Episode 9: Building Effective Teams

The process of implementing public policies and solving complex development problems requires working in teams. But working in teams is often a challenge. In this podcast, Professor Monica Higgins, Kathleen McCartney Professor of Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shares her experience and research about building effective teams.

Learn more about the Implementing Public Policy executive education course.

Learn about the conditions that enable teams to do great work. 


Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast series. The process of implementing public policies and solving complex development problems requires working in teams, but working in teams is often a challenge. In this podcast, Professor Monica Higgins, Kathleen McCartney Professor of Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, shares her research and experience about building effective teams.

Salimah Samji [00:00:34] Welcome, Monica. It's a real pleasure to have you.

Monica Higgins [00:00:35] It's wonderful to be here. Thank you.

Salimah Samji [00:00:37] You've done a lot of work on teams and I was wondering if you could help us answer some questions that we get from people who have to work with teams in P.D.I.A., we always work with a team and we work with a problem. So, Monica, one question that we get a lot is: how do you make the project or the problem that a team is working on and keep it as a priority?

Monica Higgins [00:00:59] Great. So just to step back for a second. I think oftentimes when we think about system level change and we think about public policy and implementing changes in public policy and working in contexts in which we don't know the answer, change is incredibly difficult. And it's useful to have smaller groups of people as opposed to an entire initiative, an entire organization, try and bring about change. Organizations don't change themselves. And so oftentimes teams are very useful in that regard. So one of the things just to think about is first, why a team anyway? And I think sometimes it's useful even to say that -  the way we're gonna be able to do this and really bring the best expertize to bear on this really difficult challenge that we have is to think about ways in which we can couple together different types of expertize and then work effectively together. So once people have an understanding that the team is the unit of change that we're going to use to try to bring about large scale change, then people are kind of in the right mindset, I would say. So making it a priority, though, is challenging because, of course, people have so many different things on their own plates and their own agenda. But once, you know, sometimes saying things like, "Well, if we're kind of stuck with the way we're always doing things, that's not actually going to be effective. We actually need to lean into this." And again, saying a team is one effective way to do that, you start to kind of get people in the right mindset. Now, that's the first step to creating some motivation for change and motivation for people leaning into the work. And what's most important is to create a clear and compelling direction. So as a leader of a team, that is your job. So you think of many different things that are not your job, like executing on the task or doing research for the task, gathering data, analyzing the data and so forth. The creating of a clear and compelling direction, something everybody can get around is the most important thing. And once you do that, you've got a much better, a longer runway in which to work. That still doesn't mean it's at the very top. So creating the urgency for change and saying if we stay the way we've been doing things, et cetera, isn't going to work, that could be one way. But another way to do it is to have people think about what's urgent and what's important?

Salimah Samji [00:03:25] I like that.

Monica Higgins [00:03:26] Yeah. So oftentimes there are many, many different things that we have. And so even if you did a thought experiment with with folks, either one on one or in the group and you say, "Oh, we've got all these different things that we need to do together. What's the most important?" And people write those down. You say, "Great, well which of these are also urgent?" And so once you look at the things that are urgent and important, that's actually where you want to focus your time and energy. And once you see that, they go, "Oh, yes, that's the priority for us." And if you have a project that spins around that hopefully you do, that spins around what's urgent and important, then you have a much better chance of motivating people from the get go.

Salimah Samji [00:04:07] And it kind of keeps you focused on like what to do and in what order, etc..

Monica Higgins [00:04:13] It can. It can. So the next step would be to say, "Okay, we know that this general kind of area is urgent and important. Let's kinda break that down so that we can see what are the steps that we need to take in order to get to solving this problem that's urgent and important." And breaking that down, again, is the job of the leader of the team. You can ask other people for advice and feedback, but ultimately leading and managing the team, not just leading, which is creating a clear and compelling direction, but managing is important as well.

Salimah Samji [00:04:46] Great. Thank you. In teams, sometimes there's people who come and go. There's a lot of churn. What are your thoughts on how do you manage that, right? You're all working on this one thing and then people are coming in and out. How do you manage that without ruining what the team already has going for it?

Monica Higgins [00:05:04] Right. That's a great point when thinking about people coming and going on a team, one thing to recognize is that if you have kind of porous boundaries for the team, it's not really a team. It's more like a group. So if you've people constantly coming and going, I would argue that you have a group and you have a collection of people who are just kind of meeting and maybe they're getting some work done, but that's not really a team. So the first step is to think about what is a real team and a real team might have very clear boundaries and clear membership, but still you might have somebody who leaves the team. Oh, my goodness. And then that's difficult. So one way to help kind of smooth that transition is to think about what do you actually need in terms of the roles that people might be playing on the team? So, for example, if you have somebody who's playing the role of representing a certain stakeholder group, if you're losing that person for whatever reason, you need to think about replacing that person from a role perspective. So I like to think about having a real team where there are clear boundaries and also the right people. And when we say the right people, I'm really talking about the right roles. Of course, you want people who you think you can work with, OK? But in terms of the roles and implementing public policy, you actually do need to have excellent representation of the stakeholders who really are invested in the work and need to be invested in the work.

Salimah Samji [00:06:35] Could you give some examples of what do you mean by roles, like what are the types of roles one would have on a team?

Monica Higgins [00:06:41] So I do think about this as representing different constituencies when I think about roles. I don't think of roles in the sense like here's, you know, somebody who's going to be able to run the numbers and here's somebody who's gonna be able to do the marketing and so forth. Maybe that's what you need. But I actually think when it comes to implementing public policies, since you need to actually get so many different stakeholders involved and invested and because you serve so many different stakeholders, that's the perspective that I'm taking. People may have different views on that. So in my own work, when we're trying to implement change, say, in the education system in a large urban district in the United States, in that context, of course, you have schools and school leaders. But for us, we want to make sure that we, when we're working with schools, we have representation from teachers, of course. And teachers actually do come and go quite a bit in larger urban districts, but also the community so the parents. So if I'm losing somebody from a school board, those are often parents or the, you know, a parent community group, I do want to make sure that I replace that person because I don't want to lose that voice. So I guess the way I think about roles, again, is representation. I think about voice. And then as a leader, of course, you need to create the conditions to actually hear that voice, because the last thing you want to do is bring somebody onto a team, tell them that this is a really important problem it's really difficult and challenging and you really want their input. And then somehow they don't feel comfortable speaking up.

Salimah Samji [00:08:17] Right. Or if they speak no one's listening to them.

Monica Higgins [00:08:19] Exactly.

Salimah Samji [00:08:20] How do you do that?

Monica Higgins [00:08:21] Yes. So now we're getting into what enables a team to perform well. So the essentials of a team, which we've talked about so far, are having a real team with clear boundaries, having a compelling direction and having the right people. Those are like the essentials of building an effective team. Then you really need to enable the team. So enabling the team and creating a supportive context is so, so critical. And people always look to the leader to role model what kind of behavior he or she or they are expecting in the group. So one way I think is effective is actually a lot of inquiry. So I'm sure that folks have heard the terms advocacy and inquiry, when you advocate a point of view and or and or you use an inquiry stance. It's very helpful if somebody is coming from a different context than yours to assume first that they know more than you and actually to ask them for their input. Now, there are lots of ways of asking for input. So you can ask during the meeting itself. You can ask for their input, but actually really effective ways to tee up that you're going to ask them, meaning on the way to the meeting, "I'm really looking forward to hearing your views on X." And then please don't forget to reward them if they do speak up, because if they feel rewarded, then they're more likely to speak up again. And that's what we call creating an environment of psychological safety where people feel comfortable speaking up. The other thing you can do is really watch your nonverbals because when they're not speaking, they're watching. And nonverbals are 60 plus percent of communication, so really watching that is another piece. You can also coach the team. So coaching we often think of as being something that's going to take a lot of time and you need to have specific milestones, you need to set aside an hour and talk about how you're going to get from here to there etc. and so on. Coaching are tiny little micro moments of truth, which you can implement so, so easily as a team leader. And again, it's things, non-verbals like nodding or just simply not looking down at your computer or your phone or whatever you have in front of you. It could be things again, like a little "Atta girl" as you leave the meeting. Those are micro moments of truth and that's coaching. Interestingly enough, what we find is that if there are interpersonal differences or conflict in the team, doing a full stop pause and just talking about the conflict is less effective than actually working on a project together. So if you can keep the team focused on the work and keep them understanding the power and the value of each other's voice, they're going to come to trust and understand each other. And through that, they're going to be able to develop a much better relationship than sitting around and talking about it in the abstract. Isn't that interesting?

Salimah Samji [00:11:33] That is the totally fascinating. That kind of leads to my next question, which is how do you create the space for them to stay focused?

Monica Higgins [00:11:41] OK. So creating the space for people to stay focused requires some serious management. So first to all, you need to figure out. I was in a meeting recently where it was at the very end of the day and the person who is running the meeting and this particular team said, "Why is it that were always at the end of the day?" And we all laughed and we thought, that's a really good question. Think about when's the best time to get people's attention, it's probably not at the end of a very long day. So trying to figure out the best time to get together is one thing, and that requires management and so forth to get that together. Another thing is just making sure that people have the kinds of resources that they need. So, time is a resource, but also there are all sorts of different pieces to the puzzle, like incentives would be another piece to keep people focused on the task. Another way of helping the team stay focused, in addition to kind of making sure we have the resources, time, technology, incentives, another resource would be making sure that you use your meeting time, actually really, really well. So this is very tactical, but I'm sure all of us have been in meetings that were not well managed.

Salimah Samji [00:13:05] Too many.

Monica Higgins [00:13:06] Yeah. Yeah. And so the last thing you want is people to come and feel as though you're wasting their time, or they could have just read that PowerPoint to get the information that they need. So having an agenda is one really useful tool that seems so simple yet I would probably bet 90 percent of the time people come to meetings and there's no agenda at all. So what do we want in an agenda? We want to know what the objectives are of the meeting. So if this was a successful meeting, what would we expect by the end of the meeting? So that's one thing. I love assigning roles. And again, this may seem kind of silly and tactical, but actually assigning roles. For instance, if you have the agenda, can you just keep track of time for us to make sure that we have, you know, 15 minutes to talk about X? It's a time keeper role within the meeting, but it actually creates buy-in and accountability. Another one is somebody is going to be 'can you track that? Could you take some notes for us?' A note-taker. I know, again, it may sound kind of silly, but actually you should track the decisions you make in a meeting and you should rotate that role. So don't have the same person doing it all the time. I'm a big fan of prep work, so you don't want to come to a meeting again and be sitting there reading materials that you could have read beforehand. You want everybody to come and be ready to work. So the best meetings I've been in are those in which the person who's leading or facilitating the meeting gives something, maybe it's a one-pager, short. "I just want you to take a look at this plan so that during the meeting we can all react to it." And what is sent out an advance is not just the one or two pager, but it's like some kind of explanation as to why this is important to the meeting and also managing expectations, how much time it should take you to actually read it. That's so helpful. So then you can say, I need 10 minutes to read this rather than taking time out during the meeting or rather than people coming in having just been completely unprepared. You want to get right to work because guess what? Then you can have a shorter meeting. Right. You can have a much shorter meeting. The last thing I would say in terms of keeping people focused is making sure that you kind of take stock of the process. So meetings in which you do this little trick at the end, which is you say, "What went well, what didn't go well?" Plus Delta, in terms of the meeting, that's going to give you some feedback, but it also forces people to lean into the process.

Salimah Samji [00:15:40] Because they have to pay attention. If they have to, if I know I have to answer a question at the end, I need to pay attention to what went well, or didn't.

Monica Higgins [00:15:48] Exactly. So those are some tips for having effective meetings, having effective meetings, controlling the agenda, creating the time, the space, providing the kinds of resources that teams need. All of these things are about management that can be differentiated from leadership and having the direction and so forth, the clear and compelling direction. But both leadership and management are important when it comes to teams.

Salimah Samji [00:16:11] You talked about psychological safety and we've just talked about how you stay focused. How do you hold a team accountable?

Monica Higgins [00:16:17] In terms of holding a team accountable, I am so glad that you brought up this point that it's not just about speaking up and making sure everybody's voice is heard and so forth. So holding people accountable is critical to having a productive conversation or having a productive team. And it's interesting because there are two different ways to hold people accountable. The most obvious is external forms of accountability. So I need this report back by X and Y date. Those are kind of external, those are systems, and if you don't do it, then such and such will happen. Or if you do do it, then you'll be rewarded. Those are external forms. What's incredibly powerful, and I've found in my own research, is to try and figure out how to create internal accountability or felt accountability. That's a little trickier, but it's so important because when you have people feeling psychologically safe, but they also want to lean into the work, they feel responsible and accountable for the work. That's when you're going to have the most productive conversations. So when it comes to felt accountability, there are two ways to think about this from a leader perspective. One of them that I think is really interesting and not taken advantage of enough is creating what I would call relational accountability. Relational accountability is I'm not just feeling accountable to the organization or the project or the program, but I'm feeling accountable to an individual or even to the team. So how do you create relational accountability? One way to do that would be to rotate the kinds of roles that you would have even and just leading, for example, off on different parts of the project or different team meetings so that you know that you're going to have your fair ops at some point. And so everybody else understands that. So, you know that you can you can push back and so forth. But you also need to let somebody lead. So that's one way. Another way is just talking to somebody about your goals and also receiving feedback on how they think you're doing and so forth. So you can split a team and do kind of a turn and talk sort of protocol. You can certainly do that because it breaks down the nuggets of work that need to get done. And it creates kind of dyadic or two person relationships, which, you know, we know are extremely powerful. So you can do that, or you can have people work on different parts of the project in dyads rather than by themselves, you can do that. Understanding interdependencies, so teams are teams and not groups when there is interdependency, meaning that my work is dependent on your work and I understand that. Oftentimes we think teams are just people coming together and somehow the collection of the individual contributions creates team work. That's not teamwork. That's independent work coming together as a collective. If you want to figure out ways to create that sense of interdependency, you actually need to have people talk about it and share their work and say, "I'm dependent on you, too, so that I understand, you know, the kinds of data that you get are going to be critical to the ways that I'm thinking about this design issue or the ways that I'm thinking about what's going on with this stakeholder is really going to feed into whatever kind of tool or product you're creating." Just having a conversation about the interdependencies can create that relational accountability because then you don't feel as though you are independently contributing. Having said all of that, relational accountability is one dimension of felt accountability. The other one is personal accountability. This one is the extent to which my work is actually related to something I care about. So we know that task design or how you design somebodies particular piece of this project is really key. And it all circles back to motivation.

Salimah Samji [00:20:09] I was just going to say, how does intrinsic motivation relate to what it is that you saying?

Monica Higgins [00:20:14] Exactly. So if you can design a task in which people are feeling as though it's meaningful.

Salimah Samji [00:20:22] Purpose.

Monica Higgins [00:20:23] Purpose. Exactly. And you should create a task for them in which they have some kind of feedback, like they know that what they're doing is creating some results that they can actually see or get feedback on. Something has to connect. Otherwise, you just feel as though you're spinning your wheels. So it's got to be a meaningful task. You have to know something about results and then you need to give them a little bit of autonomy. So with all this teaming teaming, that doesn't mean that everything has to be done in other dyads, right?

Salimah Samji [00:20:54] Yeap.

Monica Higgins [00:20:55] So we know from just basic social psychology, people like to have some control or sense of autonomy. So those three things in terms of how you design the work can create this intrinsic motivation, internal felt accountability, which, along with the other pieces that are in place, can create a supportive environment for effective teamwork. So you're it's a tricky task, right? You need to focus on the team as a whole. And those essential conditions, real team, right people, compelling direction. And then the enabling conditions, which would be the supportive context, team coaching, but also how you design the task.

Salimah Samji [00:21:33] Great. Thank you so much, Monica. This has been extremely, extremely useful.

Monica Higgins [00:21:38] Good. You're welcome. Thank you.

Katya Gonzalez-Willette [00:21:41] To learn more about the Building State Capability program, visit www.bsc.cid.harvard.edu.