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How to get teams to focus on the things only they can do

Editor's note: Team performance is critical to an organization's success, but many teams feel they're not performing as well as they should be. Poor team performance, especially among teams that work across departments or functions, tend to breed silos, competing agendas, turf wars, and indecision; high performance produces organizational coherence and focus. McKinsey & Company's Organization Practice has researched the performance and attitudes of teams, those that are successful and those that are struggling, to identify the behaviors, attitudes, and organizational principles that make for effective teams. This is the second in a series of posts, based on the findings of that research, on building better teams.

Many teams have difficulty focusing their efforts in the right places.  In our research on teams of senior executives, only 38 percent said their teams focused on work that truly benefited from their top-team perspective. Only 35 percent said their top teams allocated the right amounts of time among the various topics they considered important, such as strategy and people.

What are they doing instead? Everything else. Too often, these teams of senior executives fail to set or enforce priorities and instead try to cover the waterfront. In other cases, they fail to distinguish between topics they must act on collectively and those they should merely monitor. The same can be true of teams at all levels of an organization who face a challenge investing team time on the aspects of their work that requires them to work together.

These shortcomings create jam-packed agendas that no team can manage properly. Often, the result is energy-sapping meetings that drag on far too long and don’t engage the team, leaving members wondering when they can get back to “real work.” Team leaders need to to respond when such dysfunctions arise; it’s unlikely that the team’s members— who have their own goals and personal career incentives— will be able to sort out a coherent set of collective top-team priorities without a concerted effort.

Here's how one team found its focus: The CEO and the top team at a European consumer goods company rationalized their priorities by creating a long list of potential topics they could address. Then they asked which of these had a high value to the business, given where they wanted to take it, and would allow them, as a group, to add extraordinary value. While narrowing the list down to ten items, team members spent considerable time challenging each other about which topics individual team members could handle or delegate. They concluded, for example, that projects requiring no cross-functional or cross-regional work, such as addressing lagging performance in a single region, did not require the top team’s collective attention even when these projects were the responsibility of an individual team member. For delegated responsibilities, they created a transparent and consistent set of performance indicators to help them monitor progress.

This change gave the team breathing room to do more valuable work. For the first time, it could focus enough effort on setting and dynamically adapting cross-category and cross-geography priorities and resource allocations and on deploying the top 50 leaders across regional and functional boundaries, thus building a more effective extended leadership group for the company. This, in turn, proved crucial as the team led a turnaround that took the company from a declining to a growing market share. The team’s tighter focus also helped boost morale and performance at the company’s lower levels, where employees now had more delegated responsibility. Employee satisfaction scores improved to 79 percent, from 54 percent, in just one year.

Senior executive teams frequently struggle to distinguish between the strategic priorities that they must focus on and the operational details, which they should delegate. Indeed, teams at all levels must decide where to focus their efforts, but the issue is particularly important for senior teams who must invest their efforts on strategic decisions that affect the entire organization, while resisting the temptation to micro-manage the operational details.

When the culture in an organization becomes more risk averse, increasingly minor decisions get shifted to the top. To guard against this and the inefficiencies that accompany it, teams at all levels must get more comfortable with their own decisions. Senior managers have a crucial role to play in this: if the first crisis that results from a bad decision results in a punitive atmosphere, teams are more likely to pass the decision upward next time. On the other hand, if the organization's culture can maintain accountability while allowing teams and individuals to learn from their mistakes, it can build over time the right level of confidence for teams to make their own decisions.

What's been your experience with keeping teams focused and accountable? Have you been able to keep teams focused on the goals they must collaborate to achieve? How does your organization react to bad decisions, and how does that set the tone for future deliberations?

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