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3 Vital Signs of a Strong, Healthy Team

You probably get an annual medical checkup. The reason's pretty simple. You can either measure your wellness as you go, looking for signs of trouble and handling them before winding up face down on a sidewalk, or you can just keep going until something horrible happens and address it then. As a manager, you have the same choice--monitor your vital signs and adjust as needed or just keep going until you miss deadlines and your project has the equivalent of a massive coronary.

Many team and project leaders work under the "no news is good news" theory-- they just keep their teams plugging away until milestones get missed or quality slips. Then it's time for major invasive surgery. This can save time in the short term, but it's risky. A better way is to know the key signs of your team's health and monitor them often and carefully.

  1. Is everyone working towards common goals? The first thing you should be watching for is that everyone understands exactly what the team is doing and why. This sounds simple. After all, you did your kickoff meeting and everyone agreed. How to monitor it: Restate and check in with your team members often. Some teams revisit the purpose every meeting (which is probably overkill but at least no one can claim they don't know what they're supposed to do). Because projects are often made up of people from various functions and other departments, there are other priorities that conflict with your objectives and timelines. Check in often with team members and ask very clear, open questions about what else is going on with their work that might help or impede their progress. Share appropriate information with your team so everyone knows the constraints all the other teams are working under. This will prevent problems later on.
  2. Does everyone see proof of each others' competence? Teams can't function well if people don't believe everyone on the team is as capable of creating quality work as they are. Working away from each other or only "tending to your own knitting" can lead to unpleasant surprises. When deadlines are missed, teammates often assume someone wasn't up to the job, which breeds distrust and resentment. How to monitor it: There are really two ways to demonstrate competence. First, everyone on the team should know what each member is responsible for and how things are progressing. This means sharing information. Secondly, the team should be able to communicate freely with each other and help out. Question boards, online discussion groups and encouraging people to reach out directly to each other (instead of through you) are all critical components to building a strong team environment.
  3. Do all team members believe in each others' motives? Is Sally really late on that project because she didn't get the right input in time, or is she just too busy with the other work she's doing to make your team a priority? Constant, honest communication between team members can help you identify potential problems and conflicts before they get in the way. Frequent interaction allows teammates to see each other in action and believe that your coworkers have your back. Encourage teammates to speak up when problems are still small and treatable, then get out of the way and let them help each other out. Nothing demonstrates commitment to each other like going out of your way for a teammate.
There are many ways to assess your team's progress. What matters isn't so much which training classes and tools you use, but that you stop once in a while and monitor your team's vital signs.

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