The six key elements of successful ‘Big’ teams




Dec 1, 2023

 In a fast changing world, large organisations are increasingly engaged in projects and initiatives that are strategically critical. Such projects are likely to involve hundreds of people from different parts of the organisation working as cross-functional groups. The success or failure of such important initiatives is likely to be heavily influenced by the extent to which leaders and managers can motivated and organise these numerous groups to come together work as a single effective ‘Big team’.


A team of teams

There is an important distinction to be made between ‘big’ and ‘small’ teams. These simple words explain a much deeper concept. Terms like small and big are part of our basic language. They can therefore be seen to be generic, having a wide range of applications. In the context of teams, however, these two words have a precise technical role which helps establish some key differences.

The small team is the unit of production within any large enterprise. Emperors and generals have historically organised their armies and administrators into manageable groups. This is not however a top-down management strategy to create neatly arranged grouping on an ‘org chart’. It is actually a reflection of how humans prefer to work with each other. Groups of people naturally fall into sub-groups as the numbers involved start to increase. This is partly because we can typically maintain close engagement on a regular basis with up to ten people, but beyond that number, communication starts to become more sporadic and building close working relationships is more difficult. The point is that large teams do not exist as a single homogenous whole, shaped by a unitary corporate culture. Instead, a ‘Big Team’ is an organic collection of small groups whose roles and activities shift and change as the project they are engaged on progresses. Organisational success therefore depends upon the extent to which the leadership can enable this assembly of small teams to work effectively together as sub units which make up a single Big Team.

When working with leaders, we frequently hear the desire to create a high-performing team, but without having a clear idea as to what high performance actually entails. What constitutes performance is often subjective, depending upon the expectations of a particular team. When working with a collection of teams that make up a ‘Big’ team, however, performance must be articulated much more clearly so that there is a common understanding by everyone involved as to what is expected.

It is possible to map out a progression of activities that will enable the development of a high-performance environment which has the following features:

  • Clear objectives fixed around sponsor and customer needs, giving the team a firm understanding of the desired outcome.
  • Low hierarchy allowing direct connections between leadership and other specialist teams.
  • Confidence in a low blame culture balanced with an expectation of high accountability.
  • Fluid peer-to-peer networks where teams are encouraged to engage directly with one another to explore solutions.
  • Strong behavioural norms which support a collaborative culture

Given the right environment, we have identified six primary elements that numerous practitioners have found to have a significant impact on the success or failure of a team engaged on a major project. They work in the following progression:

1. Shared Leadership
Big teams don’t necessarily need big leaders. All teams need some form of leadership but in Big teams, the ability of a number of individuals to take on the various aspects of leadership at various stages is critical to success.

 2. Establishing the right project culture
One of the critical elements of success is to build a culture of alignment, but this cannot be mandated. Instead, the leadership team must create the right conditions to allow the desired project culture to emerge and mature.

3. Build alignment
Big teams must be able to focus on the right direction of travel even if they are not yet clear on the exact route. There are a series of practical activities that should be mandated as part of the set-up phase for each team and sub-team the is to be part of a major project. These include setting a clear vision, articulating core values, building interpersonal relationships with other teams, and agreeing a set of common rules for communication

4. Accelerated learning
Fast learning habits allow the teams to explore and experiment moving forward in short bursts of activity and adjusting plans as they go.  The team is, in effect, learning how to learn. In a fast-changing environment, however, they may not adjust quickly enough to the new conditions and performance or output is likely to decline.

5. Maintain engagement
Leaders cannot force their followers to be engaged. All they can do is to create the right environment and anticipate the team will find their own drive and motivation. The core engagement activity is around communication and the use of an aligning narrative that informs and influences the messages and stories the teams use to understand what is happening in the wider organisation.

6. Build team resilience
In any complex and volatile environment, individuals and teams will find themselves in prolonged periods of pressure and stress. Team resilience differs from individual resilience in that given the right preparation, team members can learn to support each other so that they work together through periods of difficulty.

Teamwork is a fascinating and multifaceted subject. The contents of this article have hopefully given you a glimpse of the concepts, processes and structures for setting up a Big Team to give it the best opportunity to succeed. The component parts of leadership, culture, team set-up and team engagement are familiar to anyone who has frequent involvement in major projects. The framework is nevertheless novel in so far as it places the human components at the centre of business planning where as common management practice allows them to drift to the periphery.

There are, however, few shortcuts in the process. Building an effective team requires an investment in time and energy, both in the planning and implementation. The reward for this investment can be significant, improving the chances of bringing the project to a successful conclusion, on time and on budget. We would encourage any leader likely to have an involvement in a complex project to make the effort to move beyond standard practice and take the necessary steps required to build an effective Big Team.