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. Its output can be far 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 can 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?
I would propose that there are some four key areas that high performing teams do well in making the experience of working together meaningful and effective. They are in no particular order. First, a high performing team decides and holds a clear and consistent view of its purpose in relation to business to be delivered. Second, individual members have a good understanding of their roles and how they each fit in relation to the purpose of the team. Third, each member knows what others are doing. They support and challenge each other constructively, achieving mutual and collective high performance. Fourth, the team communicates well, so that other teams and stakeholders understand the work of the team and can trust it to perform effectively. What does this mean in more detail?
1. A clear and consistent view of its purpose in relation to the business.
Wether 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