Getting work done as a team.

3 ingredients to an effective team

July 31, 2023
Team members at a table together

Most teams face more work than they can complete. It’s also normal to encounter both internal and external challenges, leaving us to wonder…

What does it take for a team to be effective?

Building an effective team is a never-ending process, but I’ll walk through three ingredients that must be there.

  1. Create clarity
  2. Empower with freedom
  3. Create a culture for collaboration.
Start living intentionally

Create clarity

Clarity is absolutely essential for an effective team. To tackle the unknown challenges outside the team, you need clarity inside the team. As a leader, you want to facilitate clarity in three areas.

  1. The outcome.
  2. The process and norms.
  3. The work.

Clarify the outcome. 

Where are we going? Who are we serving? What value are we delivering? These are essential questions your team must answer.

How do we know if we made a difference for those we’re serving?

You must know your customer, who you are building or designing for. Personas are a great tool to describe your ideal customer concisely.

The value a team delivers is their measure of success, and it answers the question, “How do we know if we made a difference for those we’re serving?” User stories are an excellent way to capture the value the team is delivering.

Clarify the processes and norms.

Teams have specific ways they work together. Questions like, “How does work get assigned?” or “What are expectations about checking my email on weekends?” (In case you were wondering, the answer to that second question is, “you shouldn’t check work emails on the weekend.”)

Let’s look at two strategies for clarifying processes and norms.

  1. Map the workflow
  2. Write out the norms

Map the workflow

With your team, go to the whiteboard (if you’re a distributed team, there are some great online whiteboard options out there) and ask:

  • How does work come to our team?
  • How do we decide who does the job?
  • When something is completed, what happens next?

As you answer these questions, try to draw it out as a process with work moving from one end to another. When you have the process mapped out, ask, “What’s missing? Then go through each part and ask, “How does this work? Explain it to me like I’m new to the team?” Through this exercise, you’re creating clarity about your core team processes. 

Write out the norms

Norms are just shared expectations about behavior as part of the team, and they include expectations about meetings, email, project updates and much more. 

As you clarify how your team will approach doing the work, you might be surprised by how many differing understanding team members began with. 

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Clarify the work

Keeping everyone in sync is challenging when members work on multiple projects or tasks. The goal is a shared awareness and understanding of the team’s shared work. Let’s look at two strategies for clarifying the work on your team.

  1. A single source of truth
  2. Regular check-ins

Keep a single source of truth.

Have you ever joined a team or project and tried to get up to speed. You begin to dig in, but the meeting notes are in one place, the tasks are in another, and the project plan is spread between a planning app and some slide decks. 

The complexity of collaboration increases as the team size and workload grow.

Or maybe a more common experience is when collaborating on a doc, and some feedback is in comments on the doc, other feedback is in email and then some is in Slack. Even for that one doc, it’s hard to harmonize data from many places.

The complexity of collaboration increases as the team size and workload grow. For a team to work effectively together, they need to have one place for all critical information. 

This may be a single work management solution or an agreed-upon handful of apps with clear norms for how to use each as a team.

Hold regular check-ins

Things can change pretty fast, and regular check-ins are essential to keeping the team in sync and agile enough to adjust when change is needed

These check-ins don’t need to be long. The daily standup in Scrum is only 15 minutes, and everyone on the team shares what they’ve done, the obstacles they’re encountering and they work together to plan what to do next. 

When the team checks in regularly, there is a shared understanding of the work. No longer is a leader solely responsible for knowing how things are going. It’s the responsibility of the whole team.

Empower with freedom

An effective leader expects the best ideas to come from their team, not themselves. But this requires an environment and team culture that invites collaboration, experimentation and ownership. 

Teams still need clarity about the destination but freedom about how to get there. They need freedom (and still clarity) to decide who does what. With this freedom comes shared accountability for delivery.

Scrum does this well. The product owner sets clear goals for both the product and sprint. The development team has the freedom to decide how to reach those goals, and they also have the freedom to change course along the way if needed. 

Teams still need clarity about the destination but freedom about how to get there.

During the sprint review, the team presents the finished ready to deliver value. The whole team owns the accountability. You can’t say I did X, but Bill didn’t do Y. It’s we did X, but we didn’t do Y, because the whole team owns the work.

This kind of collaboration requires psychological safety, meaning you don’t think you’ll be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

Psychological safety is actually what Google identified as the primary trait for effective teams, and it’s a concept every leader would benefit from understanding better.

Create a culture for collaboration

Culture has come up a few times throughout this article because it substantially impacts the team's effectiveness. The whole team participates in creating its culture, but as the leader, you become a crucial guardian and reminder of the culture. Recognizing when others live out the culture well, creating support for the values of the team culture and being honest when the culture is violated.

Think back to the norms discussed earlier. They likely reflected both what the team values and how it behaves. Culture is the beliefs, values, and assumptions your team shares that influence individual and corporate behavior.

Like a fish trying to see the water, culture can feel elusive when you’re immersed in it. A helpful activity is to identify the behaviors that are supported or punished in your team. 

A team might say they have a culture where everyone on the team is treated like a peer, with no up-down relationships. What if a team member violates that value? What are you willing to fire someone for? If it doesn’t cost you anything, it might not be part of your culture.

Here are two steps that help you get started on your journey of forming a team culture.

  1. Write out your values.
  2. Audit your systems and processes

Write out your values.

I really like how Patrick Lencioni talks about values in his books The Advantage and 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. He encourages you to describe what your values might look like in action.

I’ve used this method on my teams for a long time. Here is an example of values in action from a team a few years ago. Each value has a title and a description of what it looks like to live it out.

Willing To Sweep Floors 

Setting aside status and ego and willing to do whatever was necessary to help the organization succeed. I think this will play out in things like building proofs of concepts and doing the groundwork for alignment. 

Go To The Moon

We set high, measurable goals and map the steps, but allow freedom for how we get there.  We’re seeking to collaborate across the organization and beyond it.

No Sacred Cows

Willing to take risks and cultivate an environment of creativity and innovation that is open to entertaining any idea if it will help us accomplish our goals. 

Give Away My Seat

We invite other voices into the process, advocate for them and seek to grow our teams and replace ourselves with a more diverse team. Humility is the ability to learn something from anyone and everyone.

Audit your systems and processes.

When you have clarified your values that inform the culture and behavior of your team, it’s time to pull back out the process map we discussed earlier. 

Walk through the map with your team and at each point ask, “How are we doing at living out our values here?” Or “What could change for this do better align with the kind of team we want to be?”

The more often you do this, the more normalized honest feedback and collaboration become. The whole team begins to share the load of growing as a team.

Action Plan

Ok. We covered a lot here, And that’s because building an effective team takes time. This post is part of two guides I wrote this year, one on servant leadership and another on learning how to practice Scrum. Even after leading teams for 20 years, I’m still learning and helping others to learn is important to me.

To learn more about Scrum, check out my What is Scrum? A Guide for Everyday People to Learn Scrum. If you have more questions, please feel free to reach out on LinkedIn.

Still not sure about your next step with Scrum? I offer a couple of free coaching sessions each month. You can signup for a free 30-minute coaching session, and we can work together to identify a good next step for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Scrum team

How does a scrum team work?

The scrum team is made up of the product owner, scrum master and development team. They each play important roles.

  • The product owner maximizes the value delivered by the product.
  • The scrum master maximizes the impact of the development team.
  • The development team transforms the product vision into reality.

Learn more about how a scrum team works together. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Is a Scrum Master a project manager?

Project managers and scrum masters differ in where they focus and what they emphasize. 

The project manager is focused first on the work. Does the project have everything it needs to get done? The scrum master is focused first on the people. Are they the best team they can be to get projects done?

Continue learning about the relationship between a scrum master and a project manager. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Can a scrum master be a developer?

This combo is very doable, but it depends on the person. Some people are great team contributors but are not good scrum masters. 

Often, people suggest the type A personality to be the Scrum Master because they seem like the typical leader type. Unfortunately, what usually happens here is that person begins to act like the team's boss, which is not the role of the scrum masters.

Learn more about the roles of a scrum team. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What’s the right scrum team size?

With less than three, you don’t get much of the benefit of collaboration or shared momentum. More than nine, and the logistics of coordination start to eat away at the benefits of coordination.

Learn more about how a scrum team works together. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What is Scrum?

What is the definition of scrum?

Scrum is founded on three essential pillars leading teams to ask the following questions:

  1. How does this make things more visible? (Transparency)
  2. Where does this create space to evaluate? (Inspection)
  3. When does this encourage growth? (Adaptation)

Further explore the definition of scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Is Scrum hard to learn?

This is because Scrum’s simplicity makes learning easy, but Scrum truly changes how you work, and that adjustment can be difficult. It changes power dynamics and expectations within the team and between the team and the rest of the organization.

You can explore further is Scrum hard to learn, along with the pros and cons of Scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

When did Scrum start?

Scrum was initially used as a term related to project management in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in their paper “New New Product Development Game” In the Harvard Business Review. The first recorded Scrum project came a little later in 1993 from Jeff Sutherland.

You can learn more about Scrum’s backstory. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What do all the scrum words mean?

Learning Scrum for the first time can be overwhelming. There are a lot of new terms and concepts in Scrum. I’ve listed the most common terms in a Scrum glossary.

How to use Scrum

Why use Scrum?

It forces clarity and prioritization, which provides the focus necessary for teams to be effective. Scrum embraces complexity and change by keeping many things simple and iteratively evaluating and adapting. 

You can learn more about why to use Scrum and three challenges Scrum solves. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

When does Scrum not work well?

Scrum isn’t always the best option for teams. Scrum can fail when there is a substantial mismatch between organizational culture and the Scrum values. It also depends on the nature of the work you do. If you work if very linear, predictable and tightly defined, you may not experience many benefits Scrum provides.

Find out more about aligning your organizational values with Scrum or how Scrum might fit in your context. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

How do I know when to use Scrum?

Scrum functions at its best when you have a dedicated team focused on developing a singular product. Its agility shines when there are time constraints combined with uncertainty. 

Explore the pros and cons of Scrum along with expectations vs. realities with Scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

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