Seven keys to higher team productivity

Building a project team? Use these seven tips.

By Amy Smith, PhD, Consultants for Education, Manitou Springs, Colo. December 16, 2014

In a previous column, “Productivity power tools,” I described ways to boost your individual productivity: Structure your day, build routines, and communicate effectively. This time around, I will describe seven essentials to highly productive teams.

U.S. corporations are living a wonderful myth—that group work and teamwork are more productive than individuals working alone. What we know in practice is that this is not always the case, and in my experience, team productivity can be harder to attain than individual productivity. Why is that? To answer that question, let’s begin by examining what a productive team looks like. Here are discussion points for productive teams.

Choose well. Most of us have been in working groups where we wondered why some people were present, or on teams where only a few were really productive and actually doing the work. Leaders of effective teams know that having a small number of the right people is the optimal formula for productivity.

Provide direction. A second key to highly productive teams is providing direction. Research study after research study show us that more often than not, team members rarely agree on their team’s purpose and mission. Highly efficient teams are clear on their purpose, and that clarity is set and managed by the team’s leader.

Facilitate collaboration. Highly productive teams also work in a collaborative atmosphere, one where there is a balance between meetings and group time and individual work time. And in some companies there is a tendency to overmanage meetings. Collaboration is not about spending time together; instead it’s about creating a space for teams to disagree and resolve differences of opinion—all while staying focused on the central purpose of the team.

Define purpose. For those of us who lead teams or are actively working in project groups, there are some ways we can increase the productivity of our existing teams. The most important element of team effectiveness is purpose. The group must be clear on its purpose and mission for the work. As a leader, if you haven’t revisited or restated this purpose lately, your next meeting or communication is a good time to do so.

Encourage interaction. Additionally, efficient teams are composed of empowered members. Team members feel in control of their work; they have a vested interested in the project’s success or failure as individuals, which leads to the team feeling in control. Part of feeling in control is that the team members interact with each other.

Encourage diversity. Now that sounds simple, but in reality, team meetings often serve the leader; team members only respond to and discuss agenda items with the leader. In highly productive teams, on the other hand, team members interact with each other. And in these interactions, there is room for minority viewpoints and potentially unpopular ideas or questions. Leading Harvard researcher Richard J. Hackman refers to this as “deviant thinking.” In his research, some of the most productive and efficient teams have divergent members, those who question and examine aspects of the team’s work from very different angles. We’ve all had people on our work teams who ask the question, “Why are we doing this?” or “Shouldn’t we be looking at it this way?” to the groan of other members. But in reality, teams with divergent thinkers are some of the most productive.

Allow conflicts. To increase your team’s work productivity, teams must allow conflicts to arise. If a team is always in harmony, walking in the same direction, and thinking the same thoughts, then it may not be producing its best work. Highly effective and efficient teams have ways to disagree and bring conflict to light. Rather than avoid conflict, great working groups see it as a positive and have ways to resolve the conflict. Address issues early when they first arise, and help team members learn ways to settle conflicts. Out of conflict comes great innovation and learning.

None of these tips is earth-shattering. But getting them all into play on a project is challenging!

Amy Smith is the president of Consultants for Education. She has more than 20 years of experience in organizational leadership, adult teaching and training, and cognitive research. Her consulting focuses on development of corporate training and mentoring programs.

References and additional reading

Bakken, E. (2007). Twelve Ways to Build an Effective Team. Ceridian Corporation.

Coutu, D. (May 2009). Why teams don’t work. Harvard Business Review.

Hackman, R. J. (2011). Collaborative intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems. Bk Business.

Maher, R. (Dec. 2011). Increasing team productivity: A project focus creates waste and leaves value on the table.

May, M. (April 7, 2011). How to hold a lean meeting. Guide to Lean Meetings.