Could your team be even better?

Do you ever wonder if your team is high performing?  If you are sure it is not, do you know why?

Being in a high performing team can be an exhilarating and memorable working experience. It’s output is more interesting and effective than the individuals can produce alone. The collective voice of a team enables diverse views and multiple talents to support performance. Organisations know that strategic impact and efficiencies result to outweigh the additional time and costs associated with that teamwork.

Given their accepted role in business performance, it is curious that time spent in a team so often looks and feels ineffective and costly. Have you ever been pulled reluctantly from what you have felt was your productive work to go to a team meeting that you couldn’t really see the point of?

There are four key areas that high performing teams do well.  When they do, the experience of working together is meaningful and effective: it has a clear and consistent view of its purpose in relation to business to be delivered. Individual members  have a good understanding of their roles and how they each fit in relation to the purpose of the team. Each member knows what others are doing and they support and challenge each other constructively. Lastly but not least, the team  communicates well to other teams and stakeholders building understanding and trust.

What does this mean in more detail?

1.  A  clear and consistent view of its purpose in relation to the business.

Whether the team has been convened for a short-term project or is one that is part of an established structure, it must have a clearly expressed purpose and measures of success. Together they should understand who requires their work to be done and why. If this purpose can be articulated in one clearly understood sentence, so much the better.

Once the purpose is clear, it is more straightforward to create a workable description of what the team must do and the skills it needs to do it. It may even be clearer what it shouldn’t be doing.

Once the purpose has been recorded, it can be routinely checked for relevance. This is of course the “common vision for high performance” argument put forward and defended by several management authors. In my experience, it’s remarkable how seldom teams actually revisit the question of who they are. As work continues, changing circumstances such as external business challenges and turn over within the team may affect the team.   They may learn that the purpose wasn’t as well defined as they had thought. When teams forget to review their purpose together and with others, unspoken assumptions can develop regarding priorities and accountabilities. Without review, a team can miss an emerging need for a new skills, lose sight of their own changing role and miss opportunities for improvement and success.

2.   A good understanding of their roles and how they fit in relation to the purpose of the team.

At the outset, each role needs to be clearly defined and described in relation to the purpose of the team. Each team member – including the leader – will know what s/he is doing and for what they are to be held to account. In addition, different members may have specific roles with the team that cut across their technical areas. These are typically the personality traits identified by Belbin and similar exercises. The team leader and each team member must be clear about what good performance looks in their specific role and how they will measure it.

If you are a member of a team, are you clear about your role and the measure of your own contribution in making the team successful? If you lead a team have you recently reflected on what that role is intending to do? What would the team be justified in being disappointed with in your performance? What aspect of your personal role-preference is used in this team?

3.  Individual members understand well the roles of others and can support and challenge one another for mutual and collective benefit.

Individual roles are understood by sharing, discussing, constructively challenging and supporting each other’s work, including the leader’s, in relation to team purpose and deliverables. This requires active curiosity and communication in relation to the roles of others.  Internal trust and performance is developed through genuine interest and the space to ask questions and support solution-building.  This exercise  may also highlight missing skills and perspectives or identify when there is unnecessary duplication.  With time and practice, the quality of debate improves and time is better spent.

In my experience, and I admit that I have been guilty of this as a team leader, job roles are often poorly explained and even less well understood.  Team members are seldom required to engage fully with what others are doing – and not doing. Team size is sometimes too big and sometimes incomplete.

How well do you understand the roles of others in your team? Ask each of your team colleagues  to write down their understanding of everyone else’s role and the way their own role can help others in the team succeed: the outcome can be fascinating!

4.     Everyone outside the team who needs to know understands the work of the team and trusts it to perform effectively. 

The quality of communication from the team to other teams and those beyond its boundaries is critical for its own success.  If its purpose is clear and coherent internally, communicating this successfully and with consistency to outsiders becomes more likely.  With clearly worded statements, narratives become be still more consistent.  In turn, with clarity comes greater engagement in the work of the team from those outside.  Everyone wins.

I once worked with a CEO whose organisation listed accountability as one of its core values. I asked him if the staff knew what the Executive Team were doing. Transparency was assured, he told me, as all un-redacted meeting notes were on the organisation intranet. Big deal. Low staff engagement scores and productivity suggested that the intranet wasn’t working its magic. Even if you could find the notes and had the hour to spent wading through them, I suspected that few were any the wiser in relation to the purpose and accountability of that team. More importantly  they were unable to see how the work of the team might be relevant to their own work or contribute to its discussions.

The attributes of an effective team are pretty much the attributes of successful individual leaders too. Because a team is more than one person it needs a little more deliberation to get it right and keep it on track.

May your memories of teams be of great collective performance, not endless meetings with too little to show for it!

First draft published on Linked-in 10th June 2019 H.Dodd

Open a conversation with this team tester

The high performance of teams is an art not a science. That said, like good art, teams combine elements that when done well can enable performance (see this post). Because teams are at the heart of every excellent business they have been studied, measured considered and explored. The following 14 points are a summary of many such investigations and may support the analysis of your team:

  • Clear vision and purpose
  • Identity as a team
  • Composed of the right balance of roles to get the job done
  • Made of skilled and effective individuals clear about their roles
  • Constructive and harmonious relationships within the team
  • Effective leadership
  • Individual learning and development of team members
  • Sound processes
  • Open to change and creative
  • Completion- seeing it through
  • Recognition for success
  • Good internal communications
  • Effective communication to other teams and stakeholders
  • Regular review of performance

How are you doing from 0-20 in each area?

Use the following grid mark with an X where you believe your team sits in each area. This can provide a great opening for a conversation about what GOOD or EVEN BETTER could look like!  Once you’re done ask: Could it be better?  Get in touch to discuss your ideas!

0-4 5-9 10-14 15-20
Unclear Clear purpose
No identity Identity
Unbalanced role Balance of roles
Skills shortage Skilled
Disharmony Harmony
Ineffective leadership Effective leadership
Low L&D High L&D
Poor processes Sound processes
Closed to ideas Open and creative
Nothing gets finished On time completion
Un-recognised Recognised for success
Poor internal comms Effective internal comms
No-one knows what you do The work is understood outside the team
Never review/reflect Regularly review


Square pegs need a square hole

How often have you heard it said that for a company the people are the most important asset?  Talent acquisition and retention is essential for business success and yet we are failing to tell them what to do and why.

According to yesterday’s People Management update: Three quarters of UK workforce unsure what skills their job requires. (You can read it here).  The study found that many workers neither know which skills they need for their work, nor how best to improve their skills now and for opportunities in the future.  The study size was admittedly small but the confusion described isn’t surprising to me. I would go further and suggest that it is not only that the skills are unclear but, more importantly, the core purpose of roles and what success might look like.  This amounts to a misuse of talent and resources. It could be avoided in my view by a clear description of the role as it relates to the purpose and aspiration of the business where the job sits.

Not knowing what you are supposed to be doing, which of your skills is most appreciated and where you are going from here can be demotivating. Worse it can lead to a loss of business performance, turn-over, costs, missed learning and the loss of talent.  And if you don’t know, it’s because of one of two things: either the boss hasn’t clearly explained it, or, worse, s/he doesn’t really know.

Enter the Job Description

At the heart of this necessary exchange sits a key communication document: the humble Job Description or, JD.  Most commonly in my experience, this important document tends to be pulled out of a drawer when conflicts arise, when a restructure is in the air or a replacement is needed. Often it is overlooked when annual objectives are set and reviewed. Day to day work is allowed to drift from the original phrasing until one day re-reading it comes as a surprise.

It’s odd when companies invest heavily in communication of company strategy and performance for wider marketing purposes, that the the JD, which provides the direct link from the business to the companies “key asset” is often neglected by comparison.   A good JD – do not read ‘long’- serves two important functions. First, when enticing talent and developing the teams, it can clarify leadership minds as they work to attract talent from the marketplace. Second it provides a critical basis for managing and supporting the experience of the post-holder. It enables the development of the role and a democratic basis on which assumptions about the role in relation to business performance can be reviewed.

In reality this key document which is used to access our most expensive and complicated resource – people- is often poorly thought through, poorly written and routinely under-used. Within its lines should be the clear rationale for the investment in relation to the realisation of business aims. These must be described in such a way as to make sense to the holder of the JD and their manager. Even the lowest paid workers will cost several thousand pounds and should be part of the business’s success. Regardless of job type, workers have minds and ideas and initiative that can be used to build improvements to the whole business.

List of tasks or inspiring directions?

The JD I was reviewing was turgid. Swollen with details of stuff to do, and with no clarity of how these activities clustered around the core purpose for doing them. Almost certainly there will be omissions. Hence the need for that awful little catch-all sentence: ‘and anything else the manager might reasonably expect’ which I routinely delete. The hapless job holder, assuming one can be found, and their manager will struggle to define and agree the priorities within the role, wasting important start-up time.  More importantly, if a job holder is held to account on a set of activities the opportunity for discussion on innovation, inventiveness, feedback and change is much harder than against higher level outcomes.

A further study,  CIPD research published in October 2018 found almost half of UK workers reported being mismatched to their roles, with 37 per cent over-skilled and 12 per cent under-skilled. Better work on this key building block could reduce the pain and cost associated with these mis-matches.


Pull the other one

Performance assessment of stand-up comedians is swift and can be harsh. You have to want to do it.

In a moment of madness, I once signed up for a part-time course to learn to be a comedienne. As I paid for the course I felt slightly nauseous. It wasn’t that it was very expensive, rather that, having paid, I knew I would have to go through with it and this was going to take me into a painful place, optimistically called the “stretch zone”. The gods smiled on me when the course was cancelled. They probably smiled on the many who were saved my future performances! I smiled back.  

Nevertheless, at the end of 2018, with family and friends, we paused to consider what we were most grateful for in the year. It was skilful, sharp-witted, satirical, edgy and sometimes rude comedians. Shining lights on the dark places and the taboos, comedians challenge our assumptions and distract our troubled minds from our daily worries. In making us laugh they release endorphins and reduce our stress. We raised our glasses and said thank you!

Stand-Up comedian Nish Kumar in a recent BBC Front Row reflected on the harsh apprenticeship towards fully functioning stand up. He described 5 or 6 years of grim exposure in front of often deeply unforgiving audiences. This is a brutal form of performance management that is a far cry from what most of us experience. The success indicators are uncomplicated: keep their attention; make them laugh; deal with the odd moron effectively; get asked back; get new venues. Like a ski jumper – definitely a question for another blog – you know pretty quickly if you have what it takes.

And, in spite of the brutality, it is a growing sector. There is no shortage of new talent emerging, fuelled from the new hopefuls applying to take to the free slots at comedy clubs and pub venues. What is the attraction? Perhaps for some it is exactly the ‘lion’s pit’ feel that is attractive. For others perhaps it’s a strong vision of the role of comedy in society to make a difference to be used at the edge of political activism. Still others may be doing it for fun and take no heed of whether they are profitable as a result. Except for a wealthy few, it cannot be the money that attracts them as there are surely easier ways to make a living. 

All these brave men and women of stand-up have made an explicit and personal choice to do this work and succeed at it. It is a personal choice and the immediacy of the feedback on the performance is part of the gig. Seems more liberating than the placid annual reviews and unclear messaging that many attempt to improve their performance against.