All groups are not created equal. Consider that team that irritates the hell out of you; or, that committee you meet with reluctantly; or, the task force you are always excited to see.
Now consider the occasional, over-the-top, mind-blowing, fantastic group - an experience you would like to repeat again and again! This article is about those especially wonderful groups and what you can do to help them happen more often.
For three years, we studied small (two to 20 members) extraordinary groups, hoping to discover what makes them so exceptional. We interviewed members of 60 self-declared great groups, sorted through their inspiring stories, and reached conclusions useful in our work as consultants and trainers. We learned about what individuals need from groups, core feelings that transform groups, and what extraordinary groups do that sets them apart.
What is an extraordinary group?
An extraordinary group achieves outstanding results while members experience a profound shift in how they see their world. "Outstanding results" include the tangible and the intangible. The "profound shift" members experience is in how they see their world, not their skills. A typical comment: "When I got assigned to this project, I had no idea that it would completely change my view of what a group can accomplish together!"
Extraordinary groups have a lot in common, regardless of their setting, purpose, or membership. We interviewed project designers, neighbors, technical trainers, insurance executives, river rafters, community service workers, financial strategists, conference designers, and many more. They shared the parallel experience and excitement of being in fantastic groups (Note: We speak of "groups" not "teams" because many extraordinary groups do see themselves as teams. "Team," while common in sports, the military, and business, does not fit for groups of counselors, teachers, motorcyclists, barbershop singers, or philanthropists. They experience the extraordinary, too.)
What do extraordinary groups do?
Our field study revealed eight performance indicators linked
to "extraordinary." Generally, members would agree with these eight statements:
- Compelling purpose: We are inspired and stretched in making this group's work our top priority.
- Shared leadership: We readily step forward to lead by demonstrating our mutual responsibility for moving our group toward success.
- Just enough structure: We create the minimal structure necessary to move our work forward.
- Full engagement: We dive into our work with focus, enthusiasm, and passion.
- Embracing differences: We value the creative alternatives that result from engaging differing points of view.
- Unexpected learning: We are excited by what we learn here and how it applies to other work, other groups, and our lives outside of work.
- Strengthened relationships: Our work leads us to greater trust, interdependence, and friendship.
- Great results: We work toward and highly value the tangible and intangible outcomes of our work together.
Whether our 60 groups were for-profit or not, volunteers or employees, face-to-face or virtual, these eight indicators emerged. As we elaborate on each one, keep your most extraordinary small group in mind. Notice how what we discovereddiscovered fits with your experience.
Tom, a young IT executive in a large heavy-equipment company gets a big assignment: Create a company-spanning information technology system on the corporate mainframe.
Early in his work, Tom began to question his assignment. He came to believe that each of four divisions needed its own system to fit with its unique work. But this was not his assignment. In fact, it was corporate heresy for a mid-level exec to challenge top powers in the organization. However, he did get the go-ahead to at least explore his alternative approach.
Six others joined him - a manager of IT planning, a cost accounting manager, a materials manager, an assistant comptroller, an IT data processing manager, and an assistant vice president from the corporate office who was, "assigned to ride herd" on what the group was doing.
All were frustrated by the one-size-fits-all notion. Their team formed, nobody reported to Tom, and everyone had their plates full with other assignments. Good luck, Tom!
Geographically dispersed, the team met weekly over the phone and quarterly in person. Tom remembers the challenge of, as he states it, "getting everyone on the same page and believing that we could pull this off." Pressure was mounting for three smaller divisions to adopt the corporate system so time was of the essence.
Tom and his team analyzed the needs of all the divisions and recommended mid-range computers with packaged software that could be quickly installed and provide maximum flexibility. In less than eight months, the team went from "stirring the water to getting the sign-off." Tom says, "We got corporate approval for each division to have its own system at a projected cost of $6.5 million. Our first division came in on time and under budget, with an annual savings of $1 million!"
The eight indicators at work
Tom and his team knew nothing of the eight indicators so important to their success. But we do, and we can look at their work through the lens of each of them.
1. Compelling purpose. Motivated by a unique purpose, extraordinary groups make their shared work the priority. Purpose is critical, and great groups make it visible, post it, and remind each other of it. Their primary guide for decisions is purpose - not planor role.
Tom's team analyzed current systems and shaped a contrary recommendation. Tom recalls that, "others [on the team] got caught up in the possibility of doing something that made sense and going against the centralized bull. They liked the idea of breaking that mold." This became their compelling purpose and the target of their concerted effort.
2. Shared leadership. Extraordinary groups are not leadercentric. Leadership comes from many; it shifts as the work shifts and requires wider input. Everyone is expected to step up with a question, a task, an issue, or a proposal. In addition, they share responsibility for outcomes. Each member of Tom's group was a manager in his own right, and each brought different expertise. They led from what they brought. For example, the materials manager coordinated with his counterparts in the divisions to gather data and keep people in the loop.
Like Tom, all designated leaders know that they are one leader among many and can contribute uniquely. They assure that the group is led, but they do not always need to be the one leading. They ask more questions and make fewer statements. They assure that group resources are brought to the task at hand.
Twenty years after the experience, Tom can still recall how each member in his team advanced the work by combining competence with commitment. Besides being the point-person to buck the system, Tom "carried the water for the troops," he says. "You've got to organize around people's excitement and their desires and abilities to get things done. It's important to keep it light and to care about people, especially when they are overcommitted." As leader, Tom freed them to perform.
3. Just enough structure. Extraordinary groups use structure in service to outcomes. Yes, they honor systems, plans, roles, tasks, and working agreements, when those structures are needed for the challenges ahead of them. In Tom's group, "the secret was to keep it human," he states. We used some rudimentary project management tools, along the lines of a task list. That's the only way this sort of thing gets done. Keep it simple, and make sure that everyone is informed and included."
Members create structure just-in-time to support accomplishment. Too much structure too early constrains thinking. Outcomes are more important than agendas; roles and plans shift as circumstances call for an altered reach for purpose.
4. Full engagement. Members don't wait to be asked to contribute their knowledge, skills, passion, and talents. Their intensity and excitement is apparent; ideas tumble over each other. People inform, adapt, exclaim, and resolve. Engagement doesn't end with the meeting; people follow through. They work hard and intensely, often for days at a time, in their commitment to purpose and each other.
Tom described one of his team's intensely focused periods. The CEO agreed to consider their proposal: "show up tomorrow morning." Yikes! This meeting had the potential of a great leap forward so, "We stayed up until 2AM to get ready for the presentation the next day," Tom remembers.
And when the morning came, "we were ready, and we nailed it."
Extraordinary groups thrive on member engagement and passion. Messy group interaction, conflict, and disagreement were common in the groups we learned from. Laughing, good humor, playful energy, and a joyful spirit also show up - even in serious circumstances or tense moments.
As Tom recalls, "We frequently went down the street after work and shared a pitcher of beer. We laughed a lot and hammered out what we needed to do next. We had a good time together, and we all gained a great deal of respect for each other."
5. Embracing differences. Extraordinary groups are intrigued with the diversity of information, perspectives, and backgrounds within the group. Creative alternatives emerge from hearing diverse views - great groups know and encourage this. In Tom's team, "Everyone had input, and egos didn't get in the way. There was no, 'I'm doing this my way,'" he says.
A culture of respect for subject matter experts developed. "We deferred details to them," Tom states. "We developed consensus for the bigger issues. We wanted to go forward with a plan that had everyone fully committed."
Respect for differences makes it easier for members to bring their true selves to the group. People are appreciated for who they are and how they are similar to and different from others. Members are spontaneous, more likely to take risks, and able to fully express themselves. They challenge each other, push boundaries, and share personal experiences. They discuss "the undiscussable," and they seek and offer feedback.
Tom remembers that, "some of our best work came out of arguments. People felt safe defending a position and safe compromising when needed. The willingness to compromise was helped by mutual respect," he says. "For my part, I reminded everyone that we were not trying to solve world hunger; we were simply trying to convince a conservative corporation to start doing business in a new way."
6. Unexpected learning. Members of extraordinary groups learn beyond their expectations. They amaze themselves when they see their entire group take up a challenge together and when they take note of what is learned because of this collective action. They see and hear learning happen as the group stretches. In this stretch, individuals grow their skills, knowledge, frameworks, self-awareness, and sense of potential.
The people we interviewed typically expressed being changed, increasing personal confidence, and learning a lot. As one of Tom's group members reports, "I learned lessonsabout how to get the right people on the team, how to work together so that egos don't get in the way, and how to do a process from end-to-end." And he applied those lessons throughout his career.
7. Strengthened relationships. Groups shape themselves in two primary ways: Some groups, such as social clubs, enjoy being together and then search for activities and purpose that keep them together. Continuing and deepening their bond is their priority. Other groups (Tom's for example) draw together first around a shared purpose and grow their relationships by working together.
Groups strengthen when members discover common values, purpose, or interests. Shared hard work, challenges, and accomplishments glue them together. They rely on, commit to, and follow through with each other. "When we got our whole team in one place," Tom says, "we'd be together all of our waking hours for two to three days straight." The friendships that evolve out of such intensely focused work can last for years.
8. Great results. Results typically surpass even members' high expectations. Tom's group's recommendations saved millions. Although proud of these accomplishments, Tom sees them as an indicator that something even more important had happened. What excites him, even today, is the "magical" way his team worked together.
Forty of our 60 groups reported impressive tangible results. We heard of a library built, software developed, research completed, a conference held, candidates screened, a beach cleaned, championships won, a neighborhood beautified, markets gained, military missions accomplished, lives saved, and many more. All are tangible; all are impressive. But as with Tom's team, tangible results are often seen as indicators of success, but they are only one part of that success.
The intangible results we heard about included shared excitement, new life paths, celebration of accomplishment, a new community spirit, renewed commitment to others, explosion of personal potential, and creation of family. None of these are readily measured in numbers, dollars, or percentages, but they all are tremendously important.
We humans are first of all group beings, not corporate beings. We find satisfaction in small group settings, not in multitiered and siloed organizations. Tangible results feed organizations, intangible results feed us, and small groups are where we go to be fed.
Tangible results can transform an organization, but intangible results transform individuals and groups. Three years of studying extraordinary groups tells us that when someone says, "That was an amazing group experience," - something intangible and transformative has likely happened.
Tom says that his extraordinary group experience shifted his view of the world. "This experience showed me that I could rise above personal fears and redefine my success. I didn't have a history of bucking the system and I've never really liked confrontation."
During the presentation to the CEO, Tom was asked, "How confident are you that this is a good idea?" Tom replied, "I'll bet my job on it." What he learned propelled him to seek leadership roles with increasing scope and responsibility, and his transformative shift reshaped him as a leader and group member. t+d