In high-performance teams, the leaders managed the principles and the principles managed the teams.” –Carl Larson and Frank LaFasto via Jim Highsmith in Agile Project Management-Creating Innovative Products.

Larson and LaFasto in their assessment of high performance teams offer us a profoundly powerful and simple to comprehend answer to the question of how to support the emergence of effective teams: clear, strong, actionable, livable principles beget an environment for effective collaboration and innovation.

Every high performance team I’ve experienced as a participant, a sponsor or an outside advisor, was governed by an overarching set of principles or values that formed and framed the culture. And while good words alone don’t create success, the combination of the leaders and participants living and acting according to those words everyday made things work.

On successful teams, the team leaders…and ultimately the participants eat and drink the principles for breakfast, communicate them constantly and most importantly, they live them in how they collaborate, problem-solve and challenge themselves and their team members forward in pursuit of success.

And since as we all know, even the best of teams face dark days when nothing goes right, the guiding principles serve as bedrock for self-reflection and guidance for navigating the way forward.

There’s a cautionary tale here. As Highsmith warns us, “Grand principles that generate no action are mere vapor.”  When engaging with an organization for the first time, I make it a habit to understand a firm’s values, and all too often, what I find are nice words…unarguable in their intent, that serve only to occupy space on a wall in a conference room. It’s a wholesale failure on the part of the leadership of an organization, when the guiding principles aren’t a visible part of everyday life.

Teams are a fact of life. We execute strategy via projects. We innovate on teams. We develop new products, improve processes and search for ways to better serve our customers via projects and teams. We darned well better figure out how to succeed at this more often than not. Right now, in too many organizations, “not” is winning.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This intangible, sticky, squishy topic of operationalizing guiding principles or values doesn’t lend itself well to a prescriptive list of steps-to-success. The onus is on you as a team leader, project leader, functional leader, informal leader or organizational leader to ensure that your best efforts are supported by meaningful, actionable guiding principles. If you can’t articulate what those principles are and what they mean for behavior, accountability and performance, then it’s time to take a step back and tackle this issue. The effort will pay dividends going forward. Larson and LaFasto are right…leaders should manage the principles and the principles will manage the team.

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Art Petty is a Chicago-based management consultant focusing on strategy and leadership development. Art regularly speaks on innovation in management and leadership, and his work is reflected in two books, including the recent, Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development.  Art publishes regularly at The Management Excellence blog at

Prior to his solo career, Art spent 20+ years leading marketing sales and business units in systems and software organizations around the globe. You can follow Art on twitter: @artpetty and he can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]