In Search of the Magic of Team High Performance

We talk a big game about teams in business, yet often they disappoint. Raise your hand if you’ve been on a so-called team that devolved into a debating society that went nowhere. Regardless of outcomes and experiences, we continue to throw teams at issues expecting or hoping for magic.

Regular readers know when I write about teams, this quote from the late team researcher, J. Richard Hackman is never far behind: “I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary—just don’t count on it.

I always pause on the last five words of that quote: “just don’t count on it.” My rough translation is: expect to have to work hard for the magic to show up on your team.

In a Deloitte Survey on Human Capital Trends, executives offered that 39% of organizational work is done in teams. Only 7% of those same respondents viewed their firms ready to support teams. Add in the issue of formerly co-located individuals striving to set up teams in virtual space, and the challenges are amplified considerably.

The Fundamentals of Team Development Apply In Every Situation

The research doesn’t waver on these five must-haves:

  1. There must be a clear and compelling purpose understood and valued by each team member
  2. The organization’s leaders must actively support the team
  3. The team structure must match the situation.
  4. Membership on the team must be clear and concrete, not porous. Role clarity is mission-critical.
  5. Teams must be actively coached. Sadly, this one is potentially the most powerful tool for enabling high performance, yet, it is rarely used.

Interestingly, the research isn’t as loud on the topic of leadership, although having the right kind of leader approaching things in the right way for the situation is implied in the team structure point.

Five Must-Have Additions to Promote Team Performance

Research born of practical experience suggests these five items are critical to supporting team development:

  1. If the initiative is important enough to set up a team, there must be an active, engaged sponsor operating with a clear charter on what a sponsor is supposed to do.
  2. Coaching must be present as suggested in the research. However, the focus must be on teaching teams to talk together and how to decide.
  3. Cognitive and cultural diversity are essential for infusing creativity into problem-solving.
  4. There is no performance without trust. Cultivating a culture where “Swift Trust” prevails initially and deeper trust is developed over time is essential.
  5. Team values guide behaviors. If you want high-performance, write the rules that will govern expectations for working together. Start with accountability.

For Distributed Teams, Work Constantly on Improving Signal With Virtual Communications

All of our communication tools and technologies added together don’t replace the potential for signal clarity from in-person communication. There’s a flatter signal for virtual communication and a lot more noise that interferes with the message and comprehension. Slack, Zoom, and the other great tools are just that—tools. As team developers, we must redouble efforts to get static and interference out of our virtual communication activities.

For team leads, here are seven starter ideas to improve that signal-to-noise issue:

  1. Translate your communication value(s) into working processes. Create processes with input from remote colleagues on what they need to improve clarity for video and conference calls.
  2. For virtual communication events, appoint a moderator/facilitator responsible for ensuring all voices are heard.
  3. Regularly survey remote colleagues on the quality of communications and what they need to strengthen the signal and reduce the noise. Use the survey feedback as a baseline and focus on improving scores over time.
  4. Share the small talk opportunities. I like the small talk that occurs at the beginning of many meetings—it humanizes the situation. Place a time-limit on it, and remember to invite your remote colleagues into the sharing.
  5. Use visual tools to capture all points on the fly in front of everyone. Keeping notes visible is a game-changer in my experience. I use mind mapping software for this activity.
  6. Rotate meeting time to give the individuals in different time zones an occasional break.
  7. Ask your team coach to observe and comment on communication effectiveness and suggest improvements.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I love the potential for “magic” that Hackman describes when referencing teams. In reality, the “magic” is an outcome of deliberate focus and action from everyone involved. I count 17 suggestions in this post. If something is important enough to “put a team on it,” as one colleague regularly suggested to me, it’s important enough to invest energy in pursuit of high-performance. Use the lists here to create your team-performance checklist.

Art's Signature