The Ten Conversations of Effective Teams

Teamwork – teams sometimes work well together, and sometimes they don’t. Teams produce the results of any organization, so teams and teamwork are unavoidable central concerns in organizational life. Teamwork is based on people coordinating action, and the skills of coordination are fundamental for any group of people working together for a shared purpose. This includes businesses, organizations, and also communities, collaborations of all kinds, and even families.

A few managers seem to have a talent for teamwork, some fail at it, and we put up with the rest. We have a huge industry of books and team training, but most still find it a challenge to produce high team performance, even more rarely to produce high engagement and satisfaction of the team members. Teamwork is still essentially a mystery. How can we more reliably produce effective teams?

To answer “how” to produce effective teams we need to address “what” are we dealing with. Are we paying attention to the right things? Our work over the last four decades has shown that team performance and teamwork are shaped and carried out in particular conversations. We need to know the conversations that work and those that don’t. When I was first introduced to the unavoidable role of conversations in teamwork, it was a new place to look for me – no one told me “it’s the conversations, stupid!”

But it’s not just any conversation, its not just any chatter. The conversations that produce commitment, action, coordination, and results are a specific kind of conversation.  They are the conversations that are the basis for teamwork, management, leadership, and successful action in the world. They are the conversations that coordinate action and determine results. We call these conversations “generative.”

I’m going to share the ten generative categories of conversations that determine teamwork and its outcomes, but first we need to understand what a generative conversation is. The generative conversation to coordinate action is called the “conversation for action.” There has been some publishing about this conversation, and some people I meet say “I know the distinctions of the conversation for action.” But the conversation for action is not something to understand, it is a performance skill. It is not just words, it is a process of producing shared commitment by the participants. Commitment is not just what we say, but the full-body ownership of what we say.

We can see commitment in the posture of the body, hear it in the tone of the voice, and evaluate it in the coherence of language, body, and emotions. This is the art of commitment, the art of coordination, and the art of team action. I refer to this as the art of listening beyond the words, to listen to the commitment of a conversation. The commitment shows us the future that is coming.

For example, we can say “I will do this” and be totally flakey and uncommitted to the statement (I’m really busy, you know). Or we can hold this statement as something we really commit to and act to fulfill with full ownership. We can trust or not trust what is said, and it’s the commitment we trust, not the words. Commitment is expressed through the body language and emotional tone of a statement, not just the words. Where we are already successful in life, we already do this, and we need to bring this skill to the conversations of the team.

As team leaders and team members, we must make agreements that we are committed to (including “no, I won’t” as a commitment we can make). We must have the skill to make clear agreements and to hold each other accountable to them. Then we can coordinate our teamwork at a new level. We can act to fulfill our agreements, declaring breakdowns along the way, and make changes as we navigate through execution together.

Teams are constituted in the agreements that they make and how team members act to fulfill them. This determines the conversations that are needed for effective teamwork: agreements made with honest ownership and skills to coordinate their fulfillment. The power of this generative perspective is that we are working with distinctions that we can see, do, learn through practice, and that produce the desired outcome – teamwork.

Teamwork requires skills in conversations for action in addition to the functional skills of the team members. The job of a team leader is to make sure that the team is having the conversations that produce effective coordination, positive moods, and commitment to the promises of the team.

The ten conversations of effective teams are committed conversations of coordination of action. These ten categories of conversations produce ten agreements that have to be committed to, and produce the basis for coordination and standards for team participation. Effective teams coordinate around committed agreements for:

  1. A shared vision, mission, and values – each of these can be unpacked as conversations, but basically they are shared commitments for where we are going, what we care about, and what standards we use for our working together.
  2. Coordinating action to fulfill a shared promise, and to satisfy the customer for the promise – this is the essential day-to-day conversation of teamwork.
  3. Owning the shared team promise – this means that each team member acts as though the team’s promise is their own, making honest assessments, and declaring breakdowns to be addressed as needed.
  4. Fulfilling an agreed upon role in the team’s structure of promises – who promises what to whom in the team.
  5. Committing to the team’s structure of authority – who gets to have what conversation in the team in terms of making decisions, assessments, requests and promises.
  6. Developing and coordinating around Practices for Anticipation – including planning, learning, and innovation. What are our practices?
  7. Evoking and producing trust – we make trust a place the team pays attention and learns to produce, resolve, and recover.
  8. A Mood of success in fulfilling the team’s promise – we learn to recognize, manage, provoke, and intervene in moods. Moods are a predisposition to action, not just a private affair – a team in resignation cannot perform with excellence.
  9. The team’s standards of assessment – we need to develop shared standards, or we will have differing behavior, miscoordination, and unresolved disagreement.
  10. The future of the organization, the team, and the team members – we can’t forget that we are each living a life and walking a career path. Let’s have the conversations to take care of this.

This framework for teamwork has stood the test of time as being a generative foundation for producing effective teamwork, and elevating teamwork to new levels of excellence. It shows us the conversations to have, and conversations that are missing.

These conversations are the responsibility of all of a team’s members, but the role of the team leader is organized around making sure that these conversations happen, these agreements are made and used for coordination, and that the team members hold each other accountable.

These conversations are a place of practice, where we practice our leadership, our professionalism, and our skills in teamwork. We are never done with developing these skills, since we can always take our promises to a new level of excellence.

Contrary to many procedural and mechanistic guidelines for teamwork, these conversations take us to the core of our humanity, our commitment and care, and how we connect and share them with others. Our excellence in our teamwork, professionalism, and leadership is rooted in our ability to create shared futures that we care about and coordinate committed action to realize those futures with others.

Interested to see how your leadership is shaping the effectiveness of your teams and the future of our organization.

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To learn more about the ten team conversations go to www.generateteams.com, a site developed by Ashley Guberman and Newell Eaton based on this framework from the Institute for Generative Leadership.

6 Responses to The Ten Conversations of Effective Teams

  1. google adwords keywords 2014-03-24 at 6:37 am #

    Hi! I’ve been following your website for a long time now and finally got the courage to go
    ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the excellent job!

  2. Juan Manuel Nino 2014-02-12 at 3:30 pm #

    Thanks for bringing it. I was needing it. How can make it happen? Deep in our hearts we know it, however most teams do not want to spend the time. It seems easy but it seems easier to put it in the back burner, hope for the best and fight the battles as they come. How to overcome that tendency?

    • Bob Dunham 2014-02-12 at 4:00 pm #

      Thanks, Juan. Our tendency to avoid arises from fear, fear at the “edge” of our confidence, of our knowing, of our competence, of our comfort zone, and of our courage. Leadership, teamwork, and human interaction takes courage, the courage to go beyond our edge, to face uncertainty and to face others. It is here that we learn to make new safety, new conversations, and new “we” space. Entering the unknown, and the known that we hold as a threat or with resignation, takes practice. The practice to face and enter, to turn toward and rest into, to let the body learn where we are not in control. There we learn to keep our center, to hold a place of invitation to others, to accept the declines and resistance that may come, and to ground ourselves in our care, commitment, and possibility for the future. Overcoming the tendency to avoid is a fundamental leadership skill, practice, and challenge.

  3. Ignacio Ortega-Alvarez 2014-02-02 at 11:34 pm #

    Bob,
    This article is excellent and very helpful for me in this particular moment. It helps me focus on the conversations I am missing.
    THANK YOU!!!

  4. David kamnitzer 2014-01-31 at 9:22 pm #

    thank you so much. I am very interested in learning more about how to intervene in the area of moods, especially the mood of resignation. The only approach I currently know how to use is to identify it and see it for what it is and encourage people to recommit to possibility. I know this is difficult for many people to embody.

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