Define Your Team’s Mission and Purpose


Berton Lee Lamb, Ph.D.

A comment on Tip #44 from R. C. Sanders & M. Marks (2021) Improve Your Leadership Skills: 76 Tips for Getting Work Done Through Others.

The Tip: “Define your team’s mission and purpose. The clearer your mission and purpose, the easier it is for your people to get behind and support them.” 

Here is an illustration:

John was selected to lead a new team in his company. When he was assigned to the leadership position, he was told that his team would design a new production process to create a special widget that would be produced by a different unit of the company. The specifications for the widget were laid out and he was given a deadline for when production had to begin. During his hiring interview John had asked “How does this widget fit with the company’s production goals?” He was told, “You know what we do, the widget will make a big contribution.” If successful, John believed his team could receive future design assignments.

John set about assembling a competent team. The goal was to get everything ready so that the production deadline would be achieved. Each team member had specific expertise. John made sure each member felt recognized for knowledge and skill. He personally explained to each that he expected them to work creatively and cooperate with other team members to coordinate efforts. When the team was complete, he held an all-hands meeting to explain the mission and purpose of the new team. He emphasized that the widget was important to the company and underscored the urgency of hitting the deadline so production could begin. He thanked the team and directed them to start.

Sally was a team member he had known for some time. She was a go-getter always interested in producing results. Other team members seemed to trust her.  John asked to visit with Sally and she was eager to talk. What she told him was shocking. She said, “Everyone on the team is wonderful! But we don’t know why we are doing this and we can’t decide which task should begin first. Everyone wants to get started. The thing is, we are being careful to make sure we avoid doing the wrong thing and we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”

About a week later, John noticed that team members were huddling together. They were obviously talking about the assignment but the progress he had expected from such an assemblage of talent was not materializing.

Teams like this sometimes deliver but they very often fail. They fail despite being highly talented and having a strong desire to succeed. John was frightened and then a bit angered by what Sally shared. He knew that he had capable people in place. John did not want them to fail. He also recognized that a failure at the beginning of their assignment would reduce trust among the employees. If successful, his team could expect to be tasked with developing other production processes. But problems at the beginning might mean trust would be eroded. Failure now would preclude future assignments.

His first thought was to walk to the work area and tell them to get on with the job. Then he remembered that he wanted this team to work together and be able to tackle future assignments. He did not want to lose the expertise of the team or the potential for a very successful outcome.  He thought of a book by Larson and LaFasto (TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong). Larson and LaFasto identified nine components of successful teams:

A Clear, Elevating Goal

Results-driven Structure

Competent Team Members

Unified Commitment

Collaborative Climate

Standards of Excellence

External Support and Recognition

Principled Leadership

As John thought about these factors, he recognized that the team already possessed some of the ingredients of success. He clearly had competent team members and he could see that they had a collaborative spirit. John also knew that he had good support from the company’s senior leadership. He could call on other company leaders to reward and affirm his team. John decided he had better think more about his own skill at principled leadership. Most importantly, he recognized that he was missing a clear and elevating goal. He also understood that he had not provided a results-driven structure.

John concluded that a clear and elevating goal should be his first priority. He assembled the team and asked them how they understood the goal they were being asked to achieve. They immediately identified the deadline as important. But as they discussed this John came to understand that the team members did not seem to fully appreciate the “why” of it all or their place in the overall success of the company. John asked Sally to moderate a couple of meetings to discuss the importance of efficiently and effectively producing a high quality widget. John was not present at these meetings. After a couple of sessions, Sally asked him to join them to hear their report. The team was in agreement that a a new process was vital to help the company produce widgets in the future. By collaborating now they would have a template for the production of other innovations. They were committed to making that happen.

John used the same approach—in separate meetings—to address the structure of the team. First, he asked Sally to assume the role of coordinating the various parts of the team’s activities. John and Sally had some pretty intense discussions about what kind of team they were building.

As they talked, it became apparent that the team was not, in fact, a “production” team. Their role was to figure out a production process; it was a “creative team.” The team members were being asked to create a process that would lead to efficient, effective widget production. There were many components to this task.

Next, Sally convened the team to brainstorm the most effective and efficient way to accomplish the task they had been assigned. Once they had agreed on the creative process, she conferred with John. Then Sally assigned one person to lead each sub-team. She and John met with the sub-team leaders to determine the best personnel for each sub-team. They guaranteed each sub-team the autonomy to come up with possible solutions to achieve the sub-team’s own goals. With the sub-team leaders, they agreed on a way to present the resulting recommendations from each sub-team and decide how to best integrate the suggestions of each sub-team that would result in the creation of a production process. As they worked through this John, with Sally’s assistance, emphasized the goal to which they had all agreed.

The result was a process they could defend to company leadership which, when implemented, would work well. They had built a creative process that the team could replicate for future production models for their company

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