Everyone has been asked to work in a team at some point. Quite often, teams fail. The most common forms of failure are listed below:

  • The team does not have a clear purpose or goal, or it lacks decision-making authority.
  • Members of the team are not meeting expectations of other team members.
  • There is no coherent plan in place for the team to follow.
  • Meetings are not well facilitated, inhibiting the ability to get work accomplished according to plan.
  • Some members fail to do their work and are not held accountable.

Are these failures avoidable? One hundred percent of the time: Yes. But there are necessary conditions that must be in place in order for the team to be successful.

With a team leader willing to facilitate the team up front—when the team is first formed—the team can avoid nearly all of the problems above. Make no mistake: Fostering success in a team is hard work for both the team leader and the participants. But when the team works, the results are overwhelmingly strong. And that’s why organizations always use teams—because the payoff, if the team is successful, is so powerful.

Here is a detailed 14-step model to ensure the success of the team. All team members, including the team leaders, should diligently apply each of these strategies to ensure the team’s success.

  1. Choose roles for each team member. One member of the team should be the leader, and each other person should have specific assignments in terms of the important functional roles of teams. Everyone's purpose should be clear, not just as a subject matter expert on the team, but also as fulfilling a role in managing the team's work.
  2. Negotiate behavioral expectations for the team. Establish team expectations on performance, on decision making, on holding each other accountable, on sticking to the timeline for the team's work, and on handling conflict. Use these behavioral negotiations as part of the team charter. Have each team member visually review and formally commit to the team, which is an explicit agreement to be held accountable to the rules. Keep the document handy. When there is a new rule that needs to be added, add it; when conflicts need to be addressed, bring the expectations back out and review them with each other. Additionally, your expectations should clearly state meeting cadence, form of meetings, and expectations for those meetings.
  3. Scope the team's work. This is where the team gets specific on the work the team is to perform. A scoping document should be prepared and iteratively negotiated with the team's sponsor. It may take multiple iterations back and forth to make sure that the project is 100 percent clear, but time invested here ensures that there is no misunderstanding later (e.g., scope creep when the task expands from what was agreed), or that the results the team develops are not accepted by the sponsor.
  4. Develop a team work plan. Use whatever tools are at hand to develop a timeline for the team's work, making sure to establish SMART goals. Make sure the team has sufficient time for each step of the work to meet the final timeline requirements. Quite often, it helps to start with the due date and work backward to ensure all work can be completed. If the work cannot be completed, the team sponsor should be consulted for negotiation of the timeline and/or the expectations.
  5. Refine the team work plan to establish metrics and milestones for each phase plan. The team should establish specific checkpoints—milestones—that represent decision points in the plan. The number of points is a function of the scope of the work, but there should be enough check-ins with the team sponsor to demonstrate work the team has accomplished and get approvals for continued movement forward where appropriate. For each of these milestones, there should be a metric to determine whether the team is on track. This metric should be very specific and measurable so as to gauge success. It may be as simple as a yes/no question, but that metric will indicate whether or not you are on track.
  6. Present the full charter to the team sponsor for approval. Assemble your results from steps 3 to 5 into a team charter and present it to the team sponsor, the individual who empowered the team. This is your chance to do the absolute most to ensure the team’s success—getting full and unambiguous agreement as to what the team is going to do and how. Note: If additional resources are required, those resources should be identified at this point so that when approval is given to the project, approval is also given for the resources required.
  7. Begin the work of the team. With approval in hand, it is time to begin the work of the team. Have a kickoff meeting to get everyone started. Make it very clear what the first deliverables are, when they are due, and what each person will be doing. Review the meeting cadence so that everyone knows when things are due and when they should be prepared to report.
  8. Plan and facilitate regular team meetings to discuss the 4 Ps. Hold regular team meetings to discuss progress, performance, problems, and plans going forward. The team leader should facilitate these meetings, appointing another team member to take notes identifying action items and discussion results. These meetings should be extremely purposeful, with clearly articulated decisions to be made, reports to be given, and a determination in advance of what should be done. Agendas should be established and sent out before the meeting. It is strongly recommended that team behavioral expectations be brought out regularly and reviewed for compliance; ask the team whether or not expectations are being met and what rules should change going forward. This is a critical step in continuing to build trust among the team members. After each meeting's progress report, the team project timeline should be revised to reflect new findings and time adjustments.
  9. Offer concise behavioral and performance feedback to other members of the team. The team leader should ensure that, when appropriate or when required, feedback is clearly being given directly to members of the team. This means that it is not the leader giving feedback, but team members are directly giving feedback to each other. Conflicts or violations of the behavioral expectations should be talked through immediately and directly to avoid further problems. Team members should offer feedback to the leader and vice-versa. The more precise the communication of the team, the more likely the success of the team.
  10. Communicate regularly. The team should hold each other accountable for communicating the work being accomplished regularly—not just in regular meetings, but as needed for the team to be optimally productive. Typically, other teams are dependent on the work of others; regular and consistent communication will ensure no one's time is wasted.
  11. At each milestone, the team leader should meet with the team sponsor. The team leader should communicate progress, problems, and decisions, giving the team sponsor a chance to guide the team's work where appropriate. At each milestone, the project plan should be reviewed and validated, given the remaining work and the sponsor's agreement. Each milestone is also an opportunity for the team leader to meet with members of the team and give another opportunity for feedback and reflection. The behavioral expectations should be adjusted to reflect any changes. The team leader should take time to celebrate and reinforce the excellent work of the team.
  12. Repeat steps 8 to 11 until the project is completed. If the model is being followed closely, the timeline will be accurate, meetings will be productive, the work will continue forward, and the team sponsor will have signed off on the work at each milestone. This ensures that the final product will meet all of the scope requirements in the original charter.
  13. Deliver the final product. When the work is complete, deliver the final deliverables in the required form to the team sponsor and any designates. This is a chance for all team members to own the final result.
  14. Reflect. Take time in a meeting to reflect on the success of the team. Whether or not the team will work together in the future, this is a chance to learn from this team for use on future team projects. Take time to celebrate if warranted. Ask the questions, "What would you do differently in future projects, from your perspective?" "What contributed to the success of this team?" and "What will you do differently in the next team you are leading?"

Team Assignment FAQs

  • Our client/team sponsor isn’t really sure about what they specifically want; how should we handle this situation? This is often the case. It is your job to elicit clarity from them; facilitate the discussion to get them to tell you specifically what they want. Ask probing and explicit questions. If you don't get specificity from them, the team has little chance for success. Conversely, if the client has you all over the place, you haven't facilitated well. To remedy this situation, ask for a meeting and get everything nailed down as early as possible. Once you get all the information you can from them, it is always helpful to submit back to them a scoping agreement—a memorandum in which you outline in detail exactly what you think the agreement is and what the deliverables are, including deadlines. Quite often, it is advisable to require the team sponsor to agree in writing (by email or a signature) to what you’ve developed after you've made any final changes.
  • After the team's work began, the client/team sponsor wanted to change the scope. What do we do? This also happens quite often. Depending on the situation, you may need to go back to the initial scoping agreement and make changes, if time permits, but pay special attention to the deadline for the team's work; it may need to be adjusted to handle the additional work. Sure, they want you to do more—redraft the scoping agreement to include the new changes, change the estimated completion time, and get them to again agree formally in writing. In some cases, the final deadline is fixed. In that case, facilitate a discussion to develop a scoping agreement for a second phase of the assignment, letting your team sponsor know that the new work can't be completed until after the original work is done. Your expertise at facilitation will help you keep the client on scope (and to avoid scope creep) and make sure your team completes the work on time and on budget. Additional work can be completed in subsequent time frames.
  • A member of our team isn't doing the appropriate share of the work. How do we handle this? This is one of the most typical aspects of team work. Most often it results when there are not clear expectations and/or accountability criteria for each member. As part of your team expectations discussion up front, talk about how it is every team member's responsibility to confront others when they aren't doing their work; it isn’t just the leader's responsibility. If the team gets to the point where it is frustrated with a member of the team for nonperformance, the team is taking a passive approach and has waited too long to confront the culprit. In this case, the leader should have a direct discussion with the errant team member to discuss the problem and potential solutions. Oher team members always know about the problem, so secrecy isn't valuable in this discussion. In its next meeting, the team should revisit its agreed-to performance expectations and responsibilities and discuss the problem openly, no matter how difficult this feels. Failing to confront it will only lead to suboptimal performance. If the team member's performance still fails to meet expectations after the team has tried these approaches, the team sponsor should be contacted by the leader, but only after these attempts; it's the team's and the leader's responsibility to first work on the issues as a team. It may later become the case that certain team members need to be replaced, but in most cases, once team members are confronted and held accountable, they pick it up and do their work.
  • I hate working in teams; I always work better by myself. Why do I have to do a team assignment? One of the top five skill areas needed by executives in today's global market is the ability to lead and manage teams. Executive teams and corporate boards are two forms of teams. Another of the top five skills executives need is the ability to lead and manage projects, which are accomplished by teams. If you are bad at working on teams, you need to fix that because the reality is that all companies employ teams. Think about it this way: If you lead a few teams to successful results and see the power of teamwork, maybe your opinion will change. Teams are incredibly powerful when they work successfully—that's why companies use them so often. If your teams are not being successful, think about why this is the case and what you can do to change the situation. Then, lead, and change the way your teams work.
  • Our team is made up of procrastinators, and we are always pushing deadlines. This is a bad habit that the leader of the team, along with each member, must actively address. Require strict adherence to the timeline. As a team leader, if you know your team is bad at time management, you should be working with your training and development people to get them time management resources. Procrastination only ever works if every team member correctly guesses at the amount of time needed to complete an assignment and begins accordingly. If you wait until 10 hours before a deadline to start an assignment only to find that the assignment really needs 20 hours of work, your team's timeline is destroyed. Fix it. Lead.