Operational culture – the way things get done in a company – isn’t meant to be preserved; in the ever-changing world, that would inevitably make any business obsolete.

Winning teams are always on the lookout for better ways of working – internally, as well as with clients, aiming to create an environment that rewards smart, friendly, confident and efficient team players, who take the company’s success personally.

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In short, a winning team emphasises five things:

  • It is a team of curious and creative leaders, unafraid of making decisions
  • Transparency, friendliness and honesty (for better or worse)
  • Open-mindedness and flexibility, quick adjustments to circumstances
  • Passion for professional growth – aiming to get better every day
  • Continuous search for more efficient ways of achieving the best result

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Building a winning team takes time. One requires an environment that attracts the right talent and rewards the right behaviour. Many books have been written on various methodologies of building winning manufacturing teams. Having examined a variety (Lean Thinking, OKR, numerous culture-building theories ranging from Tribal Leadership to general Stanley McCrystal’s Team of Teams), I’ve put together a set of 10 fundamental principles everyone seems to agree on – that would propel a service-focused organisation (e.g. a design agency) to continuously strive and achieve excellence – as a team.

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Whether transforming an existing organisation or forming a new team, consider the following steps – in the order listed. Each step can be achieved through a set of behavioural and operational nudges.

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  1. Psychological safety
  • Create an emotionally safe environment, where everyone can behave authentically and professionally.
  • Absolutely vital for scenarios where uncertainty and interdependence of team members are present, psychological safety increases the chance of harnessing the power of diverse ideas, leading to more effectiveness and (unsurprisingly) revenue.

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  1. Mindstate of abundance

Review how you find new business. Shift from responding to requests to creatively looking at your (existing or potential) customers’ businesses and exploring new ways to deliver value – identifying yet unmet needs.

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  1. Transparency
  • Be open towards both clients and colleagues. Externally, being clear about how your team works and what value it generates leads to better relationships and more thoughtful negotiations.
  • Internally, being clear about company’s goals, performance and decision-making principles will increase the team’s understanding of the business environment, sense of belonging and sense of responsibility for the company’s progress.

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  1. End-to-end responsibility
  • Every project, internal or external, needs a single person to be responsible for its success.
  • Build a team of leaders where more experience translates into leadership in a wider area, but even the most junior teammates have full responsibility over delivering something.

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  1. Continued measured progress
  • Set specific and measurable goals for the business and cascade them throughout the team so that everyone’s work contributes to business growth.
  • Make everyone’s (from CEO to receptionist) individual goals transparent to the whole team.
  • Agree on 3-5 goals for every person as a mix of:
    • Business supporting goals – achievement crucial for business performance.
    • Business stretch goals – set time aside to work on something revolutionary, that could propel the business beyond planned growth.
    • Personal – what skills do you want to acquire, what area would you like to grow in?

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  1. Meritocracy
  • Empower everyone to feel free to contribute, but have very clear allocation of responsibility.
  • Hire top specialists, provided they are aligned to your values and way of working.
  • Ban ego, politics and palace intrigue.
  • Idea meritocracy – anyone is entitled to an opinion, but opinions of people more knowledgeable in subject matter should have more weight.
  • Meritocratic hiring – minimise subjectivity by offering candidates professional and psychometric tests in advance of face-to-face interviews. That way your first opinion of a candidate won’t be formed by subjective factors like personal chemistry, leading to more diversity.

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  1. Lean startup thinking
  • Take a hard look at how you work with clients. Identify activities that generate value for clients, remove everything that doesn’t, make value-generating activities flow in the most organic way possible.
  • Make the team run every project as (their) startup – the team’s efficiency would allow them to delight customers, win more work, choose exciting projects and sponsor pro bono initiatives that change lives.

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  1. On-going proactive mentorship
  • Train everyone to be a mentor – humble and respectful, asking questions, not jumping to conclusions.
  • Expect and provide feedback that is clear, to the point and timely.
  • Replace annual reviews with regular 1:1 meetings – setting goals, discussing progress, conducting two-way coaching and providing tips on how to address challenges.

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  1. Mobility and flexibility
  • Build new capabilities through varied experiences. Allow and expect role mobility, where people move regularly – horizontally and vertically – between roles and teams, pursuing their personal development goals.
  • Let anyone claim leadership in an area close to their heart – whether project-related or not (e.g.: “making the company more green”). Before making decisions in that area, the person would be expected to seek advice from all affected parties and people with expertise on the matter. The person won’t have to follow every piece of advice; the point is not to achieve a watered-down compromise that accommodates everybody’s wishes. But advice must be sought and given serious consideration.
  • The person would then be responsible for making the decision. Train your people not to be afraid to make mistakes, as mistakes are always possible when one is bold. The key is to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.

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  1. On-going process improvement
  • Don’t accept assumptions and best practices – if there’s a better way of doing things – find it. Any member of the team should be encouraged to offer suggestions on process improvement.
  • Find a way to continuously and systematically conduct quick, cheap experiments with frequent reflection to measure and learn – to test new operational ideas. Review results every 90 days, set priorities for the next 90.

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Food for thought: McKinsey have identified[1] the following prerequisites of a successful cultural transformation:

  • Leaders and colleagues behaving in a new way
  • Clarity of expectations that align with personal goals
  • Support and rewards for behaving in a new way
  • Development of skills required and provision of opportunities to behave in a new way.

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Organisational culture is in constant flux – as we evolve, so do our expectations and market requirements. The principles above are based on organisational theories spanning over 70 years of managing teams as diverse as shoe salesmen and Navy SEALs. They answer the needs of today and – as far as is currently predictable – set a flexible foundation that could support numerous avenues in the future. Thank you for reading.

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[1] Source: Scott Keller and Colin Price, “Performance and Health: An Evidence-Based Approach to Transforming Your Organisation”, 2010.

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