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Mental Models and The Elements of Effective Teamwork

leadership: developing others/building teams

The last few Using the Tools Beyond the First 100 Days emails/posts have been focused on my Building a High Performance Team roadmap, outlined again here:

  1. Start with the Blank Piece of Paper exercise to define your "Dream Team," one that if you had that exact number of people, skills, and structure you know you would crush your goals…don’t take your current team/structure as a given!!!
  2. Conduct the Famous “Silicon Valley” Thought Experiment with the people you do have…if they came in and told you they were leaving for their dream job, what would your gut reaction…relief…”one less problem and now I can go get a hitter," or abject terror…”I can’t win without her."..
  3. Evaluate each person along Key Sub Dimensions and Get Aligned with your Boss/HR on your Assessment, the Development Plan (including moving them to a new job or out of the org), and Timing for each person on the team
  4. Once the Evaluations have been communicated, apply my Five Levers to Help the People on Your Team Grow
  5. Build the group of people reporting to you into an effective working team

I have covered the first four in previous posts/emails, which means, merciful God, we have finally arrived at the fifth and final step on this topic: building your directs into an effective team.

Mental Models

First, as many of you know, I am a big believer in mental models.  If I ask you how to develop a person, or how to obtain product/market fit, or how to build a team, or what are the elements of effective executive leadership, do you just start blathering away and try to pull an answer out of your backside?  Or, do you have a model you regularly refer to that guides your actions in these areas?

Benefits of Mental Models

  • Having a model means you have a set of hypotheses to test.  If something doesn’t work you can get rid of it.  If something is missing you can add it.
  • Having a model means you have something you can teach to others around you.
  • And if you want to drive improvements beyond your team, having a model that is shared throughout the leadership levels in your organization ensures a more robust change process undergirded by a common language.

In the past several emails you have seen a couple models of mine:  1) five steps to building a high performing team (outlined above) and 2) five steps to developing the people on your team (outlined in the link).

In this email, I will share a third model:  The Elements of Effective Teamwork.

Groups vs Teams

A “group” operates independently and can get by with relatively little coordination and still produce the needed outcomes...think gymnastics, wrestling, and track & field athletes.

A team is not the same as a group because a team has to work closely together to accomplish tasks and achieve goals...think basketball and hockey athletes especially.

You frustrate a group by trying to over coordinate and over harmonize them.  They want to just get on with their jobs.  You frustrate a team by assuming if they are clear on their individual goals and just do their damn jobs, everything will be fine.  They are frustrated because they are expecting you to come up operating mechanisms that improve their coordination.

Most teams are, of course, hybrids…there are multiple areas where they have to work closely together to win and other areas where coordination is not needed as long as everyone pulls their weight and does their individual jobs.  

That mean you as the leader has to figure out where a united front is needed, where coordination is needed, where best practice sharing would be helpful and where to just "let the horses run." My recommendation is that you structure your meetings so the time is of maximum value for the attendees…not for you.

The Rocket Model of Effective Teams

There are several models on the market of the elements of effective teams.  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is one many have heard of, but that is not the one I prefer.  I like the Rocket Model, though I’m not wild about the name.

The Rocket Model was developed by a colleague of mine I went to graduate school with.  But that is not why I like it.  I like it because it includes what I consider to be critical elements of effective teamwork that no other models include.

The Rocket Model postulates 8 dimensions that effective teams have to nail down:

  • Context:  Are we aligned on our Stakeholders and the Influencers of our work?  Do we know their needs?  Are we aligned on their relative importance?
  • Mission:  Are we crystal clear on what we need to deliver?  Clear priorities?  Clear metrics?
  • Talent:  Do we have the right number of people?  The right skills?  The right structure to win?
  • Norms:  Do we have winning norms?  Does the team “police” them when they are violated?
  • Buy-in: Is the belief in the mission high?  Is the motivation high?  Is everyone a good team player?
  • Resources:  Do we have the budget?  Tools we Need? Political support to succeed?
  • Constructive Conflict:  Can people openly disagree?  Is there “psychological safety” to challenge behavior or choices?  Are issues addressed or do they fester?
  • Results:  Are we winning or losing?  Are we reviewing our misses?  Are we improving our Standard Operating Procedures so we can keep winning?


Many other team effectiveness models touch on Mission, Norms, Buy-in, Resources, and Constructive Conflict, of course, because they are important.  But few models talk about Context, Talent, and Results, and that is why I prefer to use this model in my work with teams.

Context:  Before a baseball or soccer game, the teams check the field…what are the elements we are going to try to execute our game plan in…rain, wind, field conditions…and how do we need to adjust?  Teams that are not clear on stakeholders and influencers and their needs and relative priority are destined for conflict and poor execution.

Talent:  If you ever played “pick-up” basketball or baseball or soccer or hockey, you know how important talent is.  I have played a ton of pick-up hockey and as soon as all the players had a light or dark jersey on, everyone knew who was going to win.  Was it because one team communicated better?  Had a clearer mission?  Had better norms?  Were more "psychologically safe?"  Nope.  The team that was going to win was flat out better.  Their guys and gals were better than our guys and gals and everyone knew it.  

Any model of effective team work that does not ask the team about Talent is a non-starter.  There is also no way you are going to build a high-performing team if you don’t have the right talent.  You might build a highly-harmonious team, but you won’t build a high-performing team without the talent.

Results: Who cares how well we all get along and how crystal clear we are on the mission if we are not getting the job done and winning?  Any model of teamwork that does not ask about results the team is achieving is just feel good BS.

If you want to improve the level of teamwork on your team, you have a couple options.  Use the template in your FHD materials, hand it out to your team and talk through each dimension.  People are either aligned or they are not and it shouldn't be too hard to get them aligned.

The second option is to have the team complete a +/-50 question Rocket Model survey.  This has a few advantages.  It allows people to respond anonymously and that probably yields more honest responses.  Second, it gives you benchmark data about your team vis a vis about 4000 other teams that have completed the survey so you know how your team stands.  Finally, it gives you something you can track over time to see how teamwork is improving as a result of your actions.

You now have three models you can leverage in your leadership:  1) how to build a High-Performing Team, 2) how to develop each and every person on your team, and 3) how to ensure your team is effective as it can be.  

Don’t like my models?  No problem…there is nothing sacred or magical about them.  Develop some yourself and own them.

But if you as a leader need to do any of these three things, you're going to be alone in a bad neighborhood without having frameworks.