In my previous post (The Foundational Importance of Trust), I addressed the most critical ingredient for highly effective teams – trust. Trust is the foundation upon which everything else that a team does and achieves is built. However, effective teams require a few other essential ingredients as well.
This post will address a second essential ingredient – clarity of purpose. No human enterprise truly succeeds that isn’t clear about the reason it exists, the purpose it serves, and the difference it intends to make. Teams in organizations are no different. This post will explore the importance of getting this ingredient right to enhance team effectiveness.
A short story illustrates what’s at stake.
I once facilitated a retreat for an eight-member executive team that had been together under the leadership of the current CEO for nearly two years. In the initial meeting, the CEO shared her perspective on the team and the issues she wanted to address. After a thorough exploration of these and an exchange of mutual expectations about working together, I agreed to facilitate the retreat and made my customary request to interview each of the other members of the team.
It was during the interviews that the team members’ sense of important issues to address began to diverge from the CEO’s. Here are three quotes that represent what team members shared.
“The role of the team is not clear. We don’t know if we’re supposed to just drive in our lane or work with each other across the whole organization.”
“Are we simply a sounding board or are we a decision-making team? Mostly we get asked to comment on things and Jessica (not her real name) decides. There’s no buy-in to decisions.”
“I have the impression that we are just a hierarchical conduit to the rest of the organization for sharing information and nothing more.”
Team members shared that the team had been “functioning” without a clear understanding of its role, scope, boundaries, authority, and responsibility. In short, it wasn’t functioning anywhere near its potential.
Based on my working agreement with the client, I shared an anonymous summary of interviews with Jessica so we could plan carefully how to approach the retreat. I highlighted the matter about the unclear role and function of the team and how the executives thought it was severely limiting the team’s ability to be truly effective. I told her that although there were others, this was the critical issue to be addressed and resolved first. She listened carefully if surprised. After a bit of reflection, she agreed and the two of us had an in-depth discussion of what she wanted the team to be and how she wanted her executives to function in relationship to her and to each other.
At the retreat, during an exercise in which the CEO and the team each exchanged their perceptions of each other, the team raised the matter of the lack of clarity of team role and function. The CEO was prepared to respond and she and the team had a very candid and honest conversation about the matter. The CEO did a good job of describing what she wanted the team to be and, together with a lot of frank dialogue, they arrived at agreement about the role, scope, authority, and responsibility of the team.
Clarity of purpose matters.
Research in group dynamics and experience tell us that when any team is formed, there are questions that are commonly top of mind for new members. The questions represent a combination of natural curiosity but also personal judgment regarding willingness to engage. To the extent that each question is addressed and resolved satisfactorily, the team moves on to the next key question and so on until a firm foundation for teamwork and action is established. Three of these formational questions comprise a construct I call Clarity of Purpose.
Orientation: Why am I here?
When a team is formed, team members have orientation questions. What is this team about? Why was I selected? Who am I in this team? How will I fit in? What role will I play? These questions address matters of team identity, personal identity, and membership. Team members need acceptable answers in order for team development to continue.
To the extent that these questions are not satisfactorily resolved, an undercurrent of emotional issues that interfere with effective group development and functioning results. At this point, the undercurrent of emotional issues is characterized by confusion, uncertainty, and trepidation.
Personal/Relational: Who are you?
The second question addresses matters of interpersonal relationship and trust. Who are you? Who am I? Who are we in relation to one other? What expectations and agendas do others have? How do these fit with what I want and what I can offer? Again, answers to these and related questions must meet team members’ satisfaction. To the extent that they do, then mutual regard, candor, and trust develop.
If these questions remain unanswered, then the undercurrent here affecting team functioning consists of wariness, pretense, and doubt.
Direction/Future: What are we going to do?
The third question is directed explicitly to the matters of purpose and goal clarification. What are the assumptions about this team? What kind of team are we? What is the vision for this team? What is the team expected to accomplish?
When these questions are addressed successfully, the team gets clear about the reason it exists, the future it will chart, and results it intends to achieve.
When these questions remain unresolved, the result can stunt team development. Team member indifference, deep frustration, and infighting to try to establish direction characterize the emotional undercurrent.
These dynamics do not affect only newly formed teams as the story above shows. To the extent that these formational questions are not satisfactorily addressed, the undercurrents noted above stall a team’s development and it functions below its optimal level.
Does your team have Clarity of Purpose? Are members clear about why the team exists and the kind of team it will be? Do members understand the results it intends to achieve? Are members clear about the team’s scope and authority and what the team is answerable and accountable for? Or are members searching for answers to these and related questions and, as a consequence, the team is functioning below where it might?
The Team Performance Inventory (along with Team Trust, Team Process, and Orientation to Conflict) measures Clarity of Purpose. The sub-scale summary provides averages for each item, item-by-item comparisons to a data base of respondents matched by team size, and an interpretive summary that identifies strengths and opportunities.
Explore the Team Performance Inventory here.