Most of us spend most of our lives in teams. And anyone who’s ever led a team has spent dozens if not hundreds of hours wondering: How do I make my team great? What will enable us to do great work together and adapt quickly when a challenge comes our way? How do I keep my people happy?
Historically, most advice on teams has originated from observing ‘good’ teams and contrasting them with ‘bad’ teams. Naturally, that approach leads to generalisations about how successful teams look, but not necessarily to an understanding of why they look that way, or what it takes to go from ‘bad’ to ‘good’.
So today we’re taking it beyond buzzwords like accountability, psychological safety and adaptability that set you up with lofty expectations of how your team should look. Instead, I’ll give you a framework you can use with any team to quickly understand where to focus your attention.
Interactions can make or break a team
The old adage that we’re the sum of the five people we spend the most time with is thrown around a lot these days. And yet – when it comes to teams – we still live in a cult of star performers.
A few years ago, three Harvard professors realised that – for all the hype – there were very few studies on star performers over time. Committed to changing that, they tracked high-flying CEOs, researchers and software developers, as well as leading professionals in investment banking, PR, management consulting and the law. And what they found was that the top performers in all these groups were more like comets than stars. Blazing successes, until they left one company for another and quickly fizzled out.
For all the merits of these talented individuals, it would appear that the team that surrounded them was vital for their success.
Another Harvard professor, J.R. Hackman, went as far as concluding that team design and structure account for 60% of team performance. A consistent finding across fields as varied as intelligence agencies, classical orchestras and technology companies.
What it comes down to is that a team’s success isn’t determined by the strengths of its people as individuals, but by the way these people communicate and collaborate. Your role, as a leader, is simply to create an organisation that enables the most valuable interactions between them.
The Most Valuable Team Interactions
This past decade, the question I’ve been toiling over is Which interactions create the most value for teams? The pursuit of an answer has taken me deep into fields like systems theory, self-management, creativity and behavioural science. It’s taken me from the heat of Michelin starred restaurants to decentralised digital cooperatives and FTSE 100 corporations. And what it all boils down to is this:
To succeed, there are six interactions your team needs to master.
The Six Key Interactions for Teams to Master
So you want a team that delivers excellent work, makes the best use of its resources, and supports the wellbeing of its entire ecosystem, including the people working in it. A team that comes together in the face of a crisis, rather than falling apart. A team that continuously evolves itself.
You might be close to your ideal or far from it, it doesn’t matter. What matters is working to set the conditions to learn and improve, picking momentum along the way. These Six Key Interactions (SKIs) are what it takes to make this flywheel turn, moving your people and your team towards a regenerative team.
The SKIs revolve around six areas of questioning, that your team seeks to address through their interactions:
- Identity: Who are we and what needs do we exist to serve?
- Future: How will we evolve to meet those needs, given how our environment is evolving?
- Change: How do we transform to move from here to that future?
- Coordination: How do we harmonise our work?
- Ops: What are we doing every day to deliver our value to our stakeholders?
- Support: How do we make it possible for every person to give their best, sustainably?
Identity Interactions explore questions like:
- Who do we exist to serve?
- Why do we come together?
- Who are we at our core?
It’s also the domain of culture, ethics, values and beliefs, and sets the bedrock for collaboration.
Identity Interactions use rituals, stories and slogans (like a list of values or the team’s origin story) to bring the team together, strengthen relationships and create a shared identity. Exploring, distilling and embodying that shared identity is what enables a team to go beyond transactional relationships and foster a sense of community, belonging and deep commitment.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s having this solid sense of identity that enables a team to change, confident in the knowledge that what matters most will always remain at the core of their work. Identity Interactions provide safety and continuity in a context of rapid change.
Future Interactions seek to answer questions like:
- How is our environment evolving?
- What is our vision for the future?
- What new possibilities should we explore?
These Interactions are where you search for new opportunities to disrupt, innovate and experiment. It’s about looking for weak signals to see what’s emerging in the team’s environment, noticing trends, and using these trends to understand how the team needs to position itself to thrive and continue to thrive.
By definition, Future Interactions are an exercise in engaging with uncertainty. This requires ambition, creativity and speculation. But since our human tendencies leave us prone to confirmation bias and numerous other errors of judgment, effective Future Interactions include a balance of playful ideation and rigorous experimentation. Both the dreamer and the pragmatist.
Above all else, these Interactions instil the team with an energising sense of possibility. They align individual efforts towards a shared destination. They make the impossible possible.
Change Interactions tackle questions like:
- How do we bridge the gap between the now and the future?
- Which of the multiple paths do we choose?
- How do we transform ourselves as a team?
- And – more traditionally – what’s our strategy?
These Interactions are all about prioritisation and transformation. A ripe environment for learning and growth… and also discomfort. Change is fundamentally about letting go and embracing the new or – more poetically – about death and rebirth. After all, constant renewal is the essence of life.
Healthy Change Interactions happen when we can balance structure and flexibility, enabling enough discomfort to grow but not so much that we break. In more pragmatic terms, Change includes:
- High-level strategy that sets the team’s focus on a few specific initiatives, and any subsequent work to enable said initiatives.
- Emergent change, where empowerment leads to multiple small shifts, and over time these trickle up to bigger transformations.
Sustaining a healthy capacity for Change Interactions in every team enables organisations to adapt rapidly and effectively in the face of external change, because teams can move autonomously rather than waiting on commands from above. This in turn gives employees a sense of agency, contributing to their satisfaction and motivating, and enabling the team to use their detailed knowledge of their own situation, skills, and preferences to improve outcomes for customers and other stakeholders.
Coordination Interactions handle questions like:
- How do we communicate within our team and between teams?
- How and where do we store knowledge and information?
- What standards and procedures should we observe?
- How do we mitigate and resolve conflicts?
Coordination Interactions are the organisational lubricant. Just as a traffic light helps to prevent clashes between cars, these Interactions serve to prevent clashes between people and teams. Especially when everyone is moving fast.
There are three parts to this work:
- Designing Coordination: Defining how you and your team will coordinate your work, for example choosing your project management tool or discussing a common standard for how to use the team’s Slack channels.
- Doing Coordination: Think updating your Kanban board, planning your production schedule, having your daily stand-up or weekly project meeting, or telling your team about delays.
- Resolving Problems: Getting it back on track when shit hits the fan. For example mediating interpersonal conflict or clarifying roles when there are problematic gaps and overlaps.
Ops Interactions deal with questions like:
- What needs to happen every day to deliver value to our stakeholders?
- How can we do what we do effectively?
- How do we consistently deliver high-quality?
These Interactions cover all the little tasks and processes that make up the organisation’s everyday operations – the things the team needs to do to deliver the products or services they’re responsible for. (Even if it’s an internal team servicing the needs of the company rather than external customers.)
Ops is about doing the work, like responding to a customer query, making a sale, coding software, hiring employees, and all the core tasks of each department. And it’s also about discussing the work, for example talking to your colleagues about how to respond to said query, giving feedback on their work, or asking a senior team member for advice. These Interactions encompass production, continuous improvement, mentoring and quality control.
Ops Interactions are often grouped by functional expertise – your traditional Finance, Marketing or HR departments. But you can also find operations teams that are grouped around product features or geographical regions, or even split into micro-enterprises that sell services within the organisation.
Support Interactions create space for questions like:
- What do you need so you can fully contribute to the team?
- How can the team support your physical, emotional and intellectual wellbeing?
While the first five Interactions look at the team as a whole, Support is all about hearing and serving the needs of each individual. This is the domain of wellbeing, coaching and career development. And also tech support.
These Interactions invite you to see your people as people, and recognise the impact of work on their (mental) health and wellbeing. Support is vital because it enables people to do their best work, and makes them feel valued, seen and appreciated. This contributes to a sense of psychological safety that is necessary for innovation, deep collaboration and real accountability.
In essence, Support Interactions enable everyone to contribute their best in all the other Interactions.
The SKIs as a journey
Although I have explained them one by one, the Six Key Interactions are mutually reinforcing and need to be sustained in tandem, which also means barriers in one type of Interaction are likely to lead to issues in the others. Equally, as leaders, we are often more inclined to some types of interactions than others and I have yet to meet anyone who could lead on all six fronts. But don’t let this demotivate you. Sustaining all Six Interactions is a tall order and no team is ever perfect. So rather than aim for perfection as an individual, what the SKIs enable is focusing your and the team’s attention on what matters most: creating, together, the conditions for learning and improving every day, for becoming better at contributing to your own wellbeing, that of your team, and that of your ecosystem, in short, for co-creating the conditions for a regenerative team.
So whenever you find yourself wondering how to move your team forward, ask yourself: What‘s the best way for us, in our unique situation, to have these Six Key Interactions?