The pandemic has shown us everything we need to know about creating winning teams.
Organizations demand more and more from their teams – and so they should. The business environment is changing faster than ever, customers are more demanding, and supply chains are reconfiguring. Today’s organizations face new heights of both possibilities and constraints. Organizations need to be responsive and flexible, while providing stability for both trust and efficiency.
Organizational structures, no matter how sophisticated, can’t address all these demands simultaneously. Teams can. Unfortunately, they don’t always live up to their potential. Humans have worked in teams for thousands of years, but most teams are mediocre, not great. We muddle through with adequate processes, and we get decent results – not great ones.
Today, teams have to perform at their very best, sustaining and even increasing their performance while connecting their members in positive relationships, with each other and with the firm. They need to be Superpower Teams. The lessons learned during the pandemic challenge some of our fundamental assumptions about teams in general, and point to new approaches for Superpower Teams.
What you’ve learned from virtual teams
Most leaders have learned a lot about teams during the pandemic. Most importantly, we saw that virtual teams can perform really well – indeed, some worked better virtually. Researchers have known about this for years, but for many people it has been difficult to accept. Plus, it was hard to force ourselves to try a virtual set-up when we didn’t need it.
For virtual team-working, there are some critical things to get right. The research summarizes them in three categories: heartbeats, disciplined technology, and shared leadership. The heartbeat is about keeping a team’s blood and oxygen – the relationships and knowledge – flowing. This is extremely difficult to do virtually. Teams that worked in-person pre-pandemic could at least build on what they had before – but if you formed a new team or welcomed new members while working virtually, you had to pay close attention to building relationships and sharing the nuanced knowledge that can’t be found in the manuals. To do this well took a lot of time, but it will have paid off.
The best virtual teams schedule heartbeat meetings on a regular basis. Whether daily, weekly or monthly, the regularity is vital. Just as important is the agenda. If you’re simply walking through reports that could be read independently, the heartbeat won’t provide much blood or oxygen. Use shared time to check in with each other personally, and to focus on a few tough problems that require multiple perspectives. This builds trust and shares the knowledge needed to carry the team between heartbeats.
The second thing to get right is disciplined technology. You probably gained a new appreciation for your team’s workflow platform, be it a comprehensive application like Microsoft Teams, or a combination of tools. Your team members had to agree on what to put where, how to keep in touch, and who was doing what. They learned to be flexible with technology and to jump from one platform to another if required. You probably spent far more time talking about how to work together than you ever did pre-pandemic, and you took more time to manage workflow processes.
This brings us to a third theme. In effective virtual teams, the leadership role is shared across more people. The coordination job is bigger, so the leader simply can’t do everything well on their own. Good virtual teams delegate much of the process management and sub-task leadership they need to team members.
Heartbeats, disciplined technology and shared leadership may have come to the fore during the pandemic – but they are just as important for traditional, in-person teams. Why did we need to learn this lesson? Because when we’re working in person, we can get away without managing these drivers explicitly. We can muddle through and compensate for a lack of careful management, so we tend to be lazy. This is why traditional teams tend to underperform compared with their potential: they find ways of working that are “good enough.” Virtual teams have to manage these drivers explicitly, or they fall apart.
Virtual teams can be better
There are some things that virtual teams actually do better than in-person teams, once they have the basics right. These can be summarized in three categories.
Virtual teams can discuss ideas better
They can compare, analyse and combine ideas particularly well. Traditional teams work like an assembly line: one person speaks at a time, each responding to the previous speaker. A lot of time is spent on what everyone already knows – very little on bringing in new information. Virtual teams, on the other hand, can work asynchronously and in parallel, for example with shared documents or electronic white boards. Everyone’s ideas can be recorded while still fresh and team members have constant access to all the ideas.
Virtual teams can address difficult topics better
Most of us prefer working in-person so we can read body language and sense each other’s emotions. However, our emotions can also get in the way – when our defences go up it’s hard to listen, and we may react without thinking. If relationships within the team are solid, teams working virtually are more likely to avoid personal conflict, while engaging constructively on tough topics. This improves decision-making and reinforces relationships.
Virtual teams can develop leaders better
This is a direct result of sharing leadership. When people are more involved in coordinating team activities, they practise leadership without the risk of a big failure. They get used to connecting those activities with the bigger picture objectives and strategic context – all of which prepares them for leading teams on their own.
Let’s look at two examples of Superpower Teams in very different contexts. The building materials industry has been slow to digitize, and that includes the ready-mix concrete business. One ready-mix leader began to digitize in late 2018, seeing the benefits of more efficient logistics and more accurate ordering, tracking and invoicing. But they faced a host of barriers to change, from the fragmented nature of the industry to harsh working conditions.
The company set up a cross-functional team with members from across the US. They developed and implemented solutions simultaneously in pilot markets, before adapting and improving the solutions for roll-out to other markets. They followed agile software development processes, but more importantly, they adopted Superpower Team principles for their teamwork. By late 2019, they had implemented solutions in many key North American markets. When the pandemic hit and customers started demanding digital solutions, the team was ready to accelerate globally.
A second example comes from a large global bank. It is organized, like most multinationals, as a matrix. Each country has its own chief executive and functions. Corporate headquarters has a global executive vice president (EVP) for many functions – including cyber security. The country cyber security VPs report directly to their country CEO, with a ‘dotted line’ to the global EVP. The EVP’s top priorities are ensuring local compliance with global policies, and fostering good two-way communication between himself and the geographic units. (Notice how neither of these requires teamwork among the country VPs.) But at the same time, the bank also wants to strengthen its cyber security, prototype new ideas in multiple markets simultaneously, and anticipate threats by seeing global patterns. These broader goals require real teamwork. Cyber security needed a Superpower Team.
The corporate EVP started by helping the country VPs build relationships with each other. When they spontaneously started sharing information and requests for help, he began to introduce the possibility of joint initiatives. The country VPs jumped on these eagerly, and self-organized to combine local responsiveness with global alignment. The team became stronger, and the bank was able to fend off attacks that hit their competitors. When the pandemic struck, the bank was so confident in their cyber-security they moved in-person banking procedures to digital at astonishing speed, learning around the globe.
Building Superpower Teams
Superpower Teams don’t think about the in-person to virtual spectrum. They just define themselves as ambitious, engaged teams. They excel in their focus on managing processes and relationships, leveraging the tools they have on hand to achieve what they need.
What can we learn from the concrete and banking Superpower Teams?
Schedule heartbeats to breathe life into the team
Both the concrete and banking team schedule heartbeat meetings at least six months in advance. Pre-pandemic, the concrete team met in person monthly for a full day, in a different place each time. They visited customer and logistics sites to explore improvements, before social events in the evenings. These injections of deep knowledge and relationship-building kept the team going until their next meeting.
The global banking team scheduled their heartbeats in the form of two-day semi-annual meetings in-person, and monthly half-day videoconferences. At the in-person meetings they explored customer needs and cyber-security trends, and learned about the local culture in a social setting. The half-day sessions focused on problem-solving specific situations.
During the pandemic, both teams switched their heartbeat meetings to virtual formats and increased the frequency – but they stayed disciplined with the agenda, focusing on complex topics and relationships.
Disciplined technology to keep the tasks and engagement going
Pre-pandemic, both Superpower Teams had developed strong discipline in their work between heartbeats. The concrete team used a simple set of tools for organizing their work: email, chat, phones, and shared drives. The banking team’s needs were more complex, as they worked in a highly sensitive area: they employed a full suite of team coordination tools, with dedicated support from the firm’s IT function.
Still a team between meetings – working asynchronously
Superpower Teams don’t think of teamwork as something that just happens when they’re together. The team is always ‘on’, and asynchronous work is part of the teamwork. In fact, they use the time between meetings to boost the team’s capabilities beyond expectations. The leader of the concrete team used their shared drive to post a constant flow of user data, and expected all team members to analyse it from their own perspective on a continuous basis.
Between heartbeat meetings, team members would discuss improvements; the shared data and analysis ensured they were working from an objective set of facts. The banking team went even further and learned to work well around the clock, passing projects from one time zone to the next.
Share leadership to support and accelerate the team
Both these teams had already learned the importance of sharing leadership before the pandemic hit. They had assigned different team members to managing the information, coordinating agendas and milestones, and facilitating communication. Both leaders focused on the quality of team interactions and keeping the direction. They were able to jump on difficult situations quickly, seeing them as opportunities to develop solutions before problems became crises. Once the pandemic moved everything online, both teams could continue these routines.
Leading your team to their Superpower
Today you’re probably debating what to keep from virtual ways of working as you move back to in-person working. Why not use what you’ve learned to become a Superpower Team? Remember how Superpower Teams define themselves: ambitious and engaged teams. As the leader, help the team get its toolkit and roles working: that lets you invest your energy in keeping the team’s ambitions high and focused, and supporting team relationships. Those are the two tasks that, critically, cannot be delegated. In Superpower Teams, they are the leader’s most important contribution.
Martha Maznevski is professor of organizational behaviour and faculty director for executive education at Ivey Business School, Western University.