Three young entrepreneurs at a small San Francisco startup saw the HealthCare.gov website problems as a challenge to build a better website. Michael Wasser, one of the entrepreneurs behind thehealthsherpa.com, had this to say in a recent CBS news interview, about their initiative: "There was no thought of, 'How do we make money this time?' ... It was like, 'This is a problem that we know we can solve in a really short period of time. So let's just do it.'"
What made the three 20-year-old entrepreneurs successful at creating a well-functioning alternative to the government's health insurance marketplace website? We could say it's their ability to write code, their entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to invest their personal time just for the sheer pleasure of building something of value. But there's one element that towers over all these reasons: "That's the great thing about having such a small team," said one of the entrepreneurs, George Kalogeropoulos. "You sit around a table and say, 'Okay, how does this work?' There's no coordination meetings, there's no planning sessions. It's like, 'Well, let's read the document and let's implement this.'"
What Kalogeropoulos touched upon is the value of small teams, which can help a group of committed people be more nimble, more agile and better able to accomplish great things. The very definition of a team is "a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they are mutually accountable."
Teams are common in all kinds of organizations, whether it's a small business, a band of entrepreneurs working together, or a large enterprise. But there's often a bias toward over-staffing a team. Not everyone adopts Jeff Bezos' two pizza rule: "If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it's too big."
Is there an optimal size for a team? Some studies show that the ideal number from a team-building perspective is about five or six. In a recent paper, “Why Individuals in Larger Teams Perform Worse,” Wharton management professor Jennifer S. Mueller notes, "Above and beyond five, and you begin to see diminishing motivation. After the fifth person, you look for cliques. And the number of people who speak at any one time? That’s harder to manage in a group of five or more.”
Apart from size, what else makes a team successful?
Clear, Meaningful Goals
One of the simplest and most effective prescriptions for team success is to give team members crystal clear goals that involve them in meaningful work—work that makes them feel good doing it. "The key to effective teamwork is disarmingly straightforward," says Mark De Rond, associate professor at Cambridge University, and author of There Is an I in Team: What Elite Athletes and Coaches Really Know About High Performance. "Provided they are capable, give people something to care about more than themselves."
Face To Face Communication
Virtual teams are proliferating, as technology makes it easier to work remotely with a group of people. There's even a new cloud-based outsourcing program, called Talent as a Service (TAS), which replaces hiring full-timers with finding talent in the cloud, for as short or as long as needed.
But are virtual teams a recipe for success? No, says Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program. His research shows that "teams that rely solely on electronic communication are less successful than those that understand why communication in person is important.” Email doesn't translate emotion, and misunderstandings can happen.
Even the best structured virtual teams need some face time to get to know who's on the team, to connect personally and to bond.
Make every team member accountable by not only providing feedback en route, but by making the feedback process transparent. That is, everyone on the team needs to know how everyone else's input is adding to the team's success, or hindering the achievement of goals. Is someone stalling and not delivering what's expected of them? Is a team member repeatedly late in providing needed information that forces others to slow down? Are some practicing what's called social loafing—the tendency to put forth less effort when part of a group, especially a large group where it's easy to hide?
As a team leader, address these issues head-on. Better still, do what De Rond recommends in the Harvard Business Review article, "Why Less Is More In Teams": Make the feedback transparent for everyone to see. "Provide greater transparency by opening up your feedback mechanism. Sports have the edge here in that, particularly in elite environments, systems are designed to measure performance on an ongoing basis, aided by increasingly sophisticated technologies." De Rond cites the example of the Cambridge University Boat Club, which publicly posted objective performance results for each team member, what they did well, what they didn't do so well, including what they should stop doing, or start doing, immediately. We can learn a thing or two about team success from sports teams.
If you institute these three commandments in leading your teams, you're quite likely to end up with a winning team such as the San Francisco trio.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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