Building High Performing Teams – Does the Team Have a Compelling Purpose?

Key Takeaways 

  • Leaders cannot assume that just because they have a team, that all the conditions are present for it to be an effective and high performing one. The nearly 20 years of research conducted at Harvard University by Drs. Ruth Wageman, J. Richard Hackman and Erin Lehman can help leaders ensure those conditions are in place.
  • As we continue our exploration of the three essential and three enabling conditions that drive up to 80% of a team’s effectiveness, we’ll focus this month’s piece on the second condition: Compelling Purpose

“I want you to help us answer who we are and why we exist. And by ’we,’ I mean this senior leader team. I do not mean our entire organization.” As I listened to our client explain why he was asking for our help, it struck me that what he was really asking for was to help his team develop its Compelling Purpose, one of the Six Team Conditions that drives up to 80% of a team’s effectiveness[1]. I also knew that we could use some tools developed through nearly two decades of Harvard research to help his team develop their own Compelling Purpose statement.

When determining a team’s compelling purpose, it is important to understand the key components that help define it. Research of the Six Team Conditions has found that a team’s purpose must be three things:

  1. Consequential – The team’s work means something, impacting the lives and work of others. In other words, it is directly linked to a ‘bigger why’.
  2. Challenging – The team’s work should be challenging, might cause some discomfort, yet isn’t impossible to accomplish.
  3. Clear – The team knows what it would look like to accomplish it.

Whether or not a leader seeks outside help in developing its compelling purpose statement, they must be aware of some hazards. While senior leader teams do not often grapple with the consequentiality of their work, teams operating deeper in the organization might. It is critical that team members understand how the team’s work fits into the bigger picture, at the risk of it seeming trivial or otherwise inconsequential. No matter where the team is in an organization, its leader is responsible for making sure that the team’s work is as challenging as the work of each individual’s. As Wageman, et. al. found, the team’s work is not consequential unless it is exchanging critical information, coordinating initiatives, or making decisions when it gathers.[2] This is often overlooked, resulting in flagging commitment of its members and failure to contribute adequately to its effectiveness. In a similar vein, when ensuring clarity, teams should not conflate the mission of the organization with the team’s purpose; they are separate and distinct.

To illustrate the example above, our client was spot on when he said he wanted to focus on the purpose of his senior leader team and not the purpose of his entire organization. To do that, we facilitated an off-site workshop with some supporting exercises to help the team develop its own compelling purpose statement. In less than two hours, they emerged with greater clarity about what the team was here to do, what the few core ways in which they accomplished their work were, as well as the “so what” that clarified the desired impact they wanted to have on those whom they served.

[1] Wageman R, Hackman JR, Lehman E. Team Diagnostic Survey: Development of an Instrument. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 2005;41(4):373-398. doi:10.1177/0021886305281984

[2] Wageman, R. (2008). 2. In Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great (p 61). essay, Harvard Business School Press.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.