The essential field guide to team building

Assembling a high-performing team is one of the best investments you can make. We break it down with actionable advice from experts

Team building depicted by an illustration of people assembling geometric blocks.
Image Credit: Ping Zhu

At a glance: What you'll learn

  • The purpose of team building
  • The four fundamentals of successful teams
  • Why diversity improves team performance
  • Skimp on team building now, risk poor outcomes later
  • Why good teams go bad and how to fix them

Thanks to modern technology, teams now have the ability to work together across countries, continents and even language barriers. These new digital tools—from video conferencing to collaboration software—are redefining what it means to function as a team and can make team building feel like uncharted territory.

But teams are ultimately social structures, and the conditions that help them function smoothly are the same today as they were 100 years ago. “While the technology has changed, the original equipment between your ears hasn’t,” says team dynamics expert Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the business school INSEAD.

Though businesses are good at systematically addressing things like accounting, risk assessments and other technical factors, they tend to be much less scientific when diagnosing stickier human interactions. “The really hairy problems are the ones that have to do with social dynamics,” Mortensen says. “The fact that nobody has had the silver-bullet, golden-ticket solution to org design and team dynamics is because there isn’t one. There can’t be by definition.”

That’s why it’s essential to recommit to the basics of team building.

In this field guide, we’ll explain the purpose of team building, offer some tips for bridging the gap between geographically remote teams, and dig into the dos and don’ts of designing high-performing teams.

What is the purpose of team building?

A team orients a group of people around a shared goal, helps employees improve their skills, and allows a company to achieve a level of performance that would be impossible for an individual to match.

If it’s well designed, a team is greater than the sum of its parts. Members can deploy their strengths and bolster one another’s weaknesses. Sharing the load makes work more efficient, and it reduces the amount of time employees spend spinning their wheels on counterproductive tasks.

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By the same token, poorly designed teams have the power to tank even the best ideas. Mortensen points out that while Kodak developed the first handheld digital camera, people tend to associate them with Canon or Nikon instead. And although Xerox invented laser printing, the computer mouse and graphical interfaces, it capitalized on none of them. “That’s not a technological failure,” he says. “That’s a social failure.”

In a survey of nearly 500 business leaders, 81% of respondents pointed to collaboration as key to their organization’s success. By taking the time to properly design a high-performing team, a company can not only supercharge its ability to accomplish business goals; it can sharpen and maintain the edge it needs to stay ahead of the competition.

The four fundamentals of successful team building

Mortensen and his co-author, Martine Haas, lay out four enabling conditions for effective teamwork in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

1. Identify and share a compelling mission

What it is: a goal every person on the team should clearly understand and believe in. What it’s not: a mandate from the CEO that simply traces a direct path to the bottom line. It’s the “why” behind the action. It must be clearly defined and translated into distinct roles and responsibilities for each team member. It should also explain what success looks like and the reward for achieving it.

2. Find the right people

The late leadership expert J. Richard Hackman, who Mortensen worked with, said in an interview with Harvard Business School, “My rule of thumb is that no work team should have membership in the double digits (and my preferred size is six), since our research has shown that the number of performance problems a team encounters increases exponentially as team size increases.” Those team members should be selected based on technical and interpersonal skills, talent and personality fit. They should also be trained on collaboration in the workplace.

Mortensen emphasizes the importance of recruiting a diverse team—not just in their demographics but in their experiences and perspectives. “If you have five of the exact same person, that doesn’t really buy you a lot,” he says. “Diverse teams perform better. Obviously there’s greater coordination required, but you get a superior final result.”

The numbers back him up. In a 2018 study on the importance of diversity in the workplace, the consulting firm McKinsey found that ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% likelier to outperform their peers, and those with gender-diverse leadership perform 21% better than the competition.

3. Empower your external champions

It’s easy to look only at the internal dynamics of a team, but no team performs in a vacuum. In their article on the dynamics of highly successful teams for the MIT Sloan Management Review, authors Deborah Ancona, Henrik Bresman and Katrin Kaeufer identify roles that help connect a team with the outside world. Those include: ambassador, information filter and protector. By enabling these role players to successfully champion the team’s work to company leaders and external partners, it becomes easier to justify and capture resources the team needs to accomplish its goals.

4. Foster a unified mindset

Mortensen cautions that a common perspective and shared sense of identity are the most at-risk factors in team building. “Both have always been important, but they sort of came for free,” he says. That’s why fostering open communication is more important than ever. “If we were sitting in the same room together, you’d have contextual information. But because we are thousands of miles away in different time zones, we don’t have the same information. We don’t have the shared sense of ‘we.’ Both of which have a massive impact on a team’s ability to work together.”

“Diverse teams perform better. Obviously there’s greater coordination required, but you get a superior final result.”

– Mark Mortensen, Insead, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior
Mark Mortensen
Insead, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior

Invest now or pay later

With the number of remote (but full-time) workers up 140% since 2005, colleagues often miss out on the opportunity to chat around the watercooler or go out for happy hour and other trust-building activities. Employers can no longer expect these bonds to form organically; today, they must actively invest in them.

“You have to pay for the stuff that used to come for free,” Mortensen says. “You actually have to put it in place. It’s like a muscle. You have to exercise it.” He recommends that, before diving into the burning challenges of work, majority-digital teams create a common context by talking about their lives and interests—even if it feels awkward at first. In his research groups, Hackman would require everyone to start meetings by sharing good news and celebrating wins. “Man, did we hate it because you came in and all of a sudden there was pressure,” Mortensen says. “But it became a routine. It also then became a shared experience that actually started to build a shared sense of identity.”

If today’s companies don’t facilitate these interactions, a type of social debt will accrue. We often pin our own shortcomings on external factors, but we’re not always so forgiving with others. If a team member misses a deadline, we may assume it’s because of laziness or disorganization instead of, say, a sick child. And these assumptions are sticky: Once a person is branded as lazy, every future failing is seen through that lens, whether it’s true or not.

“We de-emphasize problems until all of a sudden we realize the pot is boiling, the frogs are dead, and we’re in serious trouble.”

– Mark Mortensen, INSEAD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior
Mark Mortensen
INSEAD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior

How to fix a broken team

Destructive dynamics can creep into the best-designed team. Perhaps you’ve inherited a group that was poorly set up. Or maybe a team that used to perform well has begun to slide off track. Team dynamics evolve. Opinions differ. And like frogs in a pot on the stove, we don’t notice subtle changes to our environment until it’s too late. “We de-emphasize problems until all of a sudden we realize the pot is boiling, the frogs are dead, and we’re in serious trouble,” Mortensen says.

One way to steer out of the skid? First, it’s essential to re-establish a sense of psychological safety by making it clear that it’s OK to take risks (even if they occasionally lead to failure). Another tactic is to outsource work that doesn’t capitalize on your team’s strengths. If your team has outgrown some projects, it’s time to call in reinforcements so members can focus on other areas.

Finally, in their HBR article, Haas and Mortensen recommend structuring a quick evaluation to diagnose problems. Sit down with the whole group and have each member rate the team according to a predetermined set of team-building criteria. Once you’ve completed the assessment, you can map out corrective actions by analyzing the team’s responses.

Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Is our work together moving in the right direction?
  • How clear are the roles and responsibilities of team members?
  • How are we doing with respect to our team’s composition and diversity?
  • Are we doing a good job of championing our team’s efforts to the organization at large?
  • Are we adaptable to changes in our environment?
  • Do we learn well from our mistakes and successes?

Use digital tools to your advantage

It’s worth remembering that while technology is changing team dynamics, that very same technology, when used strategically, also helps drive deeper connections within teams.

It can bring remote employees into the fold and bolster team diversity by ensuring that employees from different backgrounds have access to the same people and resources. Team building boils down to creating productive relationships between people. That doesn’t make it easy, but it does help to know that the fundamentals of team building aren’t, in fact, unfamiliar after all.

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