When I was first starting out, my mind would have gone straight to the everyday duties—preparing for that next meeting, removing a roadblock for a report, coming up with an execution plan for the next month.
J. Richard Hackman, the leading scholar of teams, spent forty years trying to answer this question. He studied the ways professionals work together in hospitals, in symphony orchestras, and inside the cockpits of commercial airliners. One of his conclusions is that making a team function well is harder than it looks. “Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have,” he says. “That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.”
Hackman’s research describes five conditions that increase a team’s odds of success: having a real team (one with clear boundaries and stable membership), a compelling direction, an enabling structure, a supportive organizational context, and expert coaching.
My own observations are similar, and I’ve come to think of the multitude of tasks that fill up a manager’s day as sorting neatly into three buckets: purpose, people, and process.
The purpose is the outcome your team is trying to accomplish, otherwise known as the why. Why do you wake up and choose to do this thing instead of the thousands of other things you could be doing? Why pour your time and energy into this particular goal with this particular group of people? What would be different about the world if your team were wildly successful? Everyone on the team should have a similar picture of why does our work matter? If this purpose is missing or unclear, then you may experience conflicts or mismatched expectations.
For example, let’s say your vision is to get a lemonade stand on every block, starting first in your city and then expanding throughout the country. However, your employee Henry is under the impression that your stand ought to be a popular hangout spot for the neighbors. He’ll start doing things that you think are unimportant or wasteful, like buying a bunch of lawn chairs or trying to serve pizza along with lemonade. To prevent these misalignments, you’ll need to get him and the other members of your team on board with what you truly care about.
At the same time, you can’t simply demand that everyone believe in your vision. If Henry thinks your grand plan of “a lemonade stand on every block” is stupid, he won’t be motivated to help you see it through. He might decide instead to join a venture he cares more about, like that pizza-and-pool parlor down the street.
The first big part of your job as a manager is to ensure that your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it. Getting everyone to understand and believe in your team’s purpose, whether it’s as specific as “make every customer who calls feel cared for” or as broad as “bring the world closer together,” requires understanding and believing in it yourself, and then sharing it at every opportunity—from writing emails to setting goals, from checking in with a single report to hosting large-scale meetings.
The next important bucket that managers think about is people, otherwise known as the who. Are the members of your team set up to succeed? Do they have the right skills? Are they motivated to do great work?
If you don’t have the right people for the job, or you don’t have an environment where they can thrive, then you’re going to have problems. For example, say Eliza doesn’t precisely measure the right amount of lemon juice, sugar, and water for your secret formula, or Henry can’t be bothered to greet customers politely, or you’re terrible at planning. Your lemonade stand will suffer. To manage people well, you must develop trusting relationships with them, understand their strengths and weaknesses (as well as your own), make good decisions about who should do what (including hiring and firing when necessary), and coach individuals to do their best.
Finally, the last bucket is process, which describes how your team works together. You might have a superbly talented team with a very clear understanding of what the end goal is, but if it’s not apparent how everyone’s supposed to work together or what the team’s values are, then even simple tasks can get enormously complicated. Who should do what by when? What principles should govern decision-making?
For example, say it’s Henry’s job to pick up lemonade ingredients from the store and it’s Eliza’s job to make the lemonade. How will Henry know when he needs to make a run? How will Eliza find the supplies? What should happen if lemons run out on a particularly hot day? If there isn’t a predictable plan, Henry and Eliza will waste time coordinating handoffs and dealing with the inevitable mistakes that arise.
Often, people have an allergic reaction to the word process. For me, it used to conjure up the feeling of glacial progress. I imagined myself flailing around in huge stacks of paperwork, my calendar filled with tedious meetings. In a processless world, I imagined myself free to do whatever was needed to make things happen quickly, with no red tape, no barriers, no overhead.
There’s some truth to this. We’ve already established that when you are working by yourself, you get to make all the decisions. You are limited only by how fast you can think and act.