High-Performance Teams Part 1 — Why bother?

“I couldn’t wait to get to work each day; we did fantastic things, couldn’t believe I got paid to do it.” A high-performance team member.

Generally, people are interested in High-Performance Teams (HPTs) because they aspire to something greater than what they are a part of today, they also want to know if it’s something they could create themselves. But the main reason is that they are currently managing a team that suffers from common team dysfunctions:

  • The manager has an ineffective management style.

Another reason is to uplift the skills and knowledge of a team in preparation for:

  • Downsizing.

Managers want a team that:

  • Has a fast start-up/reaction time.

Why aren’t High-Performance Teams more common?

Using my own criteria, they probably exist as 1:50 teams (an estimate based on experience, not quantifiable data). In the 1980/’90s when they were first experimented with, they produced poor outcomes mainly, as we know now because little was known about their particular dynamics and the need for a progressive, transformational management style to build and manage them.

Today, the main reason for their rarity is that most managers use a traditional management style that does not easily lend itself to the building of an HPT. (The vast majority of managers are not trained on progressive styles this includes anyone who has completed an MBA in the last 30 years). The training industry then muddies the waters by offering training on how to build them, but the training and course design are by people who have no experience of them. You can teach adults new skills in a week but not new behaviours or the embedding of fundamentally new ways of working. It takes months to establish an HPT followed by continuous team moulding and shaping to achieve a good outcome.

Much of the publicly available information about HPTs is misleading, it predominantly describes better performing teams but not actual HPTs, at least not according to my criteria. Unless you have been a member of an HPT or have built one yourself, I believe you are not in a position to comment about them. I have built eleven HPTs and have been a team member of two (as against the manager). That adds up to considerable experience, much more than anyone else I have personally read about or encountered. Even the best academic studies and books on HPTs have been written by people who have researched them but who have no actual experience of them, and I also doubt that many if indeed any professional trainers have any real experience of them either.


What’s in it for you?

  • Significantly increased job satisfaction.

What’s in it for the staff?

  • Happiness stems from spending time with people we like and High-Performance Team members care and support their colleagues like no other team members.

What’s in it for the organisation?

  • Profits, ability to rapidly expand, market growth, having a team that focuses on business needs.

Ordinary Teams versus High-Performance Teams

The use of teams has become commonplace driven by the need to be more competitive and driven by changes in business technology. Current team organisational structures have not changed for over 20 years and have limitations, they tend to be silo-based, hierarchical, facilitate only existing skill sets, are almost exclusively project-driven, are sometimes chaotic and do not make good use of process. They are unable to rapidly respond to changing business technologies and the need to be more competitive and they do not employ progressive or transformational management styles, team behaviours or working techniques. They are largely incapable of genuine innovation due to their inability to constructively harness conflict and they do not practice advanced communication methods. They are poor at creativity and their contribution to corporate growth is rarely defined and is therefore difficult to measure.

Most teams exist with little understanding of why they exist, what their actual purpose is in terms of how they contribute to the larger organization. For example, a team needs to define a meaningful, measurable common goal, something that acts as a target and gives direction to all of the team’s activities. Such a goal needs to consider likely changes in the organisation’s business environment, competitors’ movements and the future behaviours of consumers, combined with the team’s aspirations. It needs to answer the question of why the team exists. High-Performance Teams define their own common goal, just one of the things that differentiate them from ordinary teams.

Steve Jobs understood the power of HPTs, how do you think we got the iPhone and how do you think they kept it a secret for the five years of its development? Organizations like Kraft Foods, General Electric, Hewlett Packard, Newcrest Mining, Exelon, and the US and British governments also understand the power of High-Performance Teams. They are making a comeback within progressive organizations (and in departments within traditional organizations) that know they need to be more competitive, more masterful of technology and much more service-oriented. HPTs have the following features:

  • They are consistently aware of the broader organisational aspirations and needs with everything they do.

HPTs do not suffer from the restrictions of ordinary teams. Team members have complementary skill sets and can change roles and leadership positions within the team. There have robust methods of resolving conflict, shared norms and values, a strong sense of accountability and high levels of mutual trust. The team shares a collective consciousness and has clearly defined roles and responsibilities, team rules and behaviours. Team members are fully empowered and are held accountable. In a High-Performance Team, the manager acts as the role model who aligns commitment with a common goal and individual performance goals.

Teams also need the right mix and number of members, optimally designed tasks and processes, and norms that discourage destructive behaviour and promote positive dynamics. High-performing teams include members with a balance of skills. Every individual doesn’t have to possess superlative technical and social skills, but the team overall needs a healthy dose of both. Diversity in knowledge, views, and perspectives, as well as in age, gender, and race, can help teams be more creative and avoid groupthink. Martine Haas. The Secrets of Great Teamwork.

In a market in which change is speeding up, the incentive for business to review their approach to teams has never been greater.

Team Building and Maturity attributes

Becoming an HPT is achievable by almost any team, but it takes effort and discipline because you get nothing for free. I have taken some of the worst-performing and culturally bankrupt teams you have ever seen all the way through to high-performance with outstanding results. Building an HPT is a relatively straight forward process that any competent manager who is willing to learn and adopt a progressive, transformational management style, can achieve. The team-building process involves three team development stages (Good team, Great Team and High-Performance Team) that progressively instil team maturity attributes into a team. A team does not become a Good, Great or High-Performance Team after completion of training, they only achieve one of those stages after 3 to 6 months of post-training attentive management and discipline by the team members. The team maturity attributes that make up a team, work like this:

  • Team members are a tight-knit cohesive unit because they share a common goal.

What makes an HPT work?

As we know, busy people do more and do it in less time. The secret to an ordinary team transitioning to high-performance is the application of a consistently high workload in conjunction with the use of high-performance methods and techniques.

We know from our own experience that when we have a lot to do and are pushed for time, we focus on the essential elements of the activity or task at hand. We often accept that having completed 80% of the work (80/20 principle) is usually enough to finish, and we then quickly move on to the next piece of work. Take a well-planned and managed project as an example; 20% of the expended project effort can produce 80% of the project deliverables.

HPTs work this way. A high workload motivates team members to focus their efforts on 20% of the workload that can produce 80% of the desired results, meaning greater efficiency and higher productivity.

This approach is then supported by high-performance methods and techniques which include time management skills and new ways of working. When workload, methods and techniques are combined, this causes all of those involved to become more reliant on each other, more trusting, more committed and mutually accountable for the whole of the team’s workload. The higher the workload, the more the three elements come into play, resulting in high-performance operation.

This approach enforces adherence to due process, facilitates true collaboration, gets more people involved with a task when necessary, each of whom is committed to its success, and it forges closer work bonds and a prevailing attitude of ‘all for one and one for all’ (mutual accountability). As more work is undertaken, the new methods and techniques become normalised and new levels of performance emerge. Performance and productivity receive an added boost when multiple team members or whole teams are focused on the same activities which work exceptionally well for businesses that require more than one team to be involved with the same activity such as IT Departments or Engineering works.

As more work is processed, and as more successes and fewer failures are realised, the team’s confidence increases, and the ability to manage an ever-increasing workload result. Things start to change. Morale significantly improves, job satisfaction goes up, quality improves with fewer errors and failures, innovation emerges, and a feeling of actually being a contributor to business growth becomes tangible. The team is no longer ordinary, it is now an HPT, and its team members know and feel it. It is addictive in nature which is why team member loyalty to each other and to the organization is so high.

Originally published at https://www.russellfutcher.com on April 1, 2021.

IT Change Management, High-Performance Management and Teams Specialist, Leadership Development, Team Building, Author

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