Characteristics of High-performance Teams

In this post, I would like to discuss about characteristics of high-performance teams as defined in The Wisdom of Teams. For more detailed review of the book that I wrote sometime back, see here: Part-I, Part-II and Part-III.

The book defines a team as follows (my formatting)

A small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Notice the key words (which are very well explained in the book, what follows is my interpretation and usage of them):

1.       Small number: This is important. It is very hard for a large group of people to come together and form a team, primarily because it is hard to meet other criteria with a large group. Typical size that works well is 5-8 in my opinion. Anything big, and you should consider splitting or having a ‘working group’ (another term defined in the book).

2.       Complementary skills: For a team to function properly, it should have all the necessary skills for the common purpose it exists for. However, many times, team members are picked because of their organizational positions, being closer to the problem, and other extraneous reasons. Beware of such team, they are more likely to have team members with similar skills and/or a big skill  gap in the team, both of which are dangerous for team success.

3.       Common Purpose: The team must have a common purpose, the reason this team exists. I have been on many teams where this tenet is ignored and teams are formed because an amorphous problem exists in the company and different individuals have different understanding, ideas and solutions about this problem. Putting them together without clearly stating the purpose is to set the team for failure.

4.       (Common) Performance Goals: One of the most important predictor of the performance of a team is how clearly the performance goals are defined. These goals must be specific and measurable to be useful. These can be defined either by the team sponsor (the person(s) who create this team) or by the team themselves based on the common purpose, but defining this from the beginning is extremely important. This is the piece (along with purpose) around which the team rallies to deliver high performance.

5.       (Common) Working approach: A common working approach is something the team comes up on its own and has to be unique for each team. Working approach needs to factor in various skills and capabilities of the team members, the expectations from other stakeholders and organizational culture. A working approach must include communication models within and outside the team (meetings, status reporting, etc), roles and responsibilities for team members (team leader, team spokesperson, troubleshooter, etc), as well as tracking and measuring progress towards the purpose and performance goals.

6.       Mutually accountable: This in my mind is the most important (and most difficult to achieve) attribute of a high-performance team. Mutually acceptable means that even when I am not involved in doing the actual work, I will be held accountable for the outcome of the work if it is being done by any other member of the team. This is hard because this goes against natural human tendencies. In my experience, this requires trust, transparency, and candor to be established among the team members. This is best established when the team shares the common purpose and performance goals and is willing to invest time and energy in creating trust, transparency and candor. I will talk more about this later in this post.

I have experienced many teams, both at the level of individual contributors as well as senior management teams, and can vouch for the above tenets of a high-performance team (interested readers can read about my experience of a great team here).

Two specific examples actually helped me compare the performance of the team when many of these tenets were met with another one when these were not met.

I was given the opportunity to lead two similar cross-group, company-wide projects in my previous company. Both the problems dealt with some aspects of customer satisfaction and quality of our work, and required changes in the way R&D, services and support teams address customer needs and collaborate. In one case, the top management team got together to identify one of them as primary sponsor who went ahead and defined the problem, stated how the success of the team will be measured and gave a timeline. I was asked to lead the team and was allowed to essentially pick my own team across the teams (of course, by asking their department heads for recommendations) which helped me take care of ‘complimentary skills’ aspect. We worked well as a team (even though this was a virtual team), delivered on the clear performance goals that were established for us, and were able to recommend various process changes which were later implemented by various team members in their own teams.

In the other, more recent example, there were problems in getting all the top management to align and define a common purpose and goal for the team to be formed. Even when the team was formed, different execs continued to give different (and sometimes conflicting) messages about the charter of the team. No wonder then that individual team member pulled in the direction their exec (they reported to) wanted them to and caused the team to move slowly. It took me a quarter to define the charter and get some basic level of agreement from execs so that some progress could be made. Additionally, it was never clear how the success of this team would be measured. Suffice it to say that while the team did achieve a lot of things over a period of 6 months (while I was associated with it), no one can claim it was successful. Not an experience anyway wants to have after putting so much hard work.

In my tomorrow’s post, I will talk about how these tenets are similar to and different from the The five dysfunctions of a team. I will also talk about how you can identify if you are in a dysfunctional (or high-performance) team. Believe me, it is hard to know and accept the type of team you are in, especially if you are in a dysfunctional team. This is because our biases come in the way and we tend to see the problems as individuals’ problems (ours or others in the team), rather than a team problem. Also, many a times, we undermine a high-performance team and highlight the dysfunctional team symptoms by our unconscious behaviors and it is good to know about them.

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