7 Rules for Building a Kick-Ass Team

The management cure for low productivity is typically to push workers harder. Unfortunately, the side effects of crushed morale and decreased job satisfaction can have the opposite effect. There is another way. Build a great team. Here's how.

The Problem:
If it feels like you've been working harder but enjoying it less, there's a good chance it's true. According to USA Today, a MetLife study released yesterday shows that companies are increasing productivity demands on their employees: 40 percent of employees surveyed reported an increase in workload over the past year, while 36 percent of employers said they indeed were placing a higher priority on productivity.

That comes as no surprise when most companies have cut back to boost their bottom line in the recession.

Now, couple that with a Conference Board survey released in January that found only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work. That's the lowest job satisfaction number in the survey's 22 years.

So companies are trying to do more with less and employees are feeling it, and not in a good way.

The Solution:
When I was a young engineering manager at Texas Instruments, I led teams of engineers, technicians, and other specialists in designing semiconductor chips. Depending on design complexity, projects would take somewhere between six and eighteen months.

Teams consisted of diverse ages, backgrounds, experience, and competency. The ratio between hourly and salaried workers was roughly three to one. Teams changed over time. Thinking back on it, there were seven common ingredients over the six years I ran these project teams:

  1. Everyone knew the goal. The goal was to achieve what we called "first pass success," meaning the chips worked the first time without any errors. A second pass added significant time and expense to the project.
  2. Everyone knew the schedule. Not just a single deadline, but a detailed project milestone chart. Everyone always knew where we stood.
  3. Everyone knew their responsibilities. Everyone had a function and everyone knew what that was, although it often changed during the project on an as-needed basis.
  4. We were competing with other project teams. There were multiple teams working on similar projects in the same department and physical location. We shared ideas and insights, but there was also an element of friendly competition.
  5. We spent a lot of time not heads-down working. We had ad-hoc meetings constantly and in real-time as problems arose. We frequently goofed around and went out for lunch and after work, but not "as a team," it just sort of happened.
  6. Management left us alone. I reported status to management, which communicated to our customer. Otherwise, the team was left alone. Managers did some walking around, but they were lighthearted and conversational, not critical.
  7. Compensation was not tied to results. The pay was the same no matter what happened. And there was no time clock.
The Result:
We worked long and hard and with no overtime pay for the salaried employees. And you know what? If it was humanly possible, we met our goals. We were incredibly productive. We were engaged. Hell, we loved our work. And not just my team, all the teams. It was truly a great work environment.

Now that I think back on it, much of this correlates with The 10 Rules of Great Groups , a post I did a few months ago on the book Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman. Check it out.

That's my experience with building great project teams. Tell us yours.