3 Keys for Every Team: Purpose, Autonomy, Mastery
The Solution Isn’t Management — It’s Team Mentorship
by Chris Danek
Many organizations are facing the challenge of high employee turnover. According to the PwC Pulse Survey, as we are coming out of the pandemic, 65% of employees are looking for another job, and 90% of organizations are experiencing higher turnover. This survey, and more like it, highlights the trend called out in the press as The Great Resignation.
These aggregated data are supported by direct observations. I led a workshop with an ATD chapter recently. The 20+ participants shared the challenges to team performance in their organization. Four of the top five challenges cited are staffing issues directly connected with the Great Resignation:
burnout and fatigue
high turnover and short-staffing
challenges with community and connection
faster pace with higher workloads
The other highly cited issue, the need to redesign for remote/hybrid work, is certainly tied indirectly to the current wave of resignations and job changes.
This challenge makes investing in talent a key need. Managers are scrambling to retain their people, build strong team culture, and keep productivity up. But what if I told you that managers might not have the power to turn around these trends? Instead, consider a new and powerful culture driver for your organization: team mentors.
Teams are the most important units inside an organization. They’re the engines behind key projects, new advancements, and innovation. Teams need mentors to help, listen to, and guide them, especially in chaotic times full of change, uncertainty, and burnout.
A mentor is different than a manager in one simple way: they don’t have direct authority over employees on a team. They aren’t their boss. They’re a guide. A trusted colleague. Someone whose goal is to help and support, find creative solutions, and make work better. And I think mentors, especially mentors who help teams of employees, are key to building stronger work cultures where people want to stay, contribute, collaborate, and thrive.
Let’s look at the research. In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink describes three factors that lead to motivation and fulfillment in the workplace: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Teams are natural proving grounds to establish these values, and a team mentor can bring these abstract concepts to life.
Pink explains autonomy first, but I want to start with purpose. Purpose is the foundation for any team’s work. It fuels autonomy and mastery.
When a team has a shared purpose, they are motivated to reach their highest potential. And with a shared purpose, they can make better decisions in their work.
Here’s where a mentor comes in: The mentor helps the team understand their shared purpose, and connects the team’s work in a meaningful way to the purpose of the organization. With that direction, the team is able to flip its perspective from accomplishing tasks to achieving results.
Here is an example of how guiding lights can build trust in the team throughout the organization. I once participated in a medical device team that was working on an emergency ventilator. I mentored the physicians and engineers who came together from two universities to tackle the challenge in the medical device development process. A guiding light was to minimize the dead space volume in the respiratory circuit, or the volume in tubes and connectors outside the patient, to improve ventilation support of the patient. This guiding light was translated into a requirement to keep dead space to less than 10% of the patient’s tidal volume. Engineers on the team were free to make detailed design decisions to achieve this goal, and were trusted in this by the physician champions of the team. We were fueled by purpose and came together as a team to achieve it, all with the support of a team mentor — and the trust of the whole team in each others’ work through shared high-level goals.
Teams that are following Agile practices, especially Scrum, already place a high value on autonomous work. Of course, every team has requirements and constraints. No one is working in a vacuum. But if we want teams to deliver innovation and impact, we have to give them the freedom and responsibility to work with autonomy within their parameters.
Autonomy creates real magic. The more breathing room a team gets, the better it is able to continue improving its teamwork and its delivery on goals. Autonomy creates a virtuous cycle and the team members benefit in a number of ways:
Pride in belonging to a great team
Pride in delivering to the team, for teammates
Less stress, frustration, and potential for burnout
Higher morale and a corresponding increase in retention
The bottom line: autonomous teams spend more time getting work done together, and waste less energy worrying about reasons it is not getting done.
Here’s an example. One of my student teams was working on a challenging biomechanics project. Their goal was to design a basketball coaching app that would help people learn to shoot a basketball. Their university had a set of sensors that you put on your body to analyze motion. Because that technology was available to them, they built their solution based on using those sensors. Once they got it up and running, they evaluated their work and decided that they didn’t want to use the sensors. Instead, they challenged themselves to find another solution that would make their app accessible to any user, even one without fancy equipment. The result: They located open-source machine learning algorithms that analyze a player’s body movements and their basketball shot using just a smartphone camera. Their final product was more accessible and accurate than the initial sensor solution.
As their mentor, I helped them own their design process and their solution. They understood the goals of the project and were able to iterate towards the best possible end result. My role wasn’t to remind them of their constraints and requirements, or show them the best path. It was to equip them with the guidelines and confidence they needed to figure things out on their own.
Mastery comes in two forms on teams: individual mastery and collective mastery. The best teams get the most out of all their members; all the members clearly feel the impact they have on the team’s progress and success. And when everyone on the team is able to make a unique contribution (individual mastery), the team as a whole can perform better (team mastery). As a group, the team pursues mastery in teamwork, leading to a powerful sense of belonging to a special group. That special feeling of being a part of a great team really lasts.
The continuous improvement that is part of agile teamwork drives individual and collective mastery.
Some of the most successful teams I’ve worked with have specifically pursued mastery in testing or simulation as a way to strengthen the team and its results. In one case, I mentored a team that was developing bench models to characterize the performance of a device to remove plaque from arteries of the leg. The team committed significant resources (one-fifth to one-quarter of the team’s bandwidth) to build test models to better test their designs. Over time, they shortened the design-build-test cycle. They made their device better, and also improved their ability to evaluate their progress. Their work got faster and more accurate because of their growing mastery.
Purpose. Autonomy. Mastery. These are the building blocks of a thriving team. And while a team mentor focuses on these fundamentals, they can also uncover the root cause of individual employee frustrations. Team mentors build stronger teams and help individuals find their own autonomy, mastery, and purpose — leading to a stronger culture and happier employees.
As you design and develop your team mentor program, make employee retention a specific goal, with specific metrics. It is well worth it.
And here is a nuanced benefit: by shifting the culture of your organization to agile and inclusive, high-performance teams, you will become a leader in your industry, thus making another common reason for turnover less likely: to pursue a better alternative.