Productive Teams Know What Good Looks Like

Companies have a renewed focus on productivity right now, and, at the same time, so much about how we work, where we work, and our relationship with work has changed over the past few years. We noticed leaders and managers were struggling to articulate what productive looks like for their teams, which led us to believe that we need a new definition and description of productivity for our workplaces today.

We embarked on a study about defining, describing, and measuring productivity in our workplaces today, and we’ll be releasing the full study results soon. In the meantime, here is just one of the insights gathered from our research that can help us all build more productive teams:

Productive teams know what good looks like.

In our study, we asked leaders and directors to describe the most productive team they’ve experienced or observed over the course of their careers. Over and over again, when people described a highly productive team, they would say words like,

“They just knew what good looked like,”

“We all shared high expectations for the work,” or

“The organization trusted us because we were all highly experienced and knew what good looked like.”

When people described “good,” it could mean many things. It could mean seamless event planning that kept everyone informed and on schedule to the very last detail. Or it could mean delivery of clear recommendations to an executive team that provided just the right amount of detail and information to guide their decision-making. Or it could mean a training that was well planned, well designed, and well executed.

Regardless of whether it was a process, a deliverable, or a way of interacting, team members on highly productive teams shared a similar definition of good work that was built up over time by observing and experiencing the work of others.

I’ve experienced this in my own career. At my first full time job out of college, I worked at a nonprofit with a leader and team that demonstrated care and respect for others at such a high level that it will always be my bar for the way people should interact with each other. The way the team respected and cared for each other was “what good looked like.” The team was highly productive in this service environment because there was a clear standard – set and learned by example – for interacting with customers and with each other.

Then, in my first full-time consulting job out of business school, I learned to deliver quality work including multiple levels of quality review and careful project planning by observing more experienced consultants, and this will always be my bar for flawless client delivery. I’ve even partnered with consultants from this same firm since – even if we never worked together in the past – because we both knew we would share similar expectations for good work and be able to work both efficiently and effectively together.

I find this characteristic of productive teams interesting because I know people aren’t born knowing what good looks like, and they often don’t enter the workforce knowing what good looks like either. At that consulting company I described above, I laugh (cringe?) thinking about some of the initial deliverables I created. I was fresh out of business school and thought I knew everything, and those first deliverables I created were so far off the mark simply because I didn’t yet know what good looked like.

We don’t want everyone to create cookie cutter deliverables, and we certainly need to encourage innovation and opportunities to improve upon, “what good looks like.” However, we found in our study that there is often a foundational level of quality that people on productive teams have observed, experienced, and learned from others so that they have a shared understanding of good work and then can make it even better.

So, why does this matter and why is it relevant for us today?

Companies and organizations are laser focused on trying to raise productivity levels right now, and there are only so many levers we can pull – especially without burning people out. Getting better and faster at helping people see and understand what good looks like – including the process to get there – is one of those levers.

While I believe people can continue to be productive in remote and hybrid environments (another blog post on that soon!), it can add a layer of complexity for observing “what good looks like” from other team members.

The more we intentionally build shared experiences for employees to observe good work – both in remote and in office environments – the faster we can build the productivity levels of our teams.

Here are some ideas to help people experience and learn what good looks like:

  • Ask experienced team members to present their process for developing a quality deliverable to other team members (formal or informal presentation)
  • Establish an internal mentorship program that specifically incorporates transferring “best practice” tips and opportunities to see good work in practice; give the mentee opportunities to improve upon it!
  • Establish an experiential learning program that includes observation and learning from others’ process and work
  • If someone isn’t performing to the level you need, first ask yourself, “Do they know what good looks like? Have I taken the time to show both examples of good work and the process/steps to get there?”
  • Be thoughtful about building teams that include both experienced team members that can share best practices and newer team members who are learning
  • Ask your star performer(s) to document “what good looks like” for their type of work and present it to the team
  • Model an environment where learning and teaching by example is encouraged

When we’re focused on productivity, it can be tough to slow down, articulate, share, and teach “what good looks like,” but our research suggests this is exactly what we need to do.

This is just a small peak into the full insights from our study on defining, describing, and measuring productivity in the workplace today. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss the release of the full study: Sign up for the Paradox newsletter.

Emma J. Browning is the Founder & Managing Director at Paradox Consulting Partners, a management consulting company and Certified B Corporation that aligns talent strategy with business strategy to create high-performing, great places for all to work. She’s consulted to hundreds of organizations including Fortune 100 and 500 companies. She has her BA from Wake Forest University and MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Follow her at