Team Collaboration Guide

The Science of Teamwork

The term teamwork has graced countless motivational posters and office walls. However, although teamwork is often easy to observe, it is somewhat more difficult to describe and yet more difficult to produce.
—James E. Driskell, Eduardo Salas, and Tripp Driskell, Foundations of Teamwork and Collaboration, APA 2018

While everyone agrees that teamwork is desirable, management gurus and thought leaders differ on what successful team collaboration looks like and how to get there. It's a challenging topic to discuss since individual teams can vary so widely. However, psychologists—like the researchers behind the “overlapping facets of team effectiveness domain”—have identified core qualities that all teams share which in turn feed into their outcomes. We'll investigate some of the most important elements below.

The basics of successful team collaboration

Shared mission

At its most basic, every team must have an objective—a product they're building, a strategy they're developing, or a problem they're trying to solve.

Criteria for success: Set clear and specific goals

In order to succeed, this purpose must be clearly articulated. We know that goal-setting is linked to higher achievement in individuals and the same is true in teams: Research shows that goal clarity positively affects team performance. Goal-setting may look different between organizations—some teams may use a Waterfall approach and outline all their goals at the outset of a project. Other teams may be more agile and add or adjust goals on a rolling basis. Both approaches work, as long as teams clearly articulate their goals and the criteria for their achievement.

Organizational culture

According to a Northwestern University study, culture is "a set of norms and values that are widely shared and strongly held throughout the organization." All teams have a set of beliefs and norms, whether implicit or explicit, which forms the social environment in which they operate.

Criteria for success: Foster an environment of psychological safety

Culture determines a team's ability to be innovative, take calculated risks, and learn from their mistakes. Teams in which members feel free to express observations and voice their opinions are better poised to achieve their goals. Psychologists use the term “psychological safety” to describe this phenomenon. “Psychological safety describes people's perceptions of the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in a particular context such as a workplace,” according to one Harvard Business School study. People who feel psychologically safe are more likely to share knowledge instead of hoarding it, voice suggestions, and spearhead new initiatives. In short, they're more engaged team members.

Team size

Every team is composed of a certain number of members. Increasingly, research shows that team size determines the team's outputs—whether they develop existing ideas or disrupt the status quo.

Criteria for success: Keep teams as small as possible

A recent Nature paper looked at 65 million team outputs—research papers, patents, and software products—in the fields of science and technology to discover how these outputs change between large and small teams (they define “small” as three people or less). Their findings: “Whereas large teams tended to develop and further existing ideas and designs, their smaller counterparts tended to disrupt current ways of thinking with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities,” noted the researchers. When you're in a small team, you're more likely to take risks and be original. To maximize innovation, keep team size to a minimum.

You might protest that some projects are outside the scope of a small group of individuals. You need more than three people to build a rocket or develop a successful vaccine. “High-impact discoveries and inventions today rarely emerge from a solo scientist, but rather from complex networks of innovators working together in larger, more diverse, increasingly complex teams,” according to the researchers. In order to manage these kinds of projects, organizations should create “multi-team systems” (MTSs) in which small teams are embedded in a larger network of teams working together on different aspects of the same problem. Many scientific collaborations are organized this way, with small groups of researchers at different universities forming a larger team working towards a specific goal, like searching for dark matter.

Member ability

Every team is a collection of individual members with their own unique skills, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

Criteria for success: Form teams around complimentary KSAOs

KSAOs stands for knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics. Great teams are composed of members who complement each other's strengths and balance their weaknesses. “In an ideal situation, organizations could recruit, select, and compose teams with an optimal mix of members' KSAOs,” write researchers. However, reality is usually more complex. It's not always possible to form teams on the basis of member ability and team members may come and go. However, there are ways in which organizations can foster these complimentary KSAOs, such as by augmenting members' existing skills with training.

Teamwork tools and practices

Team charters

Team charters are documents that teams create when the members initially form a team, outlining the purpose of the team (the “why”), how they plan to work together (the “how”), and their end goals (the “what”). Some team charters also include success metrics. Researchers have found that when teams make use of charters, they experience improved process outcomes, including better “communication, effort, mutual support, cohesion, and member satisfaction.” By putting your team mission in writing, you create a foundation for successful collaboration.

Example team charter for an Edtech product team:

Product Team Charter

Planning

Planning is essential to team success. Whether sweeping and strategic, like the company direction for the next five years, or limited and granular, like a new feature, it provides direction for the team and objectives to work toward. (And we're already covered how essential goal-setting is for teams). Even agile teams, who might not follow a plan in the traditional sense, create task backlogs and set goals—they just tend to recalibrate their priorities more frequently with the goal of being flexible and responsive to change.

Team psychology researchers have identified some core elements of high-quality planning. These include:

Regardless of the size or scope of your task, if you're able to analyze your current position, think critically about the future, and communicate effectively with your team, you'll be in the best position to make a high-quality plan.

Measurement

“What gets measured, gets managed”—the most famous thing management theorist Peter Drucker never said—is a favorite cliché of managers and consultants. And there's some truth to it. While not everything that matters can be measured (and for that matter, not everything we can measure matters), it can nonetheless provide useful insights. The trick is identifying what to measure. For instance, measurement might not be able to adequately capture your team's enthusiasm, but it can capture whether you're on track to reach your goal of releasing five new features this month.

There are a variety of approaches teams can use to measure progress toward their goals. One such approach is using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Teams set targets and then measure their progress based on leading KPIs, indicators which may offer a clue to future success, and lagging KPIs, which show past success. For instance, if a content team's goal is to publish fifty blog posts this quarter, their lagging indicator might be how many blog posts they published last month and their leading indicator might be how many blog posts they have started working on this month. Good KPIs should measure what is intended, show evidence of advancement, and utilize a balance of both leading and lagging indicators to capture progress.

Other approaches are more visual. For instance, teams can use Gantt charts to lay out the start and finish dates of their tasks on a calendar, giving them a bird's-eye view of their project progress. Or, they can use burndown charts to graph the amount of work they need to get done versus the amount of time they have to do it in. Any of these measurement systems can be effective—which one you choose depends on your team's needs and preferences.

Reviews and debriefings

Originating in the military—where teams frequently need to evaluate past performance and make adjustments on the fly—debriefing is a reflective tool that allows teams to recalibrate their approach as they go. It's “a structured learning process designed to continuously evolve plans while they're being executed,” writes Doug Sundheim for the HBR. And it's effective: Psychologists have found that organizations can improve team performance by 20-25 percent by conducting effective reviews and debriefs.

Depending on the team, these reviews may vary in length and frequency. For instance, many teams have daily standups which are essential mini-debriefings, reviewing yesterday's achievements and today's goals. Other teams host debriefings after completing major project milestones. Either approach can work, but Sundheim recommends having at least one team debriefing at a set time each week, to make it habitual.

To have an effective debriefing, team members must, to borrow a military idiom, ”leave their stripes at the door”—that is to say, abandon status and ego in favor of vulnerability and curiosity. While it may be more uncomfortable at first, having an open conversation about the root causes behind your team's successes and failures will result in more learning in the long run.