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Published:May 11, 2017

Keeping Teams Together

Inside your company, some teams perform exceptionally well and other teams probably perform below your expectations.

That might mean that they don’t get as much code written, produce work with too many errors, or just generally don’t seem to be all that productive. It probably goes without saying that you’d like it if all of your teams were performing at the level of your best-performing team.

So what’s the difference between your best-performing team and your worst?

Although a lot of factors go into how well a team performs, one of the most obvious and easiest factors to control is who is on what team and how well those people work together.

When it comes to team structure and management, there are two prevailing schools of thought about how to create teams that are most effective. One says that it’s wise to keep teams together over the long haul and they’ll become more comfortable and perform better over time. The other approach focuses on changing things up, sparking new ideas,and making new connections–reconfiguring teams regularly.

But there’s only one right answer. It’s long-term teamwork. Science proves it.

A study from the University of Oxford, based on over 1,000 software development projects, found that teams with 50% more familiarity (measured on a sliding scale based on the number of previous projects worked together) developed products with 19% fewer defects and ran over budget 30% less often.

It’s not a fluke. Keeping teams together breeds better outcomes in the metrics that matter the most. And there are some scientific explanations why.

Why familiar teams perform better

The study cited above found five key components that come with familiar teams.

They’re as follows:

  1. Improved coordination of activities
  2. Better understanding of individual knowledge
  3. Increased ability to adapt to change
  4. More integration of knowledge to drive innovation
  5. Stronger competitive advantage

Most of these should really come as no surprise. The better you know the people you work with, the better you’re able to predict what they’ll do, the better you are at communicating with them, and the better you’re able to work together to accomplish a shared goal.

At the most basic level, teamwork is about communication. So it follows that teams that are better at communicating would be better at all kinds of tasks and projects.

But, beyond just working together, teams that are familiar with each other also have a stronger understanding of each person’s strengths and weaknesses. They’re better able to use each other for help where it’s needed. Steve can ask Sarah for help with algorithms because he knows she’s the best person on the team at optimizing them.

Both of these make a team more suited for adapting to change as their familiarity with one another allows them to communicate about those changes and then coordinate their efforts to revise their plan of action.

Lastly, employers with strong, familiar teams have a competitive advantage in the fact that their talent isn’t concentrated in just a few strong employees who could be hired away.

This leads to the obvious next question, which is, if familiarity is so important for teams, how can your company actively use this to their benefit and facilitate increased familiarity?

How to keep teams together–and familiar

To enjoy the benefits of long-term, familiar teams, your organization should focus on how to both keep teams together and also how to allow them to become familiar as quickly as possible.

A 2014 article on this topic explained that teams go through four stages as they become familiar with working together:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

The implication here is that teams must pass through multiple stages before they begin to perform at a higher level than non-familiar teams. First, they come together (forming), then they often sort through differences of opinion and approach (storming), then they settle into a comfortable state of compromise and collaboration (norming). In the last phase, we see the positive effects of familiarity as the team outperforms others without such a level of comfort (performing).

So, don’t expect teams to become familiar immediately. But you can take active steps to improve the level of familiarity and comfort.

First of all, create a strong culture that’s focused on employee satisfaction and retention. You can’t keep teams together if employees are constantly coming and going. Hiring and retaining talent could easily be a blog post (or book) all its own. But, for the purposes of this post, just know that it’s the first step in this process.

Track and measure familiarity

There’s the old adage that says, “what gets measured is what gets managed.” It’s not wrong.

In order to effectively manage any part of your business, you have to first start tracking and measuring the thing you want to control. This tells you what steps you need to take in order to move it in the right direction.

When it comes to familiarity, this means having a process for tracking which team members work together on which projects–which people are most familiar with each other. This doesn’t need to be an overly complex system. Keep simple records of which projects have been done by which team members, then keep a basic tally of how many times Steve worked with Andrea and Susan worked with Samantha.

This might be accomplished through your existing project management or time tracking application.

This rudimentary metric of familiarity can become a measure of how likely a team is to work well together in the future.

Manage for familiarity

Once you have a record of teams that work together, you can begin to actively managing with this mind. In other words, you can use familiarity as a deciding factor when putting together teams.

It doesn’t need to be the end-all, be-all metric for choosing teams. But it should enter into the equation.

Encourage engagement and collaboration

Familiarity only works if teammates actually have the ability to become familiar with one another.

Make sure that your work systems and processes provide the opportunity for team members to actively engage with one another and to collaborate whenever possible and beneficial. This is how you build bonds between employees.

Set a shared goal

As a manager, you probably already know that giving goals and general direction is almost always better than dictating specific directives (AKA micromanaging).

It’s also better to present teams with a shared definition of success–a goal that they will accomplish together.

This creates cohesion for your team as they are now working together to achieve a shared objective. Their success depends on the success of each team member, which means they’re more likely to interact and collaborate in order to make sure things go well.

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