How to Build and Maintain Successful Teams


By Edan Puritt

You’ve heard the cliché, There is no I in team and the assorted acronym explanations, Together Everyone Achieves More. You’ve read or heard of the motivational quotes from the likes of Henry Ford: Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success. It’s also likely you’ve encountered Michael Jordan’s: Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships. Actually, making teams function effectively is probably home to more clichés than any part of business, or in some ways, life. I played various sports as a child, each with its own team lessons to learn. Many still resonate in my adult life and many apply daily. I’m part of a family, where team dynamics definitely are at play. More broadly, I’m part of a community Caption that says "Teams that play together win together"in my city and I’m a Canadian. On an even bigger scale, I’m a human being and, in that sense, I’m just another collection of molecules on this planet I call home. Larger and larger teams, and more and more clichés. And frankly, I think that all the clichés are correct. Teams that Play together Win together! Why? What makes them correct? What makes them correct is that we ALL know that teams are critically important to our individual success, and yet frequently we forget to act as a member of a team. When we enable our teammates, we enable ourselves. In my experience, the difference between a cost effective, successful project or endeavour and one that is not cost effective or successful is productivity. And now your question is are you talking about teams or productivity? The answer is both. The real question should focus on how people become more productive. Do they only do what they like? Do they need to feel good about themselves? Do they need to feel good about their team members? Do they need to have specific activities that build success? Do they need a sense of accomplishment? Do they need to be acknowledged for their accomplishments? YES to all of these questions – yes to all. To have a successful and cost effective project your team must be productive. Let’s analyze how we ensure productivity. And yes, it’s as much art as science. The science is embedded in making use of the lessons of our own, and others’, past mistakes. The art, on the other hand comes into play because we are talking about human beings. Not only are we all different, but sometimes I am different. I have good days and bad days. Some things I am confident about, and some things make me insecure. I carry my own baggage, but I bring it wherever I go. Ensuring my effectiveness means making adjustments for me. But there really is some science too. Consider these 6 steps as you plan your team success. I do – all the time.

A folder that says "TO DO" on the front.

  • Discrete tasks. People need discrete tasks to ensure tasks get accomplished. The tasks need to be small enough to be accomplished and large enough to leave the person with a sense of accomplishment.
  • Direction. People need clear direction. They need to know what is expected, and they also need to know a context: why must this be done. The trick is offering the what and the why, and just enough howso the person doesn’t flounder If there is too much detail about how to do the task, you’ll be condemned as a micro-manager, and if there’s not enough detail, you risk leaving your personnel struggling unnecessarily.
  • Easy to learn. Make it easy to learn the job. It will become very expensive if you only hire people who don’t need to learn, who come with all the prerequisite skills to succeed. Besides, most people like to learn and are excited to add to their existing knowledge so they can take on new challenges. If they do that learning with you, you will have the added benefit of laying some loyalty groundwork.
  • Easy to succeed. As much as you need to find people who want to grow with you, you need to make it easy to succeed. Easy to learn is readily coupled with easy to fail. So take the role of leadership seriously and provide team members with a clear understanding and common sense of the goal, the objective needed to succeed.

A bunch of people building a sign that says "Team Work"

  • Team building. The real purpose of team building is all about expanding people’s capacity for empathy. If team members don’t care about one another and don’t have each other’s backs, you don’t really have a team. Plain and simple, people need to work together to move forward on a team objective.
  • Acknowledgement. This is again a chicken and egg story. A good manager will need to acknowledge and support team members. Supported team members also support each other and don’t really think of the manager as directing them to be supportive. If a person is doing what was required, then acknowledge that publicly, and acknowledge that frequently. Saying thank you is not something you save for once a year at the awards’ banquet, rather it is that approach we all learned in kindergarten – you say thank you often and every time something is done well. Follow this HBR Management Tips link to read more about team members cheering each other on.
  • And let me finish with one of my favourite team stories. The easiest way to undermine your team is with blame. And we have all sorts of clichés, but they all tend to look like one member is throwing another member under the bus. Sometimes to save him/herself, sometimes because the thrower believes the collision is deserved. A caption that says "Blame damages a team."Blame Damages a Team I had a project where a team member, an excellent team member I should add, made a mistake. The mistake was well intentioned and the result of the person trying to do more, rather than less, but it was a mistake nevertheless. When I was confronted with the mistake, I apologized, and the mistake was then rectified. But there was this cloud of blame. Here’s the thing: blame damages a team and undermines the trust that is necessary to accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently. So, what to do? During the very heavy pause following my apology, I explained that we had a blame schedule. Yes, really, a blame schedule. I needed to check the schedule and then I would punish the person responsible for all mistakes for that week. Yes, I was trying to defuse the situation with humour, but more importantly, I was trying to undermine the value and, therefore necessity, of blame. If blame became absolutely arbitrary, it would hold no value. To my surprise, the story of the blame schedule spread, and I had people volunteering to take positions on the schedule. The humour and point of the schedule was not really lost on anyone. The essence of it is that blame has no positive component, even as a learning tool, but holds all sorts of negative team potential. A day planner.Get rid of it. Don’t use it, and do your best to stop anyone else from using it. There may not be an I in team, but there most definitely is a U. What are U doing to make your team more productive? Hopefully you have an answer to that question, because if you are not doing something, odds are they are not either.