Important Steps when Building a new Team

This article outlines essential steps in forming a new team. These steps are also useful for existing teams that are interested in assessing their format and effectiveness.

First, the work of the team needs to be clearly defined and matched to some real needs of the department, lab or center or of the Institute as a whole. If the team doesn't get a clear mission or scope statement from the team sponsor, creating these should be part of the team's kick-off process. (See our Checklist for Team Start-up Microsoft Word tool.)

In the early stages it is important to talk to the team's sponsor about their role and how they will support the team's work. What will the sponsor do for the team? What does the sponsor expect from the team? Teams need the clear support of the organization's leadership, including concrete support such as release time, funding and resources.

Selecting the right team members is critical. Ideally, teams should be small (not more than ten people) so that members can develop a high-level of connection and interdependence. Members need both technical expertise (including writing and presentation skills) and good interpersonal skills for working in small groups. For teams working on Institute-wide projects, diverse membership (across MIT's units, across payroll/employee classifications and across gender/race categories) can lead to a richer team with better results. Content experts, process experts and end users can all play key roles.

Team kick-off events are an important part of the start-up process. Kick-off events enable the team to articulate and understand the goals, mission and structure. A well-planned kick-off can increase team productivity and build team momentum. A formalized start-up activity will help the team define its mission, deliverables, roles & responsibilities, and success factors.

How can I build a successful team?

Six items are crucial to help teams function effectively.

1. Mission

It is the shared commitment to a specific mission that helps define a team. A mission statement can provide powerful documentation about the team's purpose. Creating a mission statement requires team members to think about, discuss and come to agreement on the following questions:

  • What is the work we were brought together to do?
  • Why can this work best be done as a team?
  • What will be different as a result of our working together?
  • What will our work create for our organization, our team and ourselves?
  • For project teams: What will a successful outcome look like for our team? How will we know we've completed our task?
  • For standing teams: How will we measure our success in an on-going way?

A team's mission may be based on a directive from management or others outside the team. But good team discussion about how each member -- and the group collectively -- understands that mission will make the mission statement meaningful and useful to the team. Mission statements may be short; they should be written in everyday language that each team member understands and supports.

2. Goals

Mission statements give a team guiding principles, but goals give the team a real target for their activity. Goals should be something worth striving for -- important results that the team can provide for the organization.

The best goals are S-M-A-R-T goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. "Improving customer service" may sound like a good goal for a team, but it doesn't really meet the S-M-A-R-T criteria. A more effective goal would be "Reduce call-back time to customers to two hours or less within six months." The revised goal is:

  • Specific (reduce call-back time to customers)
  • Measurable (to two hours or less)
  • Achievable (The team would need to decide this. Maybe call-backs need four hours, or maybe the time can be reduced to 30 minutes.)
  • Relevant (Again, the team will know - is slow call-back time an issue for the customers? For the team's manager? Is reducing call-back time important enough to merit team effort?)
  • Time bound (within six months)

3. Roles and responsibilities

It's particularly important in a team environment that team members know what is expected of each of them. Without these expectations, members can't develop mutual accountability or trust in the team. When a team's expectations are clear and members meet (or exceed) expectations, trust and an increased sense of "teamness" are natural by-products.

Almost all teams at MIT have designated team leaders. Team leaders are the individuals who are held accountable for the team's results by the team's sponsor. The Team leader often serves as a spokesperson for the team and may also be responsible for coordinating the team's work. Facilitators may be a member of the team or a resource person for the team. The facilitator is responsible for guiding the team's process. This might include helping to set agendas for team meetings and running the meetings. Sometimes these two roles are played by one person. (Learn more about facilitators in the Meeting Design and Facilitation Learning Topic.)

4. Groundrules

To be effective, teams need to be explicit about the ways they will work together. Groundrules are guidelines for specific behaviors. Teams don't need a lot of groundrules to work together well, but everyone on the team should agree to the groundrules and share responsibility for ensuring that they are followed.

Possible areas for groundrules include:

  • How you communicate DURING team meetings (Are interruptions OK? Should the Facilitator call on you before you speak? What about side conversations?)
  • How you communicate BETWEEN team meetings (How quickly should you respond to emails? Are there suggested length limits on emails or memos? How do you keep everyone on the team informed of your progress?)
  • What constitutes respectful behavior towards other team members?

Some sample ground rules include:

  1. Be respectful of others -- don't bad-mouth team members within the team or outside the team
  2. Share your own experiences and opinions; avoid "they say" statements
  3. One speaker at a time
  4. Keep discussions focused on topic at hand
  5. Honor time limits - start and end on time

5. Decision-making

Teams may choose different models for making decisions; the most important factor is that the decision-making model be explicit and understood by all team members. A clear decision making model describes who makes the decision and how others will be involved. (Will decisions be made by consensus where everyone can agree to support the final decision? Will the team leader get input but make the final decision? Will the team vote?) Knowing what decision-making model will be used lets team members know what to expect and what is expected; this can help build support for the final decision.

Good decisions have two characteristics: quality and commitment. Quality decisions are logical, supported by sound reasoning and good information. Steps towards making quality decisions include checking to see if all available information has been gathered and shared, that all team members have been consulted, and that critical input from stakeholders (individuals or groups affected by the decision) outside the team has been considered as appropriate.

Commitment is demonstrated by the active backing for the decision by every team member. Each team member agress with the decision, is committed to carrying out the decision, and understands their individual role in doing so.

Learn more about consensus decision-making in our "Decision-making Models" article.

6. Effective Group Process

Using groundrules as a starting point, teams need to develop practices for open communication. Examples include:

  1. Listen respectfully and respond with positive interest to ideas from team members.
    If an idea is confusing or seems unconventional or odd to you, ask for more information to understand the idea better. (Saying, "Can you tell me more?" is a great way to continue a conversation.)
  2. Help create an environment that encourages team members to share all ideas - even the "half-baked" ones.
    Most great ideas are built by teams building on an initial thought. Sometimes it's the "crazy" ideas that really spark the team's creativity. Treating every idea as important keeps team members from holding back some "half-baked" thought that could be just what the team needed.
  3. Don't hide conflicts; try to surface differences and use them to create better results that all team members can support.

Learn more about effective communication in our Communicating with Others learning topic.

Mutual Accountability:
Each member of a team is responsible for the success of the team as a whole. This is the interdependence that makes teams stronger than the sum of their parts. Working together towards specific tangible results is the best way to start creating mutual accountability. Recognize and celebrate small accomplishments and successes of individuals and milestones (large and small) for the team as a whole. By acknowledging successes, team members can develop an increasing trust in their teammates and the team as a whole.

Appropriate self-evaluation:
It is be helpful for team members to "stop action" at regular intervals and check out how the team is working. These self-evaluations can be as simple as a team discussion: "Looking at X, what things worked well and what would we like to improve next time?" or they can be deep and reflective (e.g., "How can we deal with conflict more effectively?"). Regardless of the method or tool used, the real benefit of self-evaluation comes from the team discussion about their assessments of the team.

See Articles and Tools for survey examples.

Stages of team development

Just like individuals, teams go through stages of development. Although there are a number of descriptions of the stages of team development, the most commonly used terms are forming, storming, norming and performing. (Bruce Tuckman, "Developmental Sequence in Small Groups," 1965 Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-99)

As in human development, team development is not a linear process -- the introduction of new members, a change in the organization's climate, or the successful completion of a particular milestone can cause a team to loop back to an earlier stage of team development.

Recognizing the team's development stage can be really helpful as you work to improve your team's effectiveness and meet your goals. Each stage has recognizable feelings and behaviors. For more information, see our "Using the Stages of Team Development" article and the "What Stage is Our Team In?" tool (Microsoft Word).


Content experts: People who know the team's subject well
End users: People who will use the products produced by the team
Mission: The purpose of the team
Process experts: People who are experienced at helping groups be successful
Scope statement:The work that the team should accomplish
Sponsor: The person who set up the team or who receives the team's products