As a team builder, I require each client to create a team charter to record the members' teamwork agreements. As a certified project manager, I know the power of properly constructed plans for task work. A study I just came across from 2009 provides powerful evidence that investing time in high-quality charters and plans can mean the difference between beating your competition and getting beaten. Neither by itself was enough.
If you happen to have an MBA, you may be familiar with the "Business Strategy Game," co-created by a business professor to test the skills of budding managers. The study article in Journal of Applied Psychology says each group of students poses as the top leadership team of a global athletic footwear company. They make a variety of decisions through weekly rounds. The computer assesses how the team is doing and provides feedback. For the study, the researchers chose for the performance measure "a weighted index of five factors: after-tax profits (40%), bond rating (20%), return on investment (15%), market capitalization (15%), and sales revenue (10%)." From this the computer calculated a 0–100 score. "This approach is akin to the 'balanced scorecard' approach, in which different performance indices are combined," the authors write. The study was conducted by John Mathieu and Tammy Rapp of the Univ. of Connecticut Dept. of Management. Mathieu is an oft-cited expert among teamwork researchers.
After two practice rounds of the game, every group had to create a team charter. The researchers required much of the same stuff I recommend, including team goals, roles, rules, and performance management methods. They included contact preferences I put instead into a Communications Plan. They had members write about their individual backgrounds, providing details I draw out through an extensive introductions exercise. These teamwork scientists then added a twist I found especially interesting given some heat I've gotten from my posts on personality assessments. Members also were asked to describe "individual business-related strengths and weaknesses, including factors such as content knowledge and work experiences," and "preferred work styles, particularly as related to teamwork…" No tests required.
The class instructor and, separately, a rater who didn't know the students graded the charters and plans for their completeness. "For example, some teams simply stated that 'they would arrange meetings as needed,' whereas others attached a detailed schedule including where, when, and for how long each meeting would occur," the article says. "The best charters also noted procedures that members should follow if they had to miss a meeting or if they had to contact other members."
The two graders looked at consistency as well. "For example, if a team stated that it placed a premium on consensus yet said it would vote in instances of disagreement, its charter was inconsistent." Meanwhile, each team created a detailed business plan, which was graded with similar criteria (see my study summary for specifics). The raters' results were averaged as the measure of quality. The document ratings and team performance scores accounted for 30% of a class grade.
The game began for the 32 small teams. The average age of the players was 28½.The scientists tried to balance gender and ethnicity in the otherwise random team assignments, and factored out GMAT scores and grades on other class tasks in their number-crunching to make sure the charters and plans were the likely causes of different performance.
At the end, after eight rounds, the teams with low-quality charters and low-quality plans failed, with an average score around 25 out of 100. The "mixed" teams (low/high and high/low) ended up together around a 50. The high/high teams blew the rest away, ending up around a 75. (I could not find in the article whether those were actual score averages or were translated to a relative scale, as seems possible given the 25-50-75 split.)
The computer spit out results after each round, and the authors found the patterns just as interesting:
In this figure from the article, "Chart" refers to the charter and "Strategy" to the plan:
In the new version of my book, due out this month, I drop the well-known "Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing," model of team development from 1965. In its place I use what I call, "The Team Mesa." The best research to date on actual teams does not support the old model, showing rather that successful teams with end dates tend to rapidly improve performance around the halfway point. The illustration in the new edition looks like a mesa in the American Southwest: a desert floor, an angled cliff, and a flat top. (Teams without end dates never climb the cliff, scientists have said.) Mathieu and Rapp say their results add further support for this midpoint transition.
A team charter should contain at least:
The study implies that a project team also needs a high-quality project plan including a task breakdown, schedule, budget, and more. For other teams I put in place a similar "Mission Plan" for accomplishing their goals, creating end dates so they climb the cliff.
Mathieu and Rapp conclude succinctly, "Our findings suggest that the time devoted to developing charters is time well spent." Putting in the extra time to create high-quality documents made the difference in this study. "However, team researchers have acknowledged for many years that the norm in teams is not to take time out to explicitly make plans for how team members will work together," Mathieu and Rapp lament.
If your team does not have a detailed team charter and work plan, guess who they're talking about?
Action Item: Start climbing the Team Mesa today by getting to work on a complete charter and project or continuous improvement plan. For step-by-step instructions, set a reminder to buy the new version of The SuddenTeams™ Program on August 15.
Source: Mathieu, J., and T. Rapp (2009), "Laying the Foundation for Successful Team Performance Trajectories: The Roles of Team Charters and Performance Strategies," Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 94(1):90.