It seems that there is a view out there that high performing teams can be created in a matter of minutes. However managers tend to know that a group of people does not magically transform into a high performing team without a more significant investment of time on their part.
Perhaps it is possible to build a great team in a short space of time —even one that lacks a lot of the ‘normal dysfunction’ that many of us have come to expect in the workplace— but what does it take to build a team that is truly high performing on an ongoing basis?
Many researchers and writers on this topic agree that a high performing team is formed by rigour. It is more than a group of people working together towards a common task. Instead a thorough process is applied that achieves a significantly different way of operating to the way most teams work.
When managers do put in this extra effort, the reward pays off. High performing teams achieve significantly more than their counterparts – it is difficult to tie down statistics on this due to the lack of published examples but in my area of work I see productivity gains in the order of 20%.
What does a high-performing team look like?
Firstly, goals are very clearly defined. You can distinguish a high performing team because the people in it have a clear understanding of what they need to achieve, both collectively as a team and individually as skilled professionals. Not every manager has their team’s goals clearly defined, let alone each person’s role. A team workshop is one of the best ways to get to this level of clarity.
Clear goals are established in part by a clear vision. Managers often confuse ‘vision’ with ‘plan’, thinking that a clear plan provides all the clarity people need. Vision is much more – it is the ultimate aim of the work that you do, set within your specific strategic context. It is your team’s highest aspirations and is often something that actually inspires them. Once this vision is clear, the team’s short-term and long-term plans become easier to outline, because decisions can be made about what fits with the vision and what doesn’t.
Team members’ roles and responsibilities are clear as well. How many managers do you know who go to the effort to get to this level of clarity with their teams?
Another defining feature of a high performing team is that accountability is shared. With clarity around roles and responsibilities comes the possibility for team members to pull each other up by intervening if work is going off course, without waiting for their leader or manager to do so. Members of a high performing team are typically so invested in the team’s purpose that they initiate this kind of peer pressure, keeping each other on track to collectively achieve the team’s goals.
Lastly, the team has clear rules governing how it operates: a shared agreement, which supports shared accountability. If you have ever led a team of dissenting personalities, you know that sometimes this dissent can be helpful —for example when it leads to better processes or outcomes — but often it can undermine the team dynamic. Kristi Hedges offers some valuable insights into a technique that she has found useful – establish three to five agreed operating principles for your team. Establishing agreed operating principles can help to steer dissent in the right direction.
It takes hard work and dedication to build a high performing team. The starting point is the manager’s commitment to develop the team’s vision, goals, roles and rules, and to foster accountability. After that, achieving high performance depends largely on whether these features are applied in a disciplined or an ad-hoc manner.