Seven Ideas to Strengthen Your Team’s Performance

Pit Crew for Racing Team Surrounding Car
••• Getty Images/Martin Barraud

Theory suggests that groups should outperform individuals in generating ideas and making effective decisions. Theory hasn’t spent much time working in groups.

Yes, I love the potential of teams—it’s tremendous and it’s exciting, and yet, few groups survive intact to realize their potential. The late, great team researcher, J. Richard Hackman, summed up a lifetime of research into teaming with the quote: “I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary…but don’t count on it.”

For my money, the operative phrase here is, “…but don’t count on it.”

Team development requires deliberate hard work and there are a lot of moving parts. I like to start with the fundamentals around roles and purpose and then help groups learn how to creatively attack issues. Part of this involves stimulating new ideas. Here are seven easy and low cost ideas practically guaranteed to have a big impact on your team’s creativity and performance. Use them in great health and feel free to improvise.

7 Ideas to Strengthen Team Creativity and Performance:

1. Renew around purpose. One of the root causes of group performance problems is the lack of connectivity to an over-arching and motivating purpose. While not every team is charged with save-the-world type tasks, it is possible to elevate departmental purpose or project purpose to a higher, meaningful level.

If your project team is working on a key part of new product development essential to the firm’s strategy, make certain to remind them of this point regularly. If you are leading a functional group, define a charter or mission for the team that fits nicely under the firm’s mission. An alternative approach is to focus the team around meaningful metrics or to benchmark your team’s performance versus industry or market leaders.

2. Clarify roles. Have everyone on your team complete this exercise on their own and then share it with the group: “At the end of this project (or my time on this team), what will my coworkers say that I did?” After reading their own description out loud, encourage everyone to turn their answer into their own personal mission statement or charter for their role on the team. Make certain these mission statements are visible for all team members to see.

3. Study the innovators. Choose a firm that is remarkably innovative and successful in your team’s area of focus (outside your industry) and create an association exercise. For example, if you lead a customer service team in an industrial parts company, try asking the question: “How would Zappos (online shoe retailer) change our customer service?” If you are in IT, try, “How would Google/Amazon leverage our data?” Break your team into small groups to explore these topics and ask them to come back in 30-days with a report outlining the ideas. Kudos if you can put some of the ideas into action.

4. Create an adversary. Nothing fuels emotion and galvanizes teamwork like an evil adversary bent on keeping you and your colleagues from meeting their mortgage payments. If you’ve got a solid, evil competitor, great! Simply study and report on what they are doing and challenge your team to out-think or outflank them. If you don’t have a ready made competitor, consider making one up. One CEO wrote weekly press releases describing the machinations of an imaginary competitor as a tool to stimulate his team’s energy and creativity. While everyone knew the competitor was imaginary, the approach stimulated a very rich set of scenario planning and response exercises.

5. Improve discussion quality by teaching your team how to talk. Invest a few dollars and hours in reading Edward De Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” book and use his parallel thinking approach to get the best out of group discussions. It’s easy to facilitate the process of focusing the entire group on one theme (hat) at a time, including facts/evidence, emotions, ideas, risks, opportunities, benefits. You will quickly notice that this technique reduces discussion churn and dramatically improve idea generation and solution development. 

6. Develop creative responses to issues through alternative framing. Start by working with your team to frame (describe) issues in more than one distinct way. For example, a competitor’s new product launch may be a threat or, it may be an opportunity. Encourage the team to frame it first as either positive or negative and then to develop possible solutions based on the frame selection.

Once the initial framing discussion has run its course, pick the other frame and develop an entirely new set of potential responses or solutions. The approach will yield rich discussions and a variety of options for consideration.

Effective managers use this technique at the group and individual level. For an advanced form of framing, once the positive and negative approaches are developed, ask the team what they would do if none of the approaches are available.

7. Practice anthropology without a license. If budgets allow, send your team out of the office in search of ideas and insights. From studying customers using your offerings to observing the customers of your customers, careful observation can yield actionable results.  One client sent a team out to their customers to observe a “day in the life of data,” and identified a number of new product and service ideas for their software firm.

I’m a fan of sending groups into very unique environments as well. Consider sending teams to museums, concerts, exhibitions or even amusement parks. Ask them to observe operations, customer service, marketing, how customers respond to the offerings and then challenge them to relate those observations to your own business. Put some effort into facilitating the feedback discussion and importantly, challenge the team to identify one or more ideas to put into action.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Team performance is a horrible thing to waste. Invest a bit of time and you might just generate a bit of magic and produce something extraordinary!