up with solutions. If there is no trust, problems are often not mentioned or highlighted.
Trust is a big topic, but there are small things you can do to start. For example, by encouraging your team to share personal goals, everyone can be more aware of other team members’ personal development and look to help each other. Additionally, regular 1:1s between team members provide opportunities to build relationships and give feedback – even if it is just 5 to 10 minutes every other week.
Build the foundation for self-organizing teams with autonomy
So far, we have covered the motivational aspect of a high-performing team by giving purpose, and the tools and frameworks to be able to deliver value by achieving mastery.
To round out the topic on self-organizing teams, we will look at concepts around autonomy to empower and enable teams.
Self-organization is, as the name suggests, about allowing a team to adjust and adapt themselves. Autonomy is about having independence or freedom as an individual or team. Without autonomy, self-organization is unachievable because a team will not have the ability to make the necessary decisions themselves.
Goals should not only help to create alignment, they should also be one of the rituals a team has a profound influence on. In situations where someone else dictates goals for a team, a good amount of autonomy is already taken away.
Ideally, the whole team is involved in the actual goal-setting process. This creates a lot of engagement and excitement within the team because everybody is working towards a target they helped define.
In every good organization, management needs to align the different teams so that the sum of all efforts makes sense – which means some input into the team’s goals is necessary. That is great, but you should stay clear of telling a team how to do their job. To use a sports metaphor: you can tell a team where the goalposts are, but never tell them how to kick a goal.
Creating autonomy in the day-to-day
Micromanagement is considered a bad thing – and it certainly does not help to foster a culture of autonomy. By involving team members in different aspects of running the team, you make sure everyone understands what they are doing and why.
In a cross-functional team, it is important that everyone is involved in multiple stages of product development. Get the engineers to work on user research, let designers help code the frontend, and have product managers participate in design studios – the possibilities are pretty much endless. This gives an opportunity to provide feedback at any stage of the product development process, which ensures the team works towards the same end result.
Team members should be involved during the planning of work. It is a crucial tool for a team to be self-directed. For an epic kick-off, you can try a week-long design sprint. The discovery of upcoming work should also involve the whole team.
Decision-making is another group activity, not solely the manager's job. No one should wait for the manager to approve a piece of work or release. Leaders influence, guide, and suggest – just like everyone else – but the final decision should be up to the team.
Being part of a truly high-performing team is something we all aim for – especially as leaders. The key to an effective, efficient, and impactful team is a high degree of collective intelligence, which is the cornerstone of self-organization.
Purpose, mastery, and autonomy are helpful concepts to enable self-organization. They allow us to guide and create alignment, set up effective processes and workflows, and provide the ability to adjust and change as needed.