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A Model for Team Effectiveness

The five rings of teamwork.

Business leaders strive for stability, efficiency, and growth. They have metrics, processes, and shared frameworks to assess the performance of every part of an organization's value delivery: from product to marketing to sales to customer success to finance. On the people side of the business, many modern organizations have defined a standardized approach to measuring individual employee performance, engagement, and potential.

However, there is a glaring blind spot at the center of most companies' operations: teamwork. Teams are responsible for delivering nearly all of the value in your organization. As organizations grow more complex in their missions and operations due to accelerated technological growth and remote working, effective teamwork becomes ever more critical to value delivery.

Yet how do most organizations measure, discuss, and improve teamwork? They don't! The majority of teams are aware that they have fundamental problems in how they accomplish work together, yet they feel disempowered to address the issues.

Teamwork is an unspoken phenomenon in most organizations, and therefore problems in teamwork get pushed aside or minimized to an individual performance issue. A core of the problem is that organizations lack a coherent framework for understanding teamwork. Without a shared understanding, there will be little to no progress.

Thanks to recent decades of research, teamwork is not so intangible as it once was. We have put together a concise model of teamwork to help you measure and improve the working effectiveness of your team.

The Model

Our 5 competency model is based on a wealth of existing teamwork expertise:

  • Amy Edmondson and Harvard's Psychological Safety research

  • MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence

  • Robert Hogan's Rocket Model

  • Patrick Lencioni's The Table Group

The model is centered around five competencies of high performing teams:

Each competency is aligned with specific behaviors that can be observed and measured. The sections below briefly introduce each competency.

1. Commitment

Humans have a drive to commit to something larger than themselves. Despite the importance of commitment, the average team is joined together by convenience more than intentional commitment. Their teamwork is defined by the happenstance of being placed on a team and told to work together. When times get hard, these teams with low levels of commitment fall apart.

The core of commitment is reaching a shared vision around a team's operating purpose ("why") and context ("what"). Average teams will treat commitment as one-and-done exercises. Once complete, their company mission statements collect dust; business plans are revisited annually; teammates assume they are on the same page because of a conversation from months ago, but in reality they have drifted far apart.

Fostering true commitment is a continuous practice. The best teams revisit their shared norms, goals, and assumptions as often as possible and drive these conversations to a clear conclusion with little room for individual interpretation. This ongoing process allows team members to consistently embed their personal purpose within the broader team mission.

Commitment conversations are a source of renewable energy and alignment for the team. When executed properly, they fuel growth and collaboration on an ongoing basis, and save time down the road when difficult decisions arise.

Sample of Commitment measures on the Team Effectiveness Survey:

  • This team has an inspiring mission.

  • This team has a clear short-term (12-months or less) vision of success.

  • Team members show collective accountability to group results.

2. Connectedness

The best teams have members who feel connected to one another. Connected means that team members feel safe, supported, and motivated in their interactions with one another. Teams who have these qualities in relationships are smarter, work harder, and are more profitable than their less-connected counterparts. Yet teams like this are surprisingly hard to find. Why is this?

Humans are built for judgment. Judgment in this context is the practice of labeling and evaluating people. Low performing teams are defined by this interpersonal judgment, colored by the fundamental attribution error. On these teams, everyone agrees that there is a problem, and also that the problem is someone else's. When teammates view each other in this way, they create an environment of defensiveness and finger pointing that destroys team learning. These teams struggle to improve because team members don't feel safe engaging in a productive dialogue - everyone is stuck in "threatened" mode.

High performing teams, by contrast, succeed because their members see all teammates as people and all people as inherently good. Team members look for the fundamental good in their teammates in the same way that they look for the fundamental good in themselves. When problems arise, these problems are perceived as opportunities to improve future actions rather than reflections of moral character failings. Feedback is given through this lens, as positive intent is always assumed. This people-positivity is a contagious source of motivation across a team.

Sample of Connectedness measures on the Team Effectiveness Survey:

  • Team members respect each other as humans.

  • Team members appreciate each other for their efforts.

  • Team members are comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

3. Courage

People are born brave, and high performing teams tap into this innate courage. These teams address conflict and disagreement directly, and (as often as appropriate) they do so in front of the entire group, so that all team members can participate in and learn from the dialogue.

The average team, by contrast, avoids difficult issues entirely or addresses them by gossiping behind peoples' backs. If these teams fail, it is because of the conversations they are not willing to have.

For most people, it takes continuous courage to voice unpopular truths or new ideas in public. Therefore, the best teams structure courage into their operating DNA. They make it a way of life, where it is a routine rather than an option. Underlying tensions are surfaced through incisive questions (e.g. "What should we be addressing that we are not?") and all team members are actively encouraged to participate in knowledge building. Sourcing input from all members of a team raises the group IQ by expanding perspective and increasing understanding. Individuals who raise difficult topics in a respectful manner should be appreciated for their courage and for making the group more intelligent.

Note: courage without connectedness is a recipe for toxicity; teams must have both ingredients to have productive learning dialogue.

Sample of Courage measures on the Team Effectiveness Survey:

  • Team members discuss difficult topics openly during team meetings.

  • This team resolves internal conflict in a productive manner.

4. Coordination

The competencies covered so far are "inputs" to doing great work. Coordination is about how the work actually gets done. Teams vary in the amount of coordination that is required to deliver value and achieve their goals, but all teams require some level coordination. Aligning on the degree and nature of interdependencies is helpful to set the stage.

From there, coordination is all about achieving clarity. Clarity on a team is a rare phenomenon, as it can require a painful level of repetition. Messages need to be delivered, interpreted, and repeated back several times before a team can be considered aligned. Most teams simply do not have the patience or discipline to achieve this level of clarity

High performing teams achieve clarity on strategy, roles and responsibilities, priorities, decision-making processes, meeting norms, business plans, etc. Each of these agreements for how work gets done should align with delivering value to customers and resolving internal tensions, not with serving egos or ruffling the least feathers.

Average teams are vague, rely on assumptions, and resort to defaults when it comes to coordination. These team members value personal flexibility over team coordination, because disorganization allows for personal freedom and flexibility. A lack of clarity is a choice that average teams make to escape the discomfort of achieving clarity.

Sample of Coordination measures on the Team Effectiveness Survey:

  • This team has a compelling strategy for how we will win customers against competitors.

  • This team has effective decision-making processes.

5. Creativity

Great teams know: all of us, by our very nature, are creative. Creativity is the spark in us that keeps us moving forward, overcoming obstacles, and solving difficult problems. And that's how teams win: by delivering value through creating solutions to problems. To nurture our creativity, we must always be learning and growing.

Average teams do not adopt a growth mindset. They have a fear of mistakes and failure, and so are resistant to experimentation and retrospectives - two key elements of a learning cycle. In trying to keep themselves safe, these teams forget that failure is a healthy feature of the growth process. Thus, they stifle innovation and problem-solving behavior in an attempt to stay protected. 

Sample of Creativity measures on the Team Effectiveness Survey:

  • Team members are comfortable acknowledging mistakes.

  • This team learns from past performance to improve future results.


Working with the Model

Assessment. The model is accompanied by a 30-question team-wide survey to assess team effectiveness. Samples of the measures in the survey are presented in the sections above. Each of the questions is ranked by all team members on a scale from "1 - Strongly Disagree" to "7 - Strongly Agree", providing a quantitative foundation for future work.

Development. The ongoing work is in identifying areas of development and taking action on them as a group. It is recommended that teams focus on 1-3 areas of development at a time. Within each development area, every team member should commit to taking specific actions over a defined period of time, typically one quarter ahead. Check-ins should be conducted weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly depending on the complexity and urgency of the tasks.

Retrospectives. Your team should come together on a quarterly basis to review development areas and discuss progress/roadblocks.

Embedding Values. Throughout this work, teams should look for ways to embed healthy teamwork habits throughout their broader organization. This model is intentionally generic so that it can be taken as-is or customized to your operating environment and culture.


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