How to be S.M.A.R.T. and Lead Your Team

I wrote a letter once to a personal hero of mine named Homer Hickam. He went from a financially challenged coal mining town in West Virginia to be one of the foremost NASA rocket engineers of his time. If you’ve seen the movie October Sky or read his book Rocket Boys, you know his story and you know what he had to do to get where he wanted to go. In the letter he wrote back to me, he had this to say about pushing yourself to succeed:

“The Rocket Boys succeeded with their rockets and with their lives because the followed what I call the three P’s for a happy and successful life: Passion, Planning, and Perseverance.”

-Homer Hickam

The tenets I will explain here are tried, tested, and true methods for achieving the three P’s you may be after in your life, and it all starts with setting objectives that lead you to your goals. Think for a moment about something you have always wanted to do. That item you just thought of is your goal. Goals describe the purpose or result toward which some effort is directed. Goals usually do a good job of describing the desired results but provide few specific tactics.

Now think about what you must do to get there. Some goals are easy, low-hanging fruit that can be obtained instantly or over a short term. Others will take years of preparation and planning to realize and are reached through specific steps. These specific steps are your objectives. Objectives are often more detailed and easier to measure than goals. Objectives are the basic tools that underlie all the planning and strategic activities you have to undertake. They define tactics and action plans that get you to your goals.

Be S.M.A.R.T. About It

All that sounds much more complicated than it really is, especially if you know how to map those objectives. If you don’t map a map, that’s what will make all your goals hard to reach. Many know where they want to be at the end, but few can plot the course to get there. To be sure that your goals and objectives are clear, try putting them up against the S.M.A.R.T. test:

S—Specific: What are you trying to accomplish, and is your objective precise in targeting your goal?

M—Measurable: What metric will you use to measure your progress or success?

A—Attainable: Is this goal something you can actually do, or is it an unachievable carrot on a stick?

R— Relevant: What is this goal or objective mean to you? What is it going to do for your success in your bigger picture?

T—Timely: Can it be achieved within your resources and within the time you’ve allowed yourself to reach this goal?

The S.M.A.R.T. test was developed by George Doran, Arthur Miller and James Cunningham in their 1981 article “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management goals and objectives”, and while trying to fit a goal to every letter of the acronym, the authors left you some wiggle room in their formula. When applying this method, remember that not every goal worth achieving is measurable, and each objective does not require the agreement of others. However, sticking close to this method will increase your chances of success in reaching your goals, or perhaps expose the reasons why you should alter a goal that could be unmeasurable or unattainable. In a team setting, this method is powerful and can save your department valuable time and money.

Stages of Team Development

Let’s apply the above method to a workplace team setting. You have now set objectives and goals for your team using the S.M.A.R.T. method. What happens next? Another tenet Mr. Hickam touched on in his letter to me is the teamwork, and sometimes the lack thereof, among The Rocket Boys while trying to build and launch their test rockets. In October Sky, they go through different phases of team cohesiveness much like a group of co-workers can find themselves in when things aren’t going well, or when the team is firing on all cylinders.

Educational psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman suggested that all teams go through four distinctive stages in their development. They were originally referred to as Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing, and this simple model has been in use since he unveiled it in 1965. The model offers important insight for organizing, building, and leading a team that can help you recognize which phase your team is in and ways to move forward. Let’s take a look at each phase and see if you can spot where your team is in right now.

Forming (High Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

When in the Forming stage, team members exhibit high enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new, though their skills and productivity concerning this new activity are low. Team members will come with high, unrealistic expectations accompanied by some anxiety about what their new role is, how much they can trust others on the team, and what demands will be placed on them. Team members are also unclear about norms, roles, goals, or timelines of others while everyone finds their place. Behavior is usually tentative and polite, with many not wanting to step on toes just yet. In this stage, there is high dependence on the leadership figure for purpose and direction. If the leader neglects their duty to the team, secondary leaders will assume the reins and confusion quickly follows concerning who is in charge. An effective leader of a team that is forming will do lots of careful explaining to help the team understand exactly what the leader expects them to do.

Storming (Low Enthusiasm, Low Skills)

As the team gets some experience under its belt, there is a decline in morale as team members experience a rude awakening between their initial Forming-Stage expectations and reality. The difficulties in working together to accomplish objectives can lead to confusion and frustration. In some cases, there can also be a growing dissatisfaction with dependence upon the leadership figure. Negative reactions to each other develop, and subgroups can form which polarize the team. Even the leader can fall victim to this bump in the road. The breakdown of communication and the inability to problem-solve result in overall lowered trust. At times, the frustration builds to where team members might choose to leave rather than commit to resolving the conflict, adding more stress to an already overtaxed team.

A team that is in the Storming stage will have less enthusiasm and motivation for doing something new or working together. Conflict in the phase can be rampant while skills and productivity are still low. Leaders in the Storming stage can weather the storm by continuing to make objectives and expectations clear by demonstrating to the team how they can succeed and know when and when not to get involved. A key to managing this phase is remembering to publicly recognize your successes. The world is full of insecure people who have been told their whole lives they were never good enough, and I’m willing to bet you have more than one of them on your team right now. This is your chance to start them on a new path toward self-confidence and the willingness to grow by taking a chance and buying in to your system of leadership. Improvement is always necessary, but if you act as if you think their efforts are half empty, that’s how they’ll feel and that’s how they’ll perform. Focus on what’s right versus what you perceive to be wrong.

Norming (Rising Enthusiasm, Growing Skills)

Teams in this stage will likely exhibit higher enthusiasm and motivation to achieve their goals. As the issues encountered in the Storming Phase are addressed and resolved, there is a noticeable uptick in morale and task accomplishment. The team starts thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and mountains become mole hills. Team members are more positive toward each other and the goal. Trust and cohesion grow as communication becomes more open and task oriented. To-do checklists grow smaller. There is a willingness to share responsibility and control. This phase can be the most rewarding for leaders and teams due to increased commitment to purpose, roles, and goals. However, beware the pitfalls.

Even the best of teams can find themselves in trouble during this phase because the euphoric feelings of trust and cohesion are still fragile. Team members sometimes avoid conflict for fear of upsetting the positive atmosphere, and that reluctance deal with conflict can bog down progress and cause fewer effective decisions. Leaders of teams in the Norming stage can gain success by offering team members copious amounts of freedom to act on their own but standing ready with guidance and coaching when the team needs it.

Performing (High Enthusiasm, High Skills)

This is the phase all teams strive for. In the Performing stage, teams have higher enthusiasm and motivation to reach their goals, and their skills are up to the task. All cylinders are firing, and life is good!

At this stage there is a sense of pride and excitement in being part of a high-functioning team. All members focus on performance and readily assist others. Purpose, roles, and goals are clear. Standards are high, and there is a commitment to not only meeting those standards, but to exceeding them. Team members are confident in their ability to perform and overcome obstacles. They are proud of their work and enjoy working together. Communication is open and leadership is shared among the team. Mutual respect and trust are not the exception, they are the rule.

The pitfall of a high performing team is complacency. A Performing stage leader continues to enable team members to take ownership and to keep moving toward their goals, both for the team and for them personally. Leaders in this stage also must be mindful to identify and develop new leadership potential. Every leader should be looking to train their replacement, and high performing teams is where you will find them. I’ll say it louder for the people in the back: EVERY LEADER SHOULD BE LOOKING TO TRAIN THEIR REPLACEMENT!

Good leaders can anticipate what a team is likely to go through and navigate their team to a better position to reach the goal on their own. Recognition of the stage your team is in is a critical skill. Once you learn to identify the signs, you can draw your map to move to your next objective and migrate toward the ultimate Performing stage. Spotting the signs can prevent team members from being staggered or depressed by the negative elements during the Storming stage. Strategies can be developed to smooth the progress of an evolving team by establishing ground rules for the Norming stage. Leaders of Performing teams can positively influence others by example and sharing their methods for success.

An interesting aspect of this concept is that teams may progress through different stages at different speeds and can find themselves in more than one stage at a time. Be careful not to set time limits for your team to break through a stage. Teams should avoid making self-fulfilling prophecies about how long each stage will last, because they will almost always be wrong.

It is also possible to regress to an earlier stage as changes within the team occur, a process that can be affected by the individuality of team members and their personal progress. Not everyone on the team will always be on the same page. One of the biggest reasons for regression is a change in mission or leadership vision. When that occurs, the usual fallback is the Forming stage, as the anxiety of learning and meeting expectations starts over again until everyone learns their role.

A team responds best to leadership tailored to the stage the team is experiencing now, and good leaders should develop more than one leadership style to navigate it. When unveiling a new set of objectives or taking on a new team, the leader must assess the level of enthusiasm and skill exhibited with respect to the set goals, then match their style of leadership to the people and the situation.

There are two final items Mr. Hickam shared with me in his letter that I would like to share with you, and these can apply to any professional or personal situation in your life. For the first one, he said, “Nothing will happen if no one takes the initiative to make it so. To be passive and wait for something good to happen in your life is probably to experience vast disappointment.” Take a look at your list of goals. Are you actively pursuing them or are you waiting for them to happen to you? The second thing he said was, “It is my belief that there are no boundaries to excellence and success except for those we place on ourselves.” Take a look at your list of goals again. Read them out loud and ask yourself what is holding you back from checking each of them off? Now apply those same quotes and questions to your team. What is holding your team back from accomplishing their objectives and reaching their goals? You’ll likely find the only thing holding you back both personally and professionally is the boundaries you’ve placed on yourself.

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