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Effectiveness and Tripwires for new leaders

Soon to become a leader of your own team? Want to know the most common tripwires for new leaders? Read this post to understand how to make your team effective and how to avoid tripping during the initial months.

Michael Levall

May 30, 2013

11 Min Read

Reflections on Leadership – Part 2

In this part I will discuss what the Project Lead can do to keep his team effective, mainly the mission statement and the occurrence of social loafing. I will also go over five tripwires for new leaders and how I handled them during my first months of leading a team of ten. This text is mainly directed to small development teams (five to ten members), and my perspectives and opinions are based on my own experiences. Please note that I do not have any experience with leading teams larger than ten members and can thusly not guarantee that what I have written here is applicable to larger teams.

Increase team effectiveness

It is the leader’s responsibility to increase team effectiveness, and there are multiple ways of doing so. The most obvious one is selecting a production method for your team. During our project we are using Scrum which is an agile software development framework for managing software projects. I am not going to explain Scrum here, as there are many explanations online (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU0llRltyFM, 2012). I am instead going to begin with some fundamentals; the Mission Statement and Social Loafing.

Mission Statement

The mission statement is the main goal which your team is aiming for. This goal should be easily summarized and remembered by every member on your team, this is important since it will be easier for members to stay focused and motivated. Having a clear goal is the sole most important thing for you as the leader to uphold, and not only in short terms. Your members need to know where you are headed and this should be discussed, established and written down at the beginning of your project. In essence, the mission statement is the team’s reason to exist in the first place.

It is not the leader’s role to establish the mission statement, this should come from the values, skillsets and beliefs of everyone in the team (unless you have a publisher, then it might come from them). It is however the leader’s role to keep the members focused and make sure that everyone remembers the overall goal for the project. If you are afraid that your entire team is losing track of the mission statement, have them all sit down in a meeting and let everyone, in turn and without interruptions, explain their view on what the main goal of the project is. This is to wake the team up and make them realize that they are all heading in different directions. End the meeting by going over the mission statement with the team, reminding them why this statement was established during the beginning of your project.

Social Loafing

Are individuals working in a team intrinsically more effective than if they had worked alone?

Think about that for a second.

During the 1890s, a French agricultural engineer named Max Ringelmann made some interesting discoveries on how humans behave when put in a team environment. He told agricultural students to pull a rope, each student pulling 85 kg when working alone. Put together in a team of seven, the students pulled a combined weight of 450 kg, only putting 75% of their “real” strength into the work while positioned in a team! (For more detail see Kravitz & Martin, 1986)

Studies have shown that humans whose work is difficult to identify and evaluate have a tendency to work less efficient in team situations, especially if their task is not intrinsically motivating and they lack a strong sense of team cohesion (West, 2004, s. 11). This is a normal occurrence and is not always a case of a member “slacking off”. Simply put, if a member’s work doesn’t clearly show then that member might subconsciously work less efficient than he normally would, hiding behind the efforts of his teammates.

There are things that you as the leader can do to fend off this problem (if you think that it exists in your team) and make sure that members are realizing their full potential. Tasks should be intrinsically motivating and interesting to perform, and the member could be put responsible for a task outcome making it impossible for him to hide in the crowd. If a member is sole responsible for the completion of a task, it is easier to measure how much time was spent by him on that particular task, thusly making his work more transparent. It might also be more motivating for the member, because it is easier for him to see how his contribution to the project makes a difference.

It is important to remember that this must not become a “big-brother is watching you” scenario, everything that is done is done to raise effectiveness. Having someone look over your shoulder all the time does not make you effective, it makes you annoyed. Also keep in mind that making one sole member responsible for a task outcome goes against the first tripwire for leaders, which I’ll dive into next.

Tripwires for new leaders

These were originally written by Richard Hackman (1990, 2002) and explains five hidden tripwires for new leaders. I found these to be very insightful during my time as Project Lead, having either encountered or narrowly avoided most of them.

Call the performing unit a team, but really manage members as individuals

To reap the benefits of teamwork, one must actually build a team. (Hackman, 1990, p. 495)

Don’t only reward individual performance, remember to also give rewards to the entire team when a milestone or other significant task is accomplished. At Dead Shark, we always celebrate together after a milestone, having Swedish “fika”. During my time as Project Lead this essentially meant going to work a little bit earlier, buying lots of donuts and an apple (a very specific brand of apples for one of the artists who has a delicate taste) on the way which was then shared by the team. Another example; if your Art team has made good progress, give your compliments to the entire Art team and not just the Lead. Giving compliments is cheap and frequently underused by stressed out leaders.

Let the team itself discuss and decide how it should accomplish its tasks, this will increase team cohesion and the team will feel an ownership of the task, making it “theirs”. You will also save time from not having to come up with solutions yourself, let the responsible members decide on the best solution for their tasks.

Fall off the authority balance beam

Exercising authority creates anxiety in both the members and the leader himself. Since authority is such an important part of leadership, leaders should always be unapologetic when exercising it. A common mistake is to exercise too little authority in the early stages of a project when direction is needed, and then too much later on when the team isn’t performing well.

For me, this was a problem during the beginning of our project where I was a bit late with setting the direction for the team and waiting too long before I started coaching the other members. I spent a lot of time revising the time schedule during our first month, and it’s easy to let hours get sucked into an excel document while there are members sitting in the same room in need of direction and advice.

Simply assemble a large group

According to Hackman there are three elements that are important to create the structure of a team:

  1. A well-designed team task that represents a meaningful and motivating piece of work.

  2. A well assembled team that should be as small as possible while enabling the team to get the job done efficiently.

  3. The team need clear information on the extent and limitations of its authority and accountability.

I ran into troubles leading my team in regard to its size, number two in this list. During the Make Something Unreal we were ten members, which are three more than the highest recommended number for effective teams. This meant that sometimes communication was lacking and information was not spread easily throughout the team. There were times that a feature was scrapped and days later there were still members who had not heard the news. A solution to this would be to divide the team into smaller “camps” that could distribute information internally more effectively, having one person in each team responsible for communicating with the other camp and staying up-to-date on the daily decisions made.

Specify challenging team objectives but skimp on organizational support

Key resources all teams need from their organization:

  • A reward system that recognizes team performance (not just individuals).

  • An educational system that provides the team with the training its members need to accomplish their objectives.

  • An information system that gives the team the necessary data to achieve their goals.

  • The material resources that will enable team to get the work done (money, equipment, staff and so on).

One could argue that our team actually was a part of a larger organization during the competition, which is the school we were studying at. While the school do not own any part of our work nor any shares in our company, we still need their approval since we want our grades. In this regard, we were also dependent on the information from Epic Games Inc. on what was expected of us in the competition.

These two, Blekinge Institute of Technology (BTH) and Epic Games, actually fulfilled two of these key resources for us in spite of not having any ownership rights. BTH gave us assignments that rewarded team performance (yet evaluating us as individuals), and Epic gave us access to clear information on what we should do in order to achieve our goal of winning the competition. The fact that they set us up with Splash Damage to mentor us during the competition is just one of the things that helped us get vital feedback on how to improve the game.

Assume that members already have all the competence they need to work well as a team

Leaders need to be aware of the processes in teams and should be ready to step in and support the team when needed. The Leader needs to take time to coach his members into working more efficient together, every member has their own experiences with working in teams and it is safe to assume that not everyone is equally proficient in their social skills.

I took this tripwire very seriously, and during the most part of our project I organized something that I called “Cozy Wednesdays”. Each Wednesday we got together as a team and had discussions, presentations or workshops on how to increase team effectiveness by utilizing important social skills. The reason why I labeled it “Cozy Wednesdays” was that, in spite of being kind of cheesy, it reflects the fact that these meetings were not strict nor directly work-related. I wanted my members to have a relaxed and open mindset when entering these meetings.

I took time to read up on communication and listening (which there are plenty of guides to on the internet), then presenting what I felt was most important to my team. We then discussed how this could be used to strengthen us as a group and enable us to work together more efficiently and without unnecessary arguments. Everyone should be well versed in active listening and how the flow of communication works, and I’m going to dive in deeper into these subjects in part 3. I also facilitated workshops were we trained active listening in smaller groups and then discussed how this could be used in a real situation.

End of Part 2

In this part I have discussed the Mission Statement, Social Loafing and five hidden tripwires for new leaders. I believe that it is important to raise awareness on the importance of social aspects in development teams and how teams can increase their effectiveness by simply dedicating one hour a week to talk about social skills. In part 3, which might be the final one, I’m going to discuss coaching, feedback, communication and listening skills.


Hackman, J. R. 1990. Groups that work (and those that don’t): Conditions for effective teamwork. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Hackman, J. R. 2002. Leading teams: Setting the stage for great performances. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kravitz, D. A. & Martin, B. 1986. Ringelmann rediscovered: The original article. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 35-47.

Shojaee, H. NEW Intro to Agile Scrum in Under 10 Minutes –What is Scrum? 20 Feb 2012. [Online]. Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU0llRltyFM

West, M. A. 2004. Effective Teamwork: Practical lessons from organizational research. 2nd Ed. Leicester: The British Psychological Society, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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