11 Innovative Ideas for Leading a More Productive Team

A look at how today's smart leaders are engaging their employees and maximizing their teams' productivity. 

Ideas for Team Productivity

Last year we brought you The Ultimate Guide to Personal Productivity Methods, jam-packed with the most popular and effective ways to get more done.

Yet for the vast majority of us, how much we achieve ultimately depends on how well our teams work together. Finding the perfect personal productivity method is great, but scaling productivity across a team is a whole other story.

This time around, we’re shifting our focus to team productivity:

  • What concrete systems can leaders put in place to help their team work together?
  • How do the best leaders create the right balance of team communication and efficiency?
  • How do effective leaders empower and engage their team to take ownership over their work?

We’ve scoured the Internet for the most innovative methods for fostering successful teamwork.

In this post, we’re covering four of the biggest productivity challenges teams face:

  1. Meetings
  2. Communication
  3. Delegating responsibilities
  4. Project management

End the Tyranny of Bad Meetings

Despite the increasing number of digital collaboration tools on the market, the meeting is still considered one of the necessary evils of the workplace. But meetings can be powerful tools to fuel your team’s productivity and innovation. Try these two strategies to use your meeting time to its fullest.

Death by Meeting

Ideas for Productive Teams - Death By Meeting

In the modern business fable Death by Meeting, protagonist Casey McDaniel is bewildered by the tortuous meetings he leads at his company. Despite his best intentions, this struggling CEO can’t seem to break out of a mind-numbing pattern of status updates that he and his team have come to dread.

Though the story is fiction, McDaniel’s plight plays out in companies big and small every day. Like all good fables, this one ends in valuable lessons for the real world. Author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni uses McDaniel’s story to outline a simple, yet powerful structure for making your meetings productive.

The Death by Meeting method encompasses four basic meeting types: The daily check-in, the weekly tactical, the monthly strategic, and the quarterly off-site review.

The Daily Check-in should be short. Keep it to five minutes, ten at the absolute max. Don’t put out chairs or snacks. This is a short, to the point administrative update for everyone. Start on time, every day. Don’t wait for stragglers to show up and don’t re-schedule if someone (or even several someones) can’t make it. The only way to make the daily check-in effective is to keep it reliably short and focused.

The Weekly Tactical is the more traditional “staff meeting”. They last around an hour and can cover a wide variety of topics. The best strategy for these meetings, Lencioni says, is to ditch a specific agenda. Instead, they “should focus on the discussion and resolution of issues which effect near term objectives.”

Allowing attendees to review each other’s priorities will keep topics from wandering into the trivial and force everyone to stay on task. Throughout the meeting everyone should be careful to pluck out more strategic or long-term issues, which are best put to the side for now. It’s important to remember that this is not a brainstorming session; it is a tactical meeting to deal with current issues that need immediate decisions.

The Monthly Strategic is the Weekly Tactical’s opposite. This is where brainstorming is most important and the immediate is pushed aside in favor of long-term strategy. You should allow for more time, ideally about two hours, and hold the meeting in a distraction-free setting.

Keep the agenda short. Lencioni recommends keeping it to one or two topics only. Remember: you’re brainstorming, making decisions, and then outlining a strategy. That takes time and a lot of energy. You only want to bring the most pressing issues or exciting opportunities. The focus is solely on the future, and the big picture. If smaller issues pop up, write them down and then set them aside for a weekly tactical meeting.

The Quarterly Offsite Review is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a meeting that’s not really a meeting, but more of a way of taking stock. This is the time to get away from the regular day to day at the office, both figuratively and literally, to delve into communication issues and improve morale.

Relationships and team interaction are the focus here. The Review should include some clear agendas as well as some time for brainstorming and informal fun. The review is as much about letting loose as addressing ongoing interpersonal issues.

Meetings that Don’t Suck

Ken Norten’s experience working on Google Calendar and Google Ventures left him with the realization that meetings are entirely overused and under-organized. Our reliance on holding meetings for everything from updates to brainstorming sessions can be a huge waste of time.

So Norten took it upon himself to create a decision flow chart for better meetings. Follow his checklist to run efficient, productive meetings:

Do you really need a meeting?

You probably don’t need the meeting at all. Norten is staunchly against status meetings.

The vast majority of updates are only relevant to one or two people in the room, and everyone else painfully waits for their turn.

The alternative? He suggests replacing the status meeting with an email whenever possible. If you absolutely must hold status meetings, try to split them up into several smaller meetings. This way only team members who really need to hear the information in person have to interrupt their workflow. You can still send out an email to everyone else who might be interested.

Define your roles

Decide who the meeting owner will be, who is needed to provide what information, and who will be responsible for the final decisions. If the meeting roles aren’t clear, your meeting will go nowhere.

Keep the attendee list short. Norten recommends five or fewer.

Hold one-on-ones sacred

One-on-one meetings, Norten says, are essential for effective teamwork.

As a manager, you’re there to make decisions, clear roadblocks and help them feel happy and valued. Sticking with a schedule and being present shows your employees that they’re important and respected.

One-on-ones are the only time both you and your team member’s focus is on them, rather than the organization or the team as a whole. Use the time to really give your employees a chance to dig deeper into how things are going, what the future looks like for his or her career. Employees need opportunities to talk about their goals and what’s blocking them – it’s your job as a manager to provide that.

Use the time wisely

Before the meeting, give all attendees as much information as possible. An agenda is a good start and an absolute must. Sharing an agenda with everyone who will attend will make the time more productive, and — in some cases — can even resolve some decisions before the meeting even starts. This pre-planning saves everyone valuable time.

When it comes to the meeting itself, there are other things you can do to make the meeting flow better. First, identify the decision that needs to be made and clearly define the scope of the meeting. What exactly do you need to get out of this meeting? “Site redesign” isn’t defined enough. “Decide between five designers to hire” is the level of detail you need.

Norten recommends going through “calendar bankruptcy” — in other words, delete all the meetings currently on the calendar and give the team the chance to advocate for the meetings they see as necessary.

The meetings that matter will get put back on the calendar because someone will need the meeting to take place, and meetings that really aren’t necessary won’t get added back. You’ll be shocked at how many meetings weren’t important enough to get added back and everyone will save hours of precious time.

Foster effective communication

Communication is an eternal dilemma for leaders. How do you keep everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction? Here are 4 strategies experienced leaders have used to get communication right.

The Rule of Five

Before he co-founded Trello, Joel Spolsky managed a team of 10. In his role as manager, he noticed that when he made the rounds to check in with each of his team members, everyone had a tendency to list off dozens of tasks they were working on. He simply couldn’t keep it all straight, and wondered if his team members were struggling too.

It was possible that they were eager to show how hard they were working and gave him a litany of projects to back them up, even if most of those tasks weren’t actually getting much attention.

This task inflation helped no one. So Joel limited each team member to five tasks: two current tasks, two future tasks, and one task that was important, but currently stuck for whatever reason.

By limiting their task lists to only five, Joel gave his team members permission to focus. At the same time, the new rule also helped Joel keep track of what everyone was doing.

Instead of trying to keep track of dozens of ongoing projects and their many individual tasks, Joel had trimmed off the fat and developed a system that helped him keep everyone’s work straight.

Go Completely Transparent

At Buffer, they’ve taken transparency to a whole new level. Famous for making their profits and even employee salaries public, the company is constantly finding new ways be honest with the world.

But they also emphasize honesty internally. So much so that they have a transparent email system.

Every employee can see almost every email sent between team members or to the press (exceptions are made for sensitive conversations). On top of that, team email lists allow team members to quickly shoot off an email to the whole team, keeping everyone up to date on the company at all times.

This level of transparency obviously wouldn’t work for every company. Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, is up front about that.

This might sound a little crazy, and probably certainly seems totally overwhelming, but that’s the price we’ve decided it’s worth to have complete transparency.

Of course, it’s impossible to make a system like this work for a growing company. At some point there are simply going to be too many emails.

Foreseeing this inevitability, Buffer has begun to build in some filtering. But the emails are all still available for those who’d like to look through them.

Employees always have the option to find out what’s going on with the company at any given time.

Make Communication Harder 

On the other hand, over-communication may actually be the problem. Sometimes less is more.

It seems counterintuitive. The basis for any healthy relationship is more communication, right? Not necessarily.

The basis for any healthy relationship is quality communication. These days we’re awash in easy ways to communicate with each other — emails, chat software, texts, social media — but that doesn’t mean the information we’re sharing is always necessary or even important.

And if you’re a team leader, making communication too easy can keep you and your team from focusing on the most important issues. Blake Thorne of the iDoneThis blog outlined these three easy ways you can make communication harder:

Written communication

Any new idea should be put into writing. And a quick email won’t do. Encouraging long, careful proposals will weed out slap dash ideas. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, requires a full six-page memo for every idea that crosses his desk. Six pages might seem like a bit much, but the strict format is important; the restriction helps employees work through their ideas thoroughly before submitting.

Office Hours

Why this practice is traditionally only used by teachers is beyond me. Office hours carve out time for one-on-one meetings, for advice, and opportunities for team members to bring issues that might otherwise fall through the cracks. But it does so in a way that keeps these interactions from taking over the whole day.

Keep Notifications Under Control

This one’s obvious, but worth a quick mention. If Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, are all interrupting you throughout the day, you’re less likely to stay focused. And, as we’ve been learning more and more lately, humans are universally bad at multi-tasking. For deeper concentration, kill the distractions. Let your team know it’s ok to be unavailable in order to do focused work.

The IDoneThis Method

IDoneThis was started as a fitness motivator. In December of 2010, Rodrigo Guzman sent his friend, Walter Chen an email detailing “a stupid idea” for an email service that would prompt you to admit whether or not you’d met your goals that day.

As it turns out the idea was anything but stupid. These days the company is busy helping individuals and teams stay accountable. Every evening IDoneThis sends each user an email prompt to write down what they did that day. All the emails can be logged for future reference or sent to team leaders or managers.

Ideas for Productive Teams - iDoneThis

This method has several advantages. It creates a clear ritual for ending the day. That can be helpful on its own. But it’s also a way to encourage your team to build reflection time into each day.

What worked today? What was difficult? Did you fly through your to-do list or find yourself distracted every few minutes? Just taking the time to think over how the day went and what you want to do with tomorrow can make a huge difference in individual productivity.

And then, there’s the benefit of seeing the whole team’s productivity over time. Just getting each team member to share a daily log of their activities could save everyone precious hours otherwise wasted in those dreaded status meetings.

Get (Re) Organized

How do you create an engaged team that takes ownership over their work? One way is by making individual roles and responsibilities clear while putting in systems of accountability in place. Here are three of the most popular ways agile, innovative companies are delegating responsibilities on their teams for maximum productivity.

Objectives and Key Results

Though OKR started at Intel in the late 70s, it has more recently gained popularity after Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other innovative tech giants adopted it. Though large companies find it useful, OKRs can be used to set, communicate, and accomplish goals in teams of any size.

Ideas for Productive Teams - OKRs
Image credit to Henrik-Jan van der Pol.

Getting started with OKR is easy, but making it work long-term isn’t quite so simple. To start, every team member defines a small number of objectives (three to five is a good start) for themselves. Team objectives should tie back to company objectives and individual objectives should tie back to team objectives. Each objective should be actionable and ambitious, but attainable and attached to a specific timeline (e.g. First Quarter).

For each objective, a few key results are outlined. These are specific tactics for reaching the objectives. The specific will depend on the organization and the team member’s role, but each key result should be concrete and measurable.

For example, if the team objective is to increase reach and engagement on the company blog, the corresponding key results might be to publish a new blog post each week and increase unique views and subscriptions by 15%.

Objectives should be used to stretch team members. This is a method that can be difficult for perfectionists. An objective is considered successful if it reaches 70 percent completion. Any objective that reaches 100 percent wasn’t ambitious enough in the first place.

Once everyone has defined their objectives and key results, the next step is to set up a regular time for everyone to update the lists with the progress made. This is why the results need to be explicit and measurable; everyone in the organization needs to be able to give a clear answer as to whether they’re meeting those goals.

The regular meeting is also a good time to review the objectives and see if any of them need to be changed. Remember, OKR is particularly useful for growing teams, so agility is crucial when dealing with objectives.


Holacracy might just be the most misunderstood flat management system out there. Maybe because calling it a “flat” system is a little misleading — it’s a system that depends on self-management, sure, but it’s a complex kind of self-management.

To keep the organization inspired yet organized, teams use what they call “circles” as a new way of defining departments, “lead links” and “cross links” (the closest things to a manager in this system), and an intricate governance process that aims to iron out any issues that pop up along the way.

In short, this system may be more work than a traditional hierarchy and most definitely requires a serious commitment on behalf of the whole team in order to work.

Zappos has been dipping their toe in Holacracy for a few years and in April explained their reasons for finally jumping all the way in. Not long after, Buffer published a blog post explaining why the system didn’t work for them, though it isn’t clear in their description of their experiment whether they too were just playing some of the concepts of Holacracy or whether they adopted all the recommended communication, organization, and productivity strategies outlined by the company who created the system, HolacracyOne.

That said, this is certainly not the right system for every company. It requires a lot of work and a particular kind of team: organized, detail-oriented, and highly-engaged.

If you want to get a picture of what your company structure and no-job-title roles might look like, take a look at HolacracyOne’s team, their own role descriptions, and their structure and governance.

The company structure is fascinating and the roles seem to be a little bit all over the map, not unlike AoRs and, you know, people. We’re all good at a smattering of things, right? You might be a graphic designer with fantastic people skills, who could be great in a role that took advantage of your visual talents as well as your natural sales talents.

Going off the experiences of Zappos and Buffer, this system is not one that a company can easily play around with. So if you’re thinking of adopting Holacracy, paying for the official training might be a good idea.

Areas of Responsibility

Flat organizations are all the rage these days, but yanking out all hierarchy isn’t for every company. That’s why the team at Asana uses Areas of Responsibility (AoRs) to create structure and accountability while still empowering employees to take ownership over their work.

The name of this structure is actually a reference to a military organizational system — instead of putting Unified Command Plan commanders in charge of geographic regions, Asana divvies up work by letting each team member become an expert and leader in their own area.

The idea is that employees contribute most when they’re doing what they want to do and what they’re good at. Instead of carrying out work that higher ups assign them, team members in the AoR method become commanders of their own corner of the world.  Managers then act as resources for team members, mentoring teammates to grow in their roles and helping to make final decisions when needed.

Each AoR is clearly defined and communicated. Regular re-evaluations of responsibilities and how people are managing them is key to being successful with an AoR structure. Everyone is held personally accountable for keeping on top of their work and are able to ask for additional help and resources when needed.

Asana cites a number of benefits to using this relatively flat, yet clearly defined organizational structure:

  • Designates accountability for each area of the organization to ensure everything that needs to happen in the company does.
  • Gives team members not in direct management roles opportunities to grow as leaders and to own important areas (even as new hires).
  • Facilitates the most knowledgeable person triaging problems.
  • Encourages someone to develop deep knowledge around every important area, which helps grow your organization’s cumulative knowledge.
  • Helps illuminate where you have staffing gaps that you should recruit for.
  • Scales managers further by giving them a tool to delegate and decrease operational work.
  • Provides an alternative to traditional centralization and hierarchal organization of responsibility.
  • Empowers everyone on your team to change aspects of your process or environment.
  • Encourages transparent distribution of knowledge to avoid silos of work.
  • Gives teammates credit for good work they do unrelated to specific projects, or functional areas.
  • Encourages and supports behaviors and work that don’t fit into the existing program structure.

When done right, AoRs is a powerful method to create a fully engaged, agile team.

Make ideas happen

Getting delegation and communication right is essential for effective teamwork. However, consistent execution also requires a reliable system for managing day-to-day project details.  Here are two ways, one simple and one more complex, to steadily move your team’s projects forward.

The Action Method

We covered The Action Method in our personal productivity post, but the beauty of The Action Method is its adaptability. It can be used by just one person, or a large team.

Developed by Adobe’s popular portfolio network, Behance, back in 2006, this method is particularly helpful for facilitating creative meetings and brainstorming. The problem with brainstorming and most creative work is that it often needs to be messy to be truly innovative. Thinking outside the box requires untidiness, but actually getting things done requires an orderly system.

The Action Method helps you move from the idea phase to actionable steps with priorities, due dates, and assignments. It consists of three key parts: Action Items, Backburner Items, and Reference Items.

Action Items are the steps you take to get the project done.

Backburner Items are the interesting ideas that don’t directly fit into your plan for this project. These should be organized and saved for later

Reference Items are the resources and information you’ll need to complete the project. For instance, your brand’s visual and logo style guide might be a reference item for a homepage rebranding project.

The Action Method allows you to welcome and integrate great, off-beat ideas while still coming away with a concrete plan.

Though there was an online version of this method for a time, Behance pulled support for it last year. There are still Action Method notebooks sold, if you’re into that kind of thing. Though you can use The Action Method with virtually any medium.


Plan to make mistakes. That’s what Agile project management is all about. Though Agile was developed for software development, the fundamentals can be applied to any fast-paced project.

Before Agile, most development projects used to use the Waterfall method, which followed a simple step-by-step sequence to bring a project to completion.

But that requires planning enormous projects in advance, long before anyone really understands what the project will become or how it will truly be used. This rigid system leaves little room for error or pivoting.

In 1998 Harvard released a study on the inherent flaws of the waterfall system. Shortly after that, in 2001, the Agile Manifesto was released, and agile project management exploded in popularity.

Projects designed with Agile start out simply with an outline of the concept and a general road map. After that it starts to look more like a series of whirlpools than a chain of steps. Every part of development is revised again and again, allowing for the team to catch bugs and fine tune the product long before it’s released.

Ideas for Productive Teams - Agile

The Agile method can be simple or complicated, depending on your needs. No matter how you design your project with Agile, the point is to get a working product out fast and without unnecessary documentation.

Instead of trying to constantly move ahead to the next step and never look back, Agile allows teams to move forward before every single factor has been hashed out because everyone knows you’ll be revising each step again and again as new information becomes available.

Getting started with Agile can be intimidating: there are dozens of versions of it and many more ways that any team can use it.

Once you have a broad understanding of Agile, look into some of the more popular variations, like Scrum, which adds some structure back into the project management while still keeping the sprints, well, agile. Lean is another variation worth looking into. Lean breaks sprints down into bite-sized workflow chunks with clear steps.

There isn’t a single process or management style on these lists that will fit every single company. If we could all just go out and find the best method for our team and let it run, I’m sure we’d all be thrilled to turn our focus to other issues.

But smart leaders know that constantly experimenting and perfecting approaches to collaboration is the only way to keep teams energized and productive.

This list certainly isn’t exhaustive and new methods are always being experimented with. We hope this collection inspires you to try a few new ways to tackle meetings, communication, company structure, or project management.

How do you get things done on your team? Are we missing key strategies that you use for collaboration? Let us know in the comments below!