Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
January 31, 2023 · 11 min read

What to do when team performance tanks: 7 ways to boost team effectiveness

What to do when team performance tanks: 7 ways to boost team effectiveness

Getting the best team performance from a group of technical or creative professionals is a lot like commanding a Viking longship - you need strength, skill, experience, motivation, and above all else, to be in sync.

Unfortunately, too many teams are missing at least one of these critical elements and end up lost at sea.

Successful collaboration has become essential as teams become more diverse, digital, and distributed. Yet, if the last few years have taught us anything, both in-person and remote teams are currently facing a team effectiveness crisis.

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Research shows that collaborative work – including time spent on emails and IMs and in voice and video meetings – has risen by 50% or more at many companies. For many people, that means that 85% of their workweeks are spent simply trying to keep up for many people.

That doesn’t leave much time for real, productive work that gets projects over the finish line.

The good news? While teams are facing more issues than ever, there are only a few factors that truly impact team effectiveness on a daily basis.

In this guide, we’ll show you how you can improve your team’s effectiveness and performance without sacrificing communication and collaboration.

What is team ‘effectiveness’? How does it impact performance?

Team effectiveness is the measurement of how much impact your team’s work has on your business goals over a long period of time.

For example, an effective team doesn’t necessarily have to burn through backlogs and finish 100% of every sprint. Instead, they understand that it’s more important to do the right work and work smart than it is to simply work hard.

But this is where most teams struggle.

Management consultant Peter Drucker is famous for saying that what gets measured gets improved. Unfortunately, effectiveness isn’t the easiest thing to measure for most teams. When there’s uncertainty or a lack of clear product strategy, most managers fall back on measuring output rather than outcomes.

But ticking off tasks doesn’t always make a team ‘effective’. It takes strong management and a supportive culture to build the kind of trust, psychological safety, and collaborative effort that truly boosts team performance.

That’s a lot of vague ideas. So, here are some clear examples of the difference between an effective and ineffective team:

The difference between effective and ineffective teams

Effective teams perform better not just because they have the right guidance but because they share some key qualities that allow them to collaborate in the best way possible. So what makes a team effective?

The 5 qualities of the most effective teams

Business consultants and “thought leaders” love to create complicated frameworks for all aspects of running your company or team. And effectiveness models are no different.

Search for “what makes a team effective” and you’ll be thrown into a world of acronyms and jargon - from the GRPI model to the Katzenback and Smith Model, and the T7 model.

But if you dig a little deeper into each of these models, you’ll see that they all revolve around the same five qualities. As professors Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen write in Harvard Business Review:

“Though teams face an increasingly complicated set of challenges, a relatively small number of factors have an outsized impact on their success. Managers can achieve big returns if they understand what those factors are and focus on getting them right.”

So, what are the qualities that determine your team’s effectiveness?

1. Direction

Effective teams crave meaning, purpose, and direction.

A clear connection between your overall strategy and their day-to-day work is one of the most motivating things you can give a team. That’s why Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are such a powerful tool.

OKRs are a goal-setting framework that translates your company strategy into manageable tasks and goals. The framework is simple: Each team, individual, or department is given an objective (what you want to accomplish) and key results (how you’ll measure that work).

Put together, OKRs look like this:

I will (objective), as measured by (key results).

The objective is what gives your team direction, while the key results provide motivation and a means to measure progress. Together, they help your team know that they’re working on the right thing and are on track to hit their goals.

Other ways to give your team direction:

2. Structure

For a team to be effective, they need the right resources - and that includes a diverse group of skills and personalities.

While we’d all love a team full of all-stars, the reality is that you need people with different roles and skill levels to fill all the spots. It’s equally as bad to give a senior member too many menial tasks as it is to push a junior member way out of their comfort zones.

To give your team the right structure, don’t be in a rush to always hire and add more people to your team. A lean product team knows when they need to grow and avoids the trap of having too many cooks in the kitchen.

Other ways to build the right team structure:

Pro tip: Use your project management tool to manage team workload. For example, Planio shows you all your tasks and milestones in one place (and who is responsible for each). You can view tasks on an Agile board, Gantt chart, Calendar, and more.

Gantt Chart showing what tasks are left to do

3. Supportive context

For a team to be effective, they need the right tools and support. But support comes in many forms. It could be knowledge sharing, storytelling, and lessons learned. Or on-demand educational and training processes.

At a minimum, everyone should know where to find the resource they need and who to talk to if they need something. No team gets everything it wants. But sometimes, it’s enough to do your best and show how you’re thinking about their needs and proactively trying to support them.

Other ways to provide supportive context to your team:

Pro tip: An internal knowledge base is a great way to share knowledge and provide support. In Planio, you can even assign tasks and issues to your knowledge base so that everyone has access to the information they need to excel.

Collect issues that need to be added to the knowledge base

4. Shared mindset

With teams becoming more diverse and spread apart, a shared mindset is more important than ever for maintaining team performance. Not only does a shared mindset reduce friction and help you avoid conflicts, but it also helps remove the classic “us vs. them” issue that can sink team effectiveness.

What do we mean?

In the past, teams spent most of their time working face-to-face. They learned each other’s quirks and were able to build a stronger, more trusting relationship. But today - especially due to the pandemic - teams are fragmented across departments and sometimes even continents. (This is what we like to call “Remote Sprawl”.)

When this happens, teams start to identify only with their own subgroups and are less likely to trust, share information, and collaborate more widely.

A shared mindset is more important than ever for maintaining team performance and increased effectiveness.

To break down these walls, you need to make a conscious effort to bring your team together.

Other ways to create a shared mindset:

Pro tip: Video meetings are a great way to fill in the “incomplete picture” many remote workers have of their colleagues. Consider connecting teammates on video chat to get to know each other. You can even launch a video call straight out of Planio using Planio Meet.

Video calls with Planio Meet

5. Psychological safety

None of these “enabling conditions” for team effectiveness will happen if your team doesn’t feel free to speak up, give feedback, and push each other. This is called psychological safety - the belief that you can speak up at work without fear of punishment or embarrassment.

Effective teams don’t shut each other down - they embrace new ideas and support their teammates. Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy for team leaders who “know how it’s done”. Instead of supporting and considering new ideas, they get banished to “idea limbo.”

In fact, a Gallup poll found that only three in ten U.S. workers feel their opinions at work count.

But why would you hire smart people only to not listen to what they have to say?

Building psychological safety starts with an openness to new ideas from the top down. Even if you’re stressed about your project schedule or trying to plan your next sprint, take time to consider and listen to new ideas - they might take you down a better path than the one you’re on.

Other ways to build psychological safety on your team:

Bringing it all together: 7 ways to boost team effectiveness today

These five enabling conditions are the foundation of an effective team. But putting them into practice - and maintaining them when deadlines are looming or you’re dealing with scope creep - is a whole other story.

Here are a few actionable ways that you can increase team effectiveness today:

Bringing it all together: 7 ways to boost team effectiveness today

1. Give your team more ownership over their work

Why it matters: Direction and motivation can’t just come from the top down. Giving your team more ownership over what they work on (i.e., their OKRs) creates a sense of responsibility and pride. Suddenly, their tasks aren’t just another assignment but something they’ve chosen and feel matches their skills and vision.

This is especially important for Agile teams that are used to self-organizing and planning their own sprints.

How to give your team more ownership:

An effective team doesn’t have to burn through backlogs and finish 100% of every sprint.

2. Use the right tools to provide visibility and transparency

Why it matters: Effectiveness depends on trust. And providing transparency into decisions and visibility into strategy and some of the best trust-building exercises you can use.

Make sure your team knows that management isn’t hiding behind a curtain of jargon and monthly “all-hands meetings”. Instead, make your company transparent by default with the right project management tools.

How to give your team more visibility:

Pro tip: Planio combines everything you need to successfully run a project or a whole company - from project management to chat, roadmaps, reporting, and knowledge bases.

Roadmap view in Planio

3. Show your team you respect their time

Why it matters: Collaboration overload impacts every team. But there’s a tipping point where too many meetings, updates, and planning sessions can become overwhelming. Show your team you want them to do their best work by protecting them from meaningless meetings or feeling the need to be “always on.”

How to show your team you respect their time:

4. Reward prioritization over productivity

Why it matters: Teams learn what behavior gets rewarded. And if you’re constantly calling out people who are visible or constantly shipping work (even if it’s not the right work), then they’ll strive to do the same. Instead, look for stories of team members who took time to think through their task list and prioritize what they thought would really move the needle. Make those stories your shared mindset.

How to reward prioritization:

5. Share wins, losses, and lessons learned

Why it matters: The most effective teams learn from their mistakes and constantly find ways to improve. Whereas less effective ones shy away from discussing problems or gloss over major issues. Remember, only 40% of all projects successfully hit all their criteria. Treat the other 60% as chances to learn.

How to share wins and lessons learned:

6. Focus on diversity and inclusion

Why it matters: Team structure is a major part of boosting effectiveness. But the structure also needs to be shaken up at times to help your team work with others, connect with more of the company, and collaborate better. Not only that, but according to a series of McKinsey reports, diversity can inspire innovation, motivation, better decision-making, and higher quality work.

How to focus on diversity and inclusion:

7. Lead by example

Why it matters: Effectiveness is a team sport. But you’re still the captain. It doesn’t matter what you say if your actions don’t back it up. Think about how you can embody all of the enabling conditions for team effectiveness – structure, direction, support, and so on.

How to lead by example:

The biggest problems that get in the way of team effectiveness

If team effectiveness were an easy formula, we’d all be on easy street. But many of the ways that we are used to doing business actually get in the way of teams being truly effective.

Simply ticking off tasks doesn’t make a team ‘effective’.

Here are some of the leading issues that will get in the way as you try to boost team effectiveness and performance:

  1. Too many cooks in the kitchen. Too much oversight gets in the way of team effectiveness. Make sure you limit the amount of stakeholder input on projects and shield your team from too much feedback. Use a communication plan to keep people in the know without allowing them to get in the way.
  2. A lack of transparency in decision-making. For teams to adopt methodologies like Agile, communication has to be open and transparent. Team members who see their colleagues get blindsided by decisions that weren’t discussed in scrums can derail trust and psychological safety.
  3. Poor goal-setting. Setting goals that are too aggressive or too lenient doesn’t help anyone to strive for productivity. Once goals are set, it’s crucial for teams to own their mistakes and take credit for their accomplishments.
  4. Red tape and bureaucracies. Nothing derails an effective team quite like getting stuck dealing with red tape. Remove as much “process” as possible to streamline your work and get out of your team’s way.
  5. Changing priorities. All businesses change and evolve. Yet wavering priorities shake a team’s confidence and can be detrimental to trust. If priorities need to change, be sure you have a good reason why and that you communicate it to everyone.
  6. Managers who are afraid to deal with poor performance. Some managers hesitate to confront employees who aren’t meeting their KPIs. But poor performers can drag down a team’s productivity and morale. Be ready to make choices about team members who are slowing everyone down or sabotaging your changes - whether that’s additional coaching or something more drastic.
  7. No shared vision or mission. If your company and leadership can’t tell a compelling story, there’s no chance your team will be effective. Make sure you spend time crafting a compelling mission and vision statement that gets people excited about the work they’re doing.

We’re all pursuing peak team performance

Every project manager “worth their salt” wants teams to have the time, resources, and tools to do their best work. But it’s too easy to get caught up in daily tasks, workplace politics, and reporting and ignore the fundamentals of team effectiveness.

Take the time to sit with your team and understand where they struggle. Look in your project management tool for clues about roadblocks or frustrations. Then, bring it back to the basics.

By focusing on direction, structure, context, mindset, and psychological safety, you’ll be well on your way to creating an effective and happy team.