8 mins

Research has shown that a combination of clear goals, roles, and team norms can improve team performance.

For decades, measuring the effectiveness of software engineering efforts has been commonplace for engineering leaders. Whether it’s leading indicators such as velocity and sprint burndown charts or lagging metrics like escaped defects and release frequency, each data point tells a story as to how an engineering team is performing. 

Metrics, when used in the right situation and accompanied by the correct context, are a powerful means to help improve team performance. However, even the best metrics used in the industry have blindspots and shortcomings.

On one hand, we have lagging indicators that are reactive in nature – providing insights after the fact. Meanwhile, leading indicators can provide false positives that cause teams to become untrusting and resistant to sharing insights.

Using the extensive research by Mario Moussa, Madeline Boyer, and Derek Newberry as part of the McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton, we can be more informed on the elements that drive high-performing teams. Their observations of over 100 teams shed light on the three key elements shared amongst successful teams; goals, roles, and norms.

1. The importance of outlining goals

What do ‘goals’ mean?

Clear, well-defined goals provide a shared direction and purpose. They help to align individual efforts, fuel motivation, and give a clear understanding of what success looks like. Goals enable high-performing teams to conduct effective planning, decision-making, and assessment of progress. This, in turn, drives teams to learn, adapt, and excel together.

Setting up a survey for your team 

My preference is to ask the team specific questions within a monthly pulse survey to gather team members’ respective views on overall goals, roles, and norms. Participants use a scale of 1 - 10 as to how strongly they agree with each statement. In addition, I allow for supporting comments to be added, ensuring an understood context.

Once the results of the survey are consolidated, you are provided with invaluable insights as to what is holding your team back from becoming high-performing.

Gauging how well your team understands team goals

When assessing the team’s understanding of goals, I use the survey to ask my reports to quantify how much they agree with the below statement on the pre-outlined scale: 

I know and understand the team’s goals for the upcoming two months.

The statement, albeit simple in its nature, allows me to both probe the team’s foresight into the work they have upcoming whilst also ensuring it is being communicated in a digestible way.

How to solve issues around unclear goals

If your survey uncovers a gap in the team’s understanding of their goals, there are some ways this can be remediated. 

Looking at the results, assess if there are any trends in what the data is telling you. In the event that everyone is lacking the clarity of the team’s goals, work on articulating the team’s purpose to them more often. Hold a workshop with the team to reflect upon the company’s mission and coach them on how the team’s work is serving it.

It isn’t uncommon to observe specific people or roles having a disconnect with the goal. This can be an identifier that the team’s work has become transactional and missing an overarching purpose. For example, your team’s designer may feel out of alignment with the team goal if all work being discussed is technical. Ensuring goals are user-centric and less technical can develop a broader understanding.

Likewise, if the product manager is unaware of upcoming goals, this can be a signal that there is a disconnect between the team and higher-level strategy and goals. To rectify this, partner with your product manager, and work with your pillar, tribe, or departmental leads to collaboratively build a picture of how your team serves the overarching goals.

Although the team may have goals, they may be struggling to connect the work they’re doing to business value and impact. Work with the product manager to ensure this gap in understanding is closed by defining key metrics. Make it clear when a goal has been achieved and what capabilities will be unlocked upon the completion of the goal.

2. Specifying every team member’s role

What does ‘role’ mean? 

Defining roles is crucial in maximizing productivity and ensuring smooth collaboration. Each team member should have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and how their contributions fit into the broader picture. This minimizes confusion, prevents overlapping efforts, and promotes accountability, enabling each member to contribute to their fullest potential.

Using a monthly survey to learn how your team understands their roles  

To gauge how your reports perceive their roles, defer to the monthly survey. Use the below statements, and where they fall on a spectrum of 1- 10 to gain a better perspective: 

I know and understand my role and the tasks I will be involved in to deliver the upcoming goals.

Excluding my own role, I feel that our team has all necessary roles present and performing well to deliver our goals.

For a team to be effective, all roles need to be meeting expectations. Whereas the first question seeks an understanding as to whether or not the individual understands their own role in the team, the second question provides insights into the team member’s peers as to whether or not they are all present and meeting expectations.

How to solve issues around unclear roles/remits

The roles metric can be an indicator that something isn’t working harmoniously in the team. You can move role-related issues forward in several ways.  

Looking at your team’s responses, is everyone on the team lacking visibility and understanding of what their role should be doing or is it just select roles? If it’s everyone, perhaps facilitating a roles and responsibilities workshop is needed. If it is select people or role(s), work with those people and the team leads to seek clarity.

If there is a particular role that, in the eyes of their peers, doesn’t seem to be optimized for helping the team attain their goals, it may be worth speaking to that person and/or their manager to see if additional support is required. It could be a case that the person in the role needs some additional training or has the wrong set of skills for the task at hand.

Additionally, the team may highlight that there is a gap for a particular role.  Perhaps back-end engineers are unable to keep up with the front-end engineers’ demands, or maybe certain members have raised the need for greater support from a data expert. Use this feedback to ensure a plan is in place to hire in the missing role. Don’t forget to communicate this with the team.

3. Establishing and maintaining team norms

What does ‘norm’ mean? 

Norms are shared expectations that dictate how team members interact, communicate, and conduct themselves. They help to cultivate a respectful, inclusive, and supportive environment that promotes cooperation and trust. Norms shape the team’s culture, influencing conflict resolution, decision-making processes, and overall team cohesion. 

Using a survey to gauge your reports’ understanding of  team norms

The final statement I pose within my monthly pulse survey sheds light on the team’s norms:

I believe that we have the necessary processes in place to utilize the roles and deliver against the upcoming goals. 

Here, I want the team to reflect upon the strategy they’ve composed to deliver upon their desired outcomes. The team should feel that they have the right plan in place, using the resources available to them, to deliver what they are setting out to achieve.

How to solve issues around norms 

Problems stemming from discordant norms can often appear complex. It is, therefore, advised to try and bring the team back to basics and work iteratively on improvements. 

For example, in this day and age, everyone who joins a new company or delivery team has their own definition of what agile or scrum means to them. What’s more, often, people incorrectly assume their personalized definition is everyone else’s. This leads to them thinking that they don’t need to discuss the parameters of their understanding with others. To circumvent this problem, ensure the team’s processes are written down to develop a shared context that can act as the foundation for future improvements to certain processes.

The team may be aware that a problem exists without an idea of how to solve it, or perhaps being unable to come to a consensus on how to rectify it. Ways of working (WOW) workshops may be needed to understand the problem better and agree upon a way forward. Leaning into the team’s goals and roles, facilitate the session around the problem statement of, “How can we best utilize the roles in our team to achieve our overarching goals?”

Help the team implement a process improvement built upon a two-way door decision – one that can be easily reversed if negative effects are experienced as a result of implementing it. If you’re looking at improving a certain process, ideate on potential solutions with your team while coaching them on what the observables are that would indicate something is not working with the newly implemented process improvement. Paired with an agreed set of remediating actions to enact if the process improvement fails, the team should now have a psychologically safe approach to proceed.

Applying these three steps to build a roadmap to success 

Piecing these three elements together, the outcome of the research at the McNulty Leadership Program concluded that high-performing teams share an agreed set of norms that ensure every role is present and working effectively towards an overarching goal. These high-performing teams not only defined these three elements but also regularly reviewed them to ensure they were still fit for purpose.

As an engineering leader, you need to keep an eye on the longer-term, strategic view of the team. Applying the goals, roles, and norms lens at the correct level can give you insights into staffing issues, lack of exec-level direction, or the need for additional coaching. And in doing so, provides you with a road map on how to lead your team towards higher performance.