Skip to main content

This post is part of a learning series exploring good practice, examples, or new applications of MSD.

Thanks to Paul Keogh for this contribution.

Teams. We spend a huge amount of time trying to understand them – how to build them, foster them, protect them, motivate them. Teams are the basic building blocks of civilisation. As the saying goes, even Jesus had 12 co-workers.

Teams are well known to deliver insight, knowledge and creativity in a way that individuals rarely can. That’s why MSD programmes, with their insatiable appetite for innovation, speak of teams in hushed, reverent tones. Ask any MSD specialist the key determinant of programme success, and ‘team’ will almost certainly be one of the first words out of their mouth. You know a programme is successful just by stepping into the programme office, they’ll say. The team will have a spring in their step, heads held high, animated conversation bubbles out of the kitchenette, white boards are full to overflowing.

The challenge is in creating the conditions for this to happen. You can fill a room with bright, enthusiastic go-getters, and end up with a funereal atmosphere. In fact, it happens all the time. Most readers will have experienced the phenomenon of the team that is less than the sum of its parts.

So, what is the special ingredient, the thing that makes the magic happen? In my view, it is team culture. Well, I hear you say, of course it is. A statement of the bleeding obvious. Culture is one of those topics, like leadership, on which everyone feels they are an expert.

Much of what is written on culture, however, focusses on normative behaviours. For example, the need for respectful, open, diverse and supportive environments. Or a focus on leadership traits like modelling behaviour, acknowledging good work, personal touches in email, walking the floor etc. There is no question that these elements are essential, but they have been written about extensively. For the purposes of this blog, I would like to focus on the other side of team culture – the motivational side.

By motivational I mean the conditions that make people wake up on Monday morning looking forward to work. Here are a few of the things that have worked for me.

Do, don’t say

Many organisations put a lot of effort into understanding, and promoting, a healthy culture. Consultations, retreats, external facilitators. The end result of these efforts is usually a set of posters that adorn the walls, espousing favoured behaviours. Don’t do this. It is not only pointless, but often counterproductive. It can promote cynicism, as staff are faced with the divergence between words and action.

Culture takes time and, frustratingly, isn’t an easily definable state. It is the sum of thousands of actions, large and small, day-in and day-out. Writing it on the wall won’t make it so. Actions speak louder than words.

Raise your gaze

Look around at organisations or teams that have a healthy culture and one thing you’ll see that they have in common is a clear strategic vision. It is a prerequisite. Teams need to know what they are doing and how they fit in. Most of the people I have hired take the job because they are excited by the prospect of working on something exciting, strategic, big picture. They want to work with, and learn from, other clever people. They are driven by the prospect of contributing to something bigger, by flexing their mental muscle.

Most aid programmes are designed around these sorts of higher-level ambitions; systems change, policy reform, etc. But the reality is usually more prosaic. Teams get caught up in mundane administration tasks and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Don’t let this happen. Keep the strategic goals front and centre. Talk about them often. Coach staff to help them understand how they can and do contribute. Ask staff to work on tasks that promote strategic thinking. Teams that feel as though they are contributing to something larger are more motivated and enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is infectious.

For example, in MDF we (the senior management team) tasked staff with developing intelligence pieces. Written briefs on economic trends, Covid-19 disruptions and what that meant for programme implementation. We used the programme’s MRM resources to design surveys and research plans. This had multiple benefits: it contributed towards smarter programming, provided the funder with insights from a unique perspective, and helped staff better understand the economic context in which they were working. But most of all, it made staff feel as though they were part of something interesting and important; it put a spring into their step.

Decide, don’t slide

The process of decision making (i.e., how decisions are taken, supported, reviewed and course corrected) is central to a healthy culture. Staff place a premium on clear, timely decision making. It is tempting to want to wait for more or better information, but my experience is that this rarely pays off and a culture of indecision is hugely demotivating. Why would staff work to deadlines if they expect their managers to prevaricate? And slow decision making multiplies as you move through the hierarchy. I have a rule of thumb that delay is squared as you move down the hierarchy. So, if the leader displays an indecision factor of x, it becomes 16x by the time you reach the teams in the field.

But being decisive is not enough. It must be supported by other behaviours. Constantly review and adjust, and admit mistakes early and often (e.g., yes, that was wrong decision. I took it because a, b and c, but those assumptions turned out to be incorrect). Modelling this kind of behaviour at the leadership level permeates the whole organisation. Staff are encouraged to take decisions based on imperfect information. And because it is OK to make mistakes, staff are encouraged to admit them, and course correct in good time.

Be a shaper, not a taker

Too often I’ve had experience with programmes that wait for others to set the strategic vision. It may be the donor, or the Strategic Review Team, the Mid-term Review etc., but the result is the same. The programme is constantly responding to the demands of others, playing catch-up. We’ve all seen it. A key contact in the donor changes and they want more a, less b, different c and no d. The programme dutifully throws resources at demonstrating their responsiveness by developing, say, a new set of indicators to measure the flavour of the month.

It has been my experience that as soon as you are playing catch-up, you’ve already lost. Try to stay ahead of these demands. It is far better that stakeholders are reviewing what you have done rather than pointing out all the things you haven’t. Stake out new territory before someone does it for you.

The connection to culture comes with the perception of control. Teams who are playing catch-up feel a sense of helplessness, of not being in control. It is something that military historians know a lot about. Being on the back foot is demoralising. But if staff feel as though they are setting the pace and defining the direction, the environment becomes healthier, even if once in a while you get a slap on the wrist for going too far.

Deploy resources

You may think you really need that additional resource but worry that the budget won’t stretch that far. Take the chance. Worry about money when you have run out of it. There is nothing more demotivating to a team than the feeling that they don’t have what they need to get the job done. Employing this strategy has never failed me, and I’ve only run out of money on a few occasions. More often, I’ve been dealing with an underspend.

Communicate with style

The role of communications in development programming is well understood. Even if most programmes do it poorly, it is widely acknowledged that professional, compelling communication is an essential part of getting your stakeholders on board. But carefully designed communications also drives a healthy culture. Show a commitment to quality in annual reports. Use these documents to clearly and succinctly communicate strategy and vision (not just activity and output). Write high quality think pieces. Use your monitoring and evaluation capability to monitor economic trends (e.g., food prices) and prepare briefings around unique or notable insights. And be sure to invest in making it look professional.

A professional outward facing communications stance is a modern equivalent of wearing a smart suit. It says to the world that you are professional and that you know what you are talking about. My measure of success is when I hear about the team proudly showing the annual report to their family and friends. They hold their heads high and have pride in where they work. I’ve done this in every team I’ve led. It really works.

When I started making this list, I realised that it is essentially the same as those things you would implement to improve programme performance. Most of the things that drive outward performance are the things that incentivise internal performance and a healthy culture. This is probably not surprising. Everyone wants to work for a winning team.