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Team Operating Model - Main

In simple terms, a team operating model describes how your team works. It sounds complicated, but it certainly doesn’t need to be.

Many leaders and team members are very action-oriented. That is, they want to get on delivering and implementing things. The problem is, many people aren’t at all interested in taking the time to engage in structured thinking  or writing things down.

However, there are several benefits to taking the time to think about (and document!) your team operating model. Let’s take a look at some of them now.

What Exactly Is a Team Operating Model?

A team operating model is simply the way your team does its work, which can include:

  • The structure of the team and the roles within it
  • Important processes your team uses to perform its work
  • Communication, including when and how your team communicates within the team and to others
  • Key stakeholders of your team, including the internal or external customers your team serves
  • Culture, including how your team should behave and conduct themselves
  • Information your team produces and consumes, including systems that your team utilises to do its work; and
  • Key metrics that your team uses to measure success.

As you can see, this list probably doesn’t cover anything you don’t know already. But it is all very important information which describes what your team does, and how it does it.

Learn More:  The Importance of Planning and Why Leaders Can’t Ignore It.

Why Do You Need a Team Operating Model?

You might be thinking “Is this just some fancy consultant-speak? Do I really need this?”

I’ll be honest with you. Yes, consultants often talk about operating models and restructuring and value chains and any other buzzword you can think of. As a former consultant, I’m guilty of talking about these things too.

But I’m not interested in buzzword B.S. Instead of calling it a team operating model, let’s just call it defining what your team does and how your team does it and then writing it down.

Now, let’s look at some good reasons why you might want to take the time to do this for your team.

1. Defining How Your Team Works Builds Credibility and Confidence

Defining your team operating model is as simple as creating a few documents or website pages that describe the key aspects of your team and how it works.

Go-getter leaderYou don’t need to create fancy presentations and tell everyone how great you are. However, when someone asks you a question about how your team works, it’s great to have a single central location to point them towards.

When you spend the effort to define and document how your team works, firstly it shows that you have thought about what you’re doing.

Second, it shows that you are proactive, because you know people will need this information at some point. Lastly, it demonstrates transparency – that you have nothing to hide and are happy for other people to see how your team works.

This thinking, proactivity and transparency adds up to credibility. When you build credibility, you start to build confidence, which is a valuable commodity for every leader!

It is very likely that people around you (including your boss) are going to see you as a leader who has their act together and runs a well-defined and structured operation.

Learn More:  Why You Need to Understand Your Team Process.

2. Your Team Operating Model Reduces Risk

One aspect that keeps many leaders awake at night is retaining people in their teams. People leaving your team can be a stressful event, especially when the remaining team members are put under pressure because they don’t have the resources to deliver.

Reducing RiskDefining how your team works reduces risk. When people exit, you retain critical knowledge so it doesn’t all leave with them. If you’ve done a good job of capturing what your people do and how they work, other team members may be able to temporarily fill the gap while you recruit.

Onboarding new people is also much easier when you have a team operating model. Obviously you and your team members will still need to teach and coach a new starter, but the effort is reduced when you’ve already documented what you do.

Defining your team operating model also reduces the nasty “single points of failure”. You know, these are the people who understand everything about a specific area, but nobody else does!

Documenting what your team does is a good way to get information out of your team members’ heads and onto paper (or the digital equivalent).

Learn More:  3 Signs You Should Worry When Team Members Are Quitting.

3. Defining How Your Team Works Helps You Set Expectations and Educate Stakeholders

One of the major problems that arises when you don’t have a team operating model is that all the information about how your team works is in the heads of you and your team members.

Use Your Team Operating Model to Consistently Demonstrate What Your Team Does

It is very difficult to consistently demonstrate what your team does if you never document it. Each time you try to explain it, the words might come out a little differently. Then people might start to think you’re just making things up on the fly!

On the other hand, having a well-defined operating model allows you to refer your stakeholders to a consistent set of information. This means that everyone who sees it has a fair chance of gaining the same understanding.

Use Your Team Operating Model to Protect Yourself In Toxic Environments

Toxic SnakeFailing to define your team operating model also leaves you open to criticism from others who say “I don’t know what that team does”. When people say this, the implication is that:

a) You don’t know what you’re doing; or

b) Your team is doing the wrong work or is not adding value.

However, as soon as you define and document what your team does, it’s no longer your problem. It’s the complainer’s fault if they don’t take the time to understand how your team works.

I’ve found that this type of criticism arises often in highly political and toxic environments, and defining your team operating model can be a good way to protect yourself and your team.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #34: How Toxic Workplaces Happen (and what you can do about it)

4. Your Team Operating Model Helps You to Frame Improvement Opportunities

When you have defined what your team does and how it works, you can start to improve it. Your team operating model is a framework within which you can identify and highlight potential improvement opportunities.

You can use the team operating model as a starting point to help you frame discussions about where the major issues are in your team, and about what could be working better.

This is useful, because your team operating model defines the boundaries of your team. Everything within it is fair game for improvement!

Learn More:  5 Reasons Smart Leaders Keep Chasing Team Improvement.

How to Develop Your Team Operating Model

Defining and documenting how your team works doesn’t need to be done instantly. Often, this is an improvement task that can be undertaken over time.

As you might know, I’m a big fan of having my team members work at 80% capacity where possible. The other 20% of the time is spent on improving skills or the team itself. This means you’re always moving forward and improving, instead of standing still.

Developing Your Team Operating Model Can Be An Incremental Process

Developing operating modelDeveloping your team operating model can be an incremental activity. First you might start by defining your key processes and the major steps that your team follows. After that, you could document your team structure and some high-level definitions of what your team members do.

Gradually, you can work to “fill out” your operating model, giving you the confidence that you understand most of the aspects of your team and how it works.

Having this as a collaborative team activity can also be a great focus for a team. Instead of doing all the work by yourself, have your team members help in the areas where they are the strongest.

Or better yet, get your team members to focus on areas they aren’t familiar with, to spread knowledge throughout the team!

How Detailed Should Your Team Operating Model Be?

When defining how your team works, you want it to be just detailed enough to be useful, but not too detailed so that it takes forever to complete it.

Here are some examples to help guide you:

  • Team structure and roles: If your main focus is to educate people outside of your team, then you probably don’t need to define every tiny task that your team members do. On the other hand, if you want to onboard a new team member and your team does some very specialised work, you might need to get detailed.
  • Process: If your team doesn’t perform business-critical tasks, then you can probably get away with a low level of detail here. However, if your team performs critical work that keeps business operations going or has drastic consequences for failure, it’s probably good to be detailed. This is especially relevant if you will be audited or tested for compliance on the process.

In many teams, a moderate level of detail will probably suffice, to give your colleagues, team and stakeholders confidence that you know what you’re doing.


The checklist gives you some guidelines for the major aspects to consider for your team. Simply work through the checklist and use your organisation’s internal systems to document and publish the relevant information appropriate for your team.

A team operating model can have many benefits for your team, but is often overlooked. Start defining how your team works today to build credibility, reduce risk, educate your stakeholders and improve your team!

Do you find the team operating model concept useful? Why or why not? Let me and all the other Thoughtful Leaders know in the comments below!

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