5 Characteristics of Effective Teams

One of my favorite engineering professors is Karl Smith. Karl Smith, Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota, has researched and written extensively about the “engineering method” and teamwork. In the book Teamwork and Project Management, Karl summarizes what he and colleagues recognize as 5 characteristics of effective teams:

Positive Interdependence
“The team focuses on a common goal or single product”

Individual and Group Accountability
“Each person takes responsibility for both her or his own work and the overall work of the team”

Promotive Interaction
“The members do real work, usually face to face”

Teamwork Skills
“Each member has the skills for and practices effective communication (especially careful listening), decision making, problem solving, conflict management, and leadership”

Group Processing
“The team periodically reflects on how well the team is working, celebrates the things that are going well, and corrects the things that aren’t”

These characteristics were observed and derived by Karl and his colleagues from many years of working with civil engineering groups and other teams of engineers comprised of students and practitioners. Those acquainted with Scrum, or Agile methods, should recognize these characteristics from their experiences with successful software teams.

Scrum, in particular, has nomenclature that jibes with these characteristics (e.g., Product Owner, Daily Scrum, Scrum Pit, and Sprint Retrospective).

Positive Interdependence is fulfilled by a Scrum team that designates a “Product Owner”. The Product Owner drives priorities and keeps the team focused on the Product. In Scrum, work tasks are product-driven.

Individual and Group Accountability is fulfilled by a Scrum’s emphasis on having each member take tasks to work on, then reporting daily progress to the team during the “Daily Scrum”. Some Scrum teams have “Story Owners” which give individual members the additional responsibility of making sure the team progresses toward completion of Story tasks and then shepherds the Story through Product Owner approval (“Story Sign-Off”).

Promotive Interaction jibes with the “Scrum Pit”. The Scrum Pit is a physical location where team members work in close proximity. I have witnessed improvement in Scrum Pit interaction if team members are turned to face each other, rather than with their backs to each other. I have also found that paired-programming sessions enhance cross-functional learning and limit knowledge silo-ing.

Teamwork Skills are not necessarily tools that every team member has at the outset of a project, but Scrum encourages the development of these skills by structuring the project for group decisions and by creating a daily routine of communication in the “Daily Scrum”.

Group Processing is fulfilled by Scrum’s “Sprint Retrospective” where the team examines the previous Sprint to discuss “what went right?” and “what went wrong?”, and to agree upon “action items” for improvement. Typically Scrum teams will have a retrospective meeting every 2 weeks or every month depending on the length of their Sprints.

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