Purpose, Process, and People: How The Three Ps Can Support Team Collaboration
It’s been said that the acronym of “team” is “together, we go far”—and there’s certainly truth to that. And when teachers, school staff members, parents, and community members are called to be a part of a collective school-wide effort, it’s for an especially compelling reason: to improve the school’s capacity to help students learn at exceedingly high levels.
However, it takes more than a group of high-performing people around the table to have an equally high-performing team. Communication, decision-making, and personality conflicts can often be stumbling blocks for teams. When these elements aren’t planned or solved for at the outset, it can quickly derail the progress toward a common goal—or it can stop a team before it has the chance to accomplish something great. Teamwork and collaboration don’t happen automatically. They happen by design.
Teamwork and collaboration don't happen automatically. They happen by design.
As a school leader who often brings teams together to solve a challenge, advance instructional best practices, or bring an initiative to life, it might help to consider successful team collaboration through what we at New Leaders call the “three Ps”: purpose, process, and people. For collaborative work to be successful, each team member needs to know why they are gathered together, the type of work they’ll engage in as part of the team, and their shared goal. They’ll also need the most critical ingredient—trusting relationships so they can work together to achieve those goals, no matter what their differences might be.
Below, we walk through the 3Ps in detail and offer tips and suggestions for how school leaders can strengthen team collaboration, whether you’re looking to make adjustments within a current team, or streamline your efforts for future team collaborations.
Purpose: Setting a vision and goal for the work ahead
We’ve talked previously about the importance of having a shared vision: a principle or set of principles that guide your school’s values, what does student success look like in your school, and the steps your school community will take together to ensure that success. Think of any team within your school as an extension of that vision or purpose, albeit on a smaller scale. One of the ways to make sure a team’s vision stays at the forefront might be to create a team charter.
The charter can be a simple document that begins with the vision and mission of the team, and the goal for what the team hopes to achieve in their work together. Here are a few questions your teams may want to ask themselves:
- Why does our team exist, and what are we responsible for accomplishing? Be careful not to make the assumption that everyone understands why they’re part of the team. Be clear with the goals and outcomes.
- What work does our team do? It can be easy for groups to take on work that extends outside of the team’s responsibilities and goals. Being specific about the type of work the team does—and doesn’t do—will keep the team moving forward.
- What topics should be discussed in this group, and what isn’t under our purview? Similar to the question above, discussed topics can easily turn into work or taking something on that doesn’t roll up to a larger goal. Have your teams explicitly call out discussion topics.
- What are our shared values? Having your collaborative teams identify their core values may seem a bit overwrought, but it’s the key to team members being more engaged and feeling a higher degree of trust in their teammates—and in the work being done.
It can be easy for groups to take on work that extends outside of the team’s responsibilities and goals. Being specific about the type of work the team does—and doesn’t do—will keep the team moving forward.
As your teams are creating their charter, it’s also important to keep equity and representation at the forefront. For instance, a team might make it a part of their shared values that they focus on everyone’s voices being heard when it comes to asking for feedback during meetings—not just the voices that are the loudest.
After you’ve determined your team’s purpose, it will be much easier for your team’s individual members to align their roles and expertise to the team’s overall objective. They’ll be able to better discern what part they play—and collaboration will be that much more seamless.
Process: Establishing clear communication and removing barriers to success
If lack of clear communication and misunderstanding around decision-making are two of the largest impediments to high-performing teams, having clear processes can mitigate many of these hurdles at the outset.
In addition to setting a proposed calendar for meeting dates, times, and locations, here are a few processes that can help the team develop a rhythm:
- How are meeting agendas planned and sent out to team members? Are team members able to make suggestions for agenda items, and if so, who do they contact to get on the agenda? Do agendas get emails, and if so, are they sent on a certain day and time prior to the meeting? Will additions to the agenda be allowed up to a certain point?
- How do decisions get made in meetings? Will your agendas assign team members to be accountable for decisions, or team members that need to provide input? Will you usually strive for group consensus and use a simple majority if the team gets stuck?
- How do meetings get audited? Is there a system or checklist in place to ensure the team is regularly analyzing the effectiveness of the current team meetings? Does the team always get through the entire agenda, and are they walking away with clear decisions and action steps—actions that are followed up on at the next meeting?
Remember, as you work through establishing processes with your teams, it’s important to balance this idea of structure with a healthy degree of empathy. If you have a team member who likes to take time with feedback rather than give it off the cuff, is there a way your process can accommodate this?
As you work through establishing processes with your teams, it’s important to balance this idea of structure with a healthy degree of empathy.
People: Understanding individual differences, and creating meaningful opportunities
There may not be an “I” in team, but all teams are made up of individuals who have their own assumptions of what it means to be part of a collaborative culture. These beliefs are usually based on their own experiences, cultural norms, and personal preferences. What might be “respectful” or “equitable” for one person on a team may have a completely different definition for another team member. It's important to recognize and understand these differences.
One way to empathize with these differences is to give voice to them. Think about previous work you might have done around school vision. It may have started with identifying a shared definition around terms and words that are seemingly common. Consider taking the same action here: ask your team during one of your meetings to define words like equity, autonomy, student engagement, or leadership. Then, decide as a group what the high-level definition is for your team. When you speak to these concepts in your meetings, your team can center around the “group norm” for the definition—creating a way to build trust and strengthen collaboration.
Understanding individual differences are also important when it comes to identifying opportunities for people to contribute within a team. People are always willing to collaborate on work that has a significant personal or professional meaning for them. As you’re working to put together a collaborative team, consider what you know about the teachers, staff, and families you’re looking to engage, and organize them around work where they’ll feel like they’re making the most difference. For example: Is there an opportunity for an aspiring teacher leader or an aspiring principal to get some leadership experience by leading an instructional team?
What might be “respectful” or “equitable” for one person on a team may have a completely different definition for another team member. It's important to recognize and understand these differences.
Three Ps, and one R: The importance of building relationships
Similar to the culture within your school, the culture within your team is an important part of its success, and a large dose of empathy and understanding is a critical element of ensuring team collaboration. Together with the 3Ps, they make it possible for teams to form connections and relationships with one another. When your team is able to take the time to get to know their colleagues and develop a sense of trust, that’s when the team finds its strength and productivity—and that’s when the real difference can happen for schools and students.