What Makes Great Teams

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2015

Our search for the truth about what makes great teams has led us to do a review of the research and read stacks of books written by academics and team experts proclaiming they have the answer. It’s a bit like a search for the holy grail. There is a different model and list of key factors at every turn.

This is not to say that any of these are wrong, it’s just that team performance is a complex challenge and there is no ‘one truth’. From doing this research combined with our own experiences is become very aware that different approaches work for different teams in different contexts. We know that every team is different and is on its own journey. Therefore what will help a team become a great team may be different for every team. This is probably no surprise to you.

Our approach has been to distil our knowledge into a simple framework that helps teams see themselves more clearly, through a lens that helps them identify what they are doing well, where they can improve and spot some of the missing key components. We are under no illusion that our framework is the ‘one truth’. What we do know is that team improvement and team greatness is certain to come about if you:

  • devote time to reviewing how the team is working,

  • identify some things together that will make it work better, and,

  • work together to achieve this.

In the end it’s an investment. Great teams rarely become great without some clarity about what is important to work on and some time devoted to focusing on this.

So, our framework helps teams review their performance relating to three primary things:

1. Clear direction and priorities,

2. Effective collaboration amongst the team members, and,

3. Team members who are contributing and committed to the team.

Clear Direction and Priorities

To use a word, we call this ‘strategy’; our pathway to success. When teams are unclear of what they are there to achieve there may a lot of hard work leading to little outcome. Teams need to have clarity and buy-in to their purpose, the goal or vision, key objectives, and priorities. Too little focus kills a team’s performance. A team without a clear direction and priorities is rarely a team to start with; more a group of individuals working to their own agendas.

But having clear direction and priorities is not enough on its own.

Effective Collaboration

To use a word, we call this ‘Team’. We are referring to working together as one; one team, one unit. Not a collection of clever individuals doing their own thing.  When team members work independently of each other, we lose the value of synergy where the value created is more than just the sum of its parts. This is not just a platitude. Too many people have never experienced synergy, and therefore don’t realise the potential they’re missing.

Focusing on collaboration on its own is really just singing Kumbayah. There are a lot of teams who spend a lot of time trying to sing Kumbaya and wondering why the warm and fuzzies aren’t delivering performance! Team performance requires more than just collaboration.

Contributing & Committed Team Members

To use a word, we use ‘Leadership’ – but don’t jump to conclusions because we define leadership a little differently than most. Leadership in the team context is this: Each member is showing leadership when they are fully engaged, contributing their strengths and energy to the team. Each member is showing leadership when they work in a trusting way with others to achieve the team’s goals, not their own. Each member is showing leadership when they stand up for what the team is trying to achieve when they are outside in a resistant environment where it would be easier to change their tune.

But being a contributing team member is not enough on its own to make a team effective. You can have a lot of genuine intent to contribute in some groups, but without clear focus and collaboration it will go nowhere.

So that’s our approach. Get teams to look at themselves critically through three lenses –  Strategy, Team and Leadership. From this analysis the team can identify what is working well and what they should focus on to reach their potential. Then the fun work begins.

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