How To Build Your Dream Lean Team

“Think big. Start small. Scale fast.” This is the mantra of Lean teams described by Eric Ries in his upcoming book, The Startup Way. Whether you’re struggling in an actual startup or trying to build an internal one at an established organization, a Lean team approach can maximize efficiency and results in uncertain times. But assembling a group that can execute on this vision comes with the routine challenges of team-building as well as questions unique to the methodology. Drawing on the advice of experts and recent research, here are seven insights on how to best build a Lean team.

1. Start small

Eric often refers to Amazon’s “two-pizza team,” which means starting small when it comes to new innovation groups, aiming for a number that you could easily feed with just two pizzas. A tighter team provides several advantages. First, small groups typically bond faster, leading to better communication within the team. Second, with fewer decision-makers, experiments can happen faster. There is also greater accountability because it’s easy to know who’s doing what.

2. Make your team cross-functional

Just because the team size is diminutive doesn’t mean its skillset should be. A hallmark of Lean teams is cross-functionality. Members should bring a diversity of skills and/or represent different departments within the company. In enterprise organizations, teams are often comprised of employees from the same department, and once their work is “completed,” the results are passed along to another department. This siloed approach is inefficient, and the lack of varied perspectives often results in subpar solutions.

To build a cross-functional team, Eric suggests starting by asking what departments are needed to make meaningful progress that won’t get roadblocked along the way. In The Startup Way, Eric provides the example of an industrial project that might require a product designer, someone with manufacturing expertise, and a salesperson who understands customers’ wants and needs. An IT project, on the other hand, might include an engineer, a designer and a marketer. As Eric says in the book, “There are endless permutations, depending on what needs to get done.”

Every team leader should also know whether you’re planning to do something that could require approval from legal. If so, be sure to include a representative from that department to prevent delays. Another tip from Eric: If you lack the budget or influence to get someone from a necessary department assigned to your team, ask for volunteers.

3. Don’t over-rely on your natural team players

Relying on the same employees to contribute to teams can create collaboration overload, which in turn negatively impacts work satisfaction and productivity. A study published in Harvard Business Review found that typically 3 to 5 percent of employees contribute 20 to 35 percent of effective collaborations, but “those seen as the best sources of information and in highest demand as collaborators in their companies—have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores.” According to the researchers, simple solutions for avoiding collaboration overload is to cancel unnecessary meetings and to let individuals who are most often tapped for teams know it’s okay to say no and to suggest another capable person to take their place.

4. Train people to be team smart

To ensure that every employee can excel in workgroups, invest in team training. “[Companies] focus a lot on professional development at the individual level. They have robust programs for people, but they won’t necessarily be focused on teams,” says Janet Brunckhorst, principal product manager at Carbon Five. Employees and managers are rarely educated in how to be an effective contributor or how to make a better team. In short, many companies are team dumb, which is a problem because there’s evidence supporting the idea that a team’s collective intelligence is independent of the intelligence of its individual members.

Even if a company has the smartest employees, its teams can fail. In research published in the journal Science in 2010, psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College found that what they label the “c factor” (another term for collective intelligence) is correlated with “the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.” The same research suggested that a team that failed at one thing was likely to fail at every task it attempted. A simple way to increase your team’s c factor is to bring in someone versed in guiding groups through the best practices of teamwork and Lean methodologies, whether that’s an internal leader or an external coach.

5. Create a pro-risk environment

Finding innovative solutions and creating breakthrough products requires bold ideas and often big missteps, so individuals on Lean teams must learn to welcome risk and failure. Creating this mindset can be challenging in a traditional failure-is-not-an-option environment, and the dynamics of a team can exacerbate the desire to play it safe. (Nobody wants to look foolish in front of their colleagues.) However, with some psychological insights and pragmatic tools, teams can be coached to feel good about taking risks and failing.

“There are lots of things that carry through all teams. Mostly, that we are all human, and the psychological and behavioral patterns are the same,” says Carbon Five’s Janet Brunckhorst. While it may seem obvious, the insight is often overlooked. Companies often focus on expertise or personalities when selecting team members, but research suggests that any group of people can succeed if the right atmosphere is created.

Google’s Aristotle Project, an effort launched by the company in 2012 that surveyed 180 of their teams to better understand what made them work, found that the key to a highly-functioning team was psychological safety. In a 2016 New York Times article discussing the Aristotle Project, Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, said, “The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’ In other words, it wasn’t about the balance of skills or diversity of personalities. Instead, high performing teams shared two characteristics: 1. Members contributed to conversations equally, and 2. They were adept at interpreting how others were feeling based on nonverbal cues and addressing those feelings. Creating this type of environment does not come with a one-size-fits-all approach, but Google found that simply sharing the research findings inspired teams to work differently.

People also need to know that their decisions will not result in the loss of millions of dollars or litigation. This is an idea that Courtney Hemphill, partner at Carbon Five, calls reversible risk. It means that teams understand what can be undone. “Teams need to have a reverse button,” she says. “Productive teams are able to say, ‘Well, that didn’t work. Let’s fix it; learn from it, and not do it again.’ But then continue to make decisions and move quickly.” If a team can define its reversible risks, people are less likely to get bogged down in a blame game.

6. Understanding what your team needs means understanding their assumptions

Everyone comes to a team with certain assumptions about how work gets done, how to communicate, and a million other things. To function as a cohesive unit, people need to understand what assumptions they are working with. “In a team, there may be someone interrupting and talking all the time, and your assumption might be that they’re a jerk,” says Christina Wodtke, principal of her firm, Wodtke Consulting, and professor at California College of the Arts and Stanford Continuing Education. “Everybody is walking around with an idea of how you are supposed to behave in business, and it is not the same idea, believe you me.”

For this reason Christina recommends that every team create a charter of norms: “Norms are just, ‘How do we agree we are going to work together? What are we going to do when we disagree? Are we going to make proposals? Are we going to just fight it out? How do we make a decision?’” To help develop a team charter, she suggests starting with the eight scales outlined in Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map. The scales address expectations surrounding communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling.

7. Measure to learn and improve your team

Whether you’re starting a new team or trying to improve an existing team, “you can’t really take your first step without looking at the team and measuring,” Janet says. This could mean tabulating assumptions, as with The Culture Map scales, or assessing the current sentiment—in other words, how do people feel about the team spirit. “It could be something as simple as every time you have a team meeting, doing a team temperature gage—a one-to-five scale or thumbs up/thumbs down,” Janet says. From there, the important thing is acting on that information. For example, understanding why a team may be feeling closer to a one, and then working to remedy the problem. Fundamentally, it is applying the Lean Startup methodology of build-measure-learn to your team dynamics.

Although teams vary across companies, an effective Lean team should start small and be cross-functional. Creating clear ground rules, working to ensure everyone contributes, and checking in regularly to assess how individuals are feeling helps create a productive working environment, and from there, you can continually fine-tune based on feedback. Accept that you will have to iterate your team because effective teams are committed to continuous improvement. “It means never accepting your team as done,” says Christina.

To learn more about building Lean teams, join us at Lean Startup Week October 30th – November 5th in San Francisco. Christina Wodtke, Courtney Hemphill, and Janet Brunckhorst will be leading breakout sessions on crafting effective teams.

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