Motivating Teams with Focus

26 Sep

Below is an article published by the company In The Moment (link to their website). In The Moment specialize in coaching, team dynamics and organizational behaviour, and in the excellent article below discuss how project focus plays such a positive influence on performance. This might seem obvious, but it is certainly taken for granted in organisations. We have seen in our research that clearly communicated, and understood, objectives are too often assumed. The article drew me to make comparisons between two areas of communication we have researched- 1) sharing objectives and focus, and 2) the cost of not having clear objectives and focus.

Agreeing objectives and the direction of a project or task involves sharing reasoning between a team; taking the contents of someone’s mind and transferring it clearly to the mind of someone else. This is essential as once everyone moves on to complete individual tasks, their decision making will be guided by their sense of focus.

If the above is not done effectively, a patient hand over in a hospital for example, then the result can leave a team thinking about a member’s decision “why did they do that? It’s not what we agreed”. The result leaves a team wondering what went wrong, when in fact, an investigation of the reasoning behind a decision reveals the team member took a reasonable course of action based on their own understanding.

To calibrate thinking, and share focus effectively, the script provided by Weick (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007 for examples) is an excellent choice. Below is a version we have used in our research.

This what I think we face

This is what I think we should do

These are the reasons why

This is what we need to look out for

Now talk to me

The second point is the cost of not having clear objectives and focus. This second point is related to the first, as both have a detrimental effect on decision making. Clear objectives and focus provide team members with a mechanism for making sense of situations, deciding what to prioritise and ignore, and linking their actions to outcomes.

Without a focus, team members lack a mechanism for making sense of situations, and decision making becomes anxious and uncommitted. This leads to defensive decision making (see Gigerenzer, 2014). Without a clear sense of what is the right and wrong thing to do for a project’s success, team members can make decisions based on avoiding blame instead.

The In The Moment article raises another point, and discusses how unclear focus and objectives increase the distance between teams and the leaders they report to on performance. A method described of shortening this distance is making the team part of the objective setting process, so they have a stake in the outcome, and a chance to share reasoning. The article also raises a crucial point about the balance of relationship between teams and leaders, quoted below

“Too much distance between the leader and the team can lead to stigma and negative perception of the leader. Too close and all the positive reinforcement leads to an overly dependent team and an over stressed leader”

In our research we have noticed that the confidence to make independent decisions, set against clear focus, leads to individual initiative. This reduces the time spent by leaders responding to “what should we do next?” questions. Feedback loops are a key factor in project success, but they should focus on reporting adaptions to plans, as opposed to bottle necking work flows and overloading leaders with questions (see Rankin et al, 2014, for an excellent example).

The full article from In The Moment can be found below after the reading list


Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Gigerenzer, G. (2014) Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions. Allen Lane

Rankin, A. Woltjer, R. Rollemhagen, C. Hollnagel, E. (2014) Resilience in Everyday Operations: A Framework for Analyzing Adaptations in High-Risk Work. Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making March 2014 vol. 8 no. 1 78-97

More motivated teams come from baby steps and not giant leaps

The traditional approach to motivating teams centres on, incentives, bonuses and positive feedback. These are mostly geared to results. Research by Professor Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer (The Progress Principle, 2011) shows recognition of continuing ‘small wins’ increases team motivation and team performance. The emphasis is on key milestones rather than the eventual outcome.

Even small steps forward on meaningful projects meant teams were more creative, productive and engaged with better relationships leading to improved task performance.

The key is to make the project more meaningful to the team in the first place. In other words focusing on the ‘why’ rather than ‘how’ they are going to do it. Involving the team in setting clear goals and objectives increases their sense of autonomy in the decision making process. This is about allowing the team a voice at the start of the process.

Is your team on autopilot, an expedition or a mission?

If the team has no clear purpose it can mindlessly or even dogmatically cling to a route even when there is clear evidence that they will not achieve the desired outcome. That’s when they are on autopilot. Sometimes projects can take longer to find their purpose and focus. In these cases the team need to set off on an expedition and later shift to a focused project mission to work at their best. This is how Amabile summed up the markers of team dysfunction;

1)      If the team is under low time pressure with little encouragement and purpose there will be little or no collaboration in teams. The team are on autopilot. 

2)      If the team is under low time pressure and there is an explanation of the project needs– The team sets off on an expedition and is this associated with high creativity.

3)      If the team is under high time pressure with no focus-This is associated with low creativity and burn out.

4)      If the team is under a high time pressure and focus– This is associated with meaningful urgency and high creativityThe team is on a mission.

The research is saying what we tell our clients about strategy. You must have a clear objective and an achievable deadline. Too much distance between the leader and the team can lead to stigma and negative perception of the leader. Too close and all the positive reinforcement leads to an overly dependent team and an over stressed leader.



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