We do not operate in a vacuum. None of us exists solely for ourselves or for our own benefit. All of us co-exist I relationships at home, at work, and in our leisure time. Ata work, especially, we find ourselves in complex relationships that cross demographic, organizational, and experience ranges. We work in and on teams to accomplish product and project work, advancing technology to benefit customers and markets.
Yet, some working teams are more successful than others. It may be the composition of the team members or it may be the challenge of the problem that the team is solving. Moreover, successful teams are often directed and managed by servant leaders.
Let’s take a look at each of these elements in turn to better understand what makes a successful project or engineering team.
Just as we do not, and cannot, operate solo to accomplish objectives, a great team is not homogeneous. Creativity thrives when teams are made up of individuals with a variety of backgrounds. These team members introduce different perspectives to the team and can broaden the team’s overall viewpoint in order to come to a better outcome.
In his book, “Smarter, Faster, Better,” Charles Duhigg relays a story of a Yale MBA student named Julia. Julia was excited to be a part of Yale’s elite study groups. Yet, she never really bonded with the other team members and instead felt like they were at odds – competing against one another. Alternatively, Julie found herself serving as a very productive team on another team working on a business case competition.
The difference in team structure, Duhigg explains, is what makes a successful team. Julia’s study group was mainly homogenous. Team members had similar educational and work backgrounds. However, her case competition team had a wide diversity in age, experience, and career pathways. The latter team accepted open dialogue and encouraged idea generation. Thus, the team’s composition allowed them to be successful.
Teams are most successful when dealing with “stretch goals” that drive extended performance but are not intractable problems. If the problem is too simple, there is no reason to convene a cross-functional troubleshooting team. And if the problem is impossible, then there is little chance an ordinary team can find a unique and lasting solution.
Interestingly, most of us recognize the depth and challenge of a problem right away. You see the signs of a “too simple” problems as the team members check out and engage with their electronic devises instead of the project. There is little conversation and one person gets saddled with creating the entire solution.
In the case of an intractable problem, tempers may flare as individuals imprint their personal ideology and philosophy on a solution that would not completely resolve the problem. Perhaps, sub-dividing a “too large” problem can help direct teams to better solutions.
Effective teams are challenged by problems for which they share basic knowledge and in which they each bring a piece of the puzzle to solve. As with team composition, the challenge for a team must be cross-functional requiring give and take among team members. Also, team members must be free to collaborate in order to create a solution larger than themselves.
For example, introducing a different-sized package of cookies may be a problem that is too small for a typical new product development (NPD) team. Creating a perfect snack that is fat-free and sugar-free but as tasty and pleasing as a chocolate chip cookie may be a problem that is too large for the same team. Yet, introducing a flavor variant (strawberry newtons in addition to fig newtons) may be just the right-sized challenge for a team.
Successful teams need to be able to measure their own progress as well as recognize that they are each individually valued. This starts with the right composition of team members with diverse skills and experiences. Then, challenging the team with an appropriately difficult problem to solve allows the team to prosper.
We have all been there. We were called to be a part of a team but the leader makes all the decisions and simply hands out work assignments without discussion. The work gets done (grudgingly) and is delivered at a minimum level of quality. No one wants to work with “that person” again.
The best leaders are servant leaders. They ask what they can do to help the team. They work to remove roadblocks and obstacles. They get their hands dirty and they pitch in to help achieve the team goals. Servant leaders respect each team member for his or her diverse skills, background, and experiences. Effective leaders help team members select work that is within their expertise but will also challenge them to grow both professionally and personally. Servant leaders think first and foremost of the customer, the team members, and the problem before promoting their own agenda. Productive leaders are selfless, practice humor, and delegate work to build everyone’s strengths.
Leadership characteristics of a servant leader may be inherent within some individual’s personalities. Yet, leadership can be taught and people’s basic skills can grow to make them more effective leaders. Famously, focusing on one’s emotional intelligence (EQ) is one way in which to strengthen a servant leader’s capabilities and empathetic responses.
Great teams do no deliver great results by happenchance. Instead, superb teams are carefully designed and structured to encompass diverse experiences and backgrounds. This variety of experiences leads to greater creativity and ability to address challenging problems.
Moreover, teams should be challenged with appropriate problems to solve. Problems that are “too small” discount the skills and abilities of team members. Problems that are “too big” are overwhelming and can paralyze a team from making even small steps toward a solution. Cross-functional teams should be convened to address business challenges that require diversity of thought and experience, and will appropriately drive focus and collaboration among team members.
Finally, teams will be most productive when led by a selfless, self-deprecating leader. Servant leaders help the team accomplish its goals by removing obstacles and by reinforcing individual strengths. Leadership skills can be taught and will enhance an individual’s basic skills and abilities to execute projects.
One way to grow your teams and leaders is through professional certification. If you have questions about existing or upcoming certification or PDH courses with emphasis on project, product, or engineering management, please contact us at [email protected] or by phone at 281-280-8717.
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