"I can do what you can’t do, and you can do what I can’t do; together we can do great things." - Mother Teresa
Much of today's work relies on teams, teamwork and collaboration. Recent research indicated that 75% of staff rate teamwork and collaboration as very important in their role and that collaboration in the workplace has risen by at least 50% over the last 20 years.
With the desire for success being an inherent part of the human make up, we all want to perform well at work. When it comes to teams, we all want to be in a high performing team (HPT). As leaders, we all want to lead HPTs. Yet these seemingly elusive teams don't just magically materialise, they are built, grown and nurtured over time. The question is, how?
In order to create an HPT we first have to know what we are creating. The Oxford Review (Oxford's equivalent of the Harvard Business Review) defines an HPT in this way:
A high-performance team is one that exceeds all reasonable expectations and produces extraordinary results.
This is a great definition as it can apply to all teams regardless of their context - which is something that a leader needs to consider. What makes one team high performing in one context will not necessarily apply to other teams in other contexts, or sustain high performance if the team context changes. The practices of a high performing agile software development team are likely to be different to those of high performing construction or military teams.
The one addition you could make is "consistently over time." However this applies to permanently established teams, and is not always relevant to teams formed to execute limited-life projects or short term initiatives.
As teams form and establish group norms, they go on a journey to become an HPT. That journey can be described as progressing through different levels, as seen in the table below. At each level, teams need to focus on developing specific characteristics to move to the next level. As they do, the begin to increase their performance and generate more value for their organisation.
Level 1 - Conflict
At the lowest level a team in conflict is a drain on the organisation. The organisation and its leaders use precious time, energy and effort to try and resolve the conflict rather than produce results. In order to resolve the conflict, the team needs to focus on its communication. People can't resolve conflict if they aren't talking to each other.
Level 2 - Functioning
This is the base level of team performance. These teams meet the minimum levels of performance expected of them. At this level the team meetings serve as a forum to coordinate the work of a collection of individuals operating relatively independently from one another. In order to move to the next level, the team members need to focus on building trust so they can start to rely on and support each other.
Level 3 - Performing
At level three team members are relying on each other to achieve their work. Interdependencies and support mechanisms have been established meaning real teamwork is starting to take place. This is where the team becomes more than the sum of its parts. The developmental focus for these teams is to gain the clarity they need to increase performance. They need to get clear on why they exist, what they seek to achieve and how they will achieve it.
Level 4 - HPT
Once a team is crystal clear on their purpose, the results they are pursuing and the systems, processes and ways of working that produce desired outcomes, they can be intentional about executing in a way that produces the extraordinary results that constitutes high performance. To sustain these levels of performance, the team needs to establish and maintain significant accountability amongst its members.
Level 5 - Very HPT
Very rarely, some teams move beyond being an HPT. They become very high performing teams or Luminary teams. The focus of these teams is kaizen, continuous improvement. However kaizen also involves improvement and influence beyond boundaries. Luminary teams are teams of prominence within their organisation and industry. Other teams will look to them for inspiration, seeking to model themselves after these luminary teams in hopes of replicating their same levels of performance.
The key for leaders to remember on their journey to create their own HPT is that as they seek to adopt a new developmental focus in order to progress to a new level, they cannot abandon investment into previous focus areas. Luminary teams still invest time, energy and effort in to maintaining and further developing communication, trust and clarity. A team that rests on its laurels will find its performance slipping as it begins to fall back to lesser levels.
Creating HPTs are no easy task. To do so requires good people, a conducive environment, high levels of commitment and good leadership. Its hard work, but as any who has been apart of and led HPTs can attest, the return on investment is worth it.
As Patrick Lencioni says, "Not finance. Not strategy. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare."