The One Factor That Makes Teams More Productive

by Steve Morris 

A couple of engineers calculated that two Legos can be combined in 24 different configurations. Three come together in 1,560 ways and six can be configured in 915 million combinations.  If this is true, how complex are the interactions between six people on a team? 

In our business we apply a system of assessing people to help us understand how and what they perceive, what motivates them, how they get things done, their competencies and their level of emotional intelligence. There are over 60 factors we measure that can combine in more than 100 billion possible configurations.  Toss in a study by Boston Consulting Group that says that management is six times more complex and 35 to 40 times more complicated it was in 1955 and it is easy to see why it’s so hard to maximize team effectiveness, particularly when we are raised and educated to be individuals with our own brand, rather than to be team players.

In a recent study by Google of their own teams they found that groups generating a high degree of “trust” were the most productive. How much and for what we trust people is an intrinsic valuation that has an unlimited number of permutations. It requires that our thoughts about other people are clear and focused enough so we can understand their strengths and limitations and be willing to put in the time and effort to figure out how we can work together. We are faced with decisions about what we can trust each other for rather than an easy yes or no to everything. For example, I can trust you to deliver what you have agreed to, a line of code or a report on sales, and I may not trust you to invest my money or date my daughter. In essence, we make agreements with ourselves and others defining the specific limits of trust we will permit with other team members. 

In the world of software engineering, structuring teamwork around a Scrum can create productive output up to 8 times higher than what low performing teams can generate without Scrum. Scrum is about process and structure, extrinsic and systemic ways of perceiving. The structure, the systemic dimension, comes from an agreement about who makes which decisions and what is the definition “done”. There are three well-defined primary jobs in scrum and each has specific authorities.   

In part, Scrum is a process that is aimed at answering three questions. 

  1. What did you accomplish yesterday? 
  2. What will you achieve today? 
  3. What obstacles will get in the way of achieving today’s goals?

This process is supported by an extrinsic agreement that we will ask these three questions of our small working team of 3 to 7 people, every day. There are other processes and structures that we agree to when putting Scrum to work. They are about the work, and how it is progressing rather than trust or authority.    

My point is that people and their interactions are complex. In order to organize ourselves effectively to maximize our productivity within a team, we need to make at least four agreements that define:

  1. What do we want to produce together?  
  2. What can we trust each other to deliver?
  3. What processes will we apply to manage the delivery of the work? 
  4. Who will make which decisions?  

If we make explicit these four agreements that define trust, process and authority, we can maximize our performance. If we miss any one of them, complexity can and will get the better of us. Legos go together easily; five year olds can make something creative. We are much more complex than Legos.