High Performance Work Teams

Team Practice, Not Just for Football
Many business leaders are dunderheads. “Why?” do you ask in shocked dismay. Because they routinely miss a huge improvement opportunity. Business organizations and companies, when they are enlightened and awake, are interested in high-performance teams. When internal business groups can powerfully collaborate, business problems are solved in an efficient manner and solutions are implemented quickly. This then gives the business a strategic advantage.
The concept of improving group performance as a way of improving overall outcomes is commonly understood by sports teams, theater groups and the military. These types of groups clearly see the need to improve their individual performances and their performance as a group. They have designed processes for their groups. In the military it begins with “boot camp.” Then you graduate to “training” and “war games.” In sports this group improvement process is called “practice” and in theater, “rehearsal.”
This is where being a business dunderhead comes in. For the most part, in business there is no formal practice that is designed to enhance or improve group performance. Oh my… Could we have a missing here?
A Group is Not a Team
Over my years in business as a coach, I’ve heard business leaders refer to many groups of individuals as “teams.” You hear business leaders use the term all the time. For the most part I cringe and hyperventilate when the word “team” is used in business. I react this way because it is usually not an accurate description the group being described. I then get a rash.
I’ve found it to be useful to distinguish business groups from business teams. In business organizations you either have groups or you have teams. For the most part you have groups. A group is made up of individuals each accountable and focused on doing their own job. In a group there is no common work agenda other than that they work for the same company.
Imagine a group of individuals waiting at a bus stop or a group of operators at an online call center taking reservations. In groups there is no need for joint collaboration or group output. Everyone involved is focused on their individual activity. The individuals involved are not connected by having any type of joint work produced.
In teams there are a number of people involved with complementary skills focused on the same outcome. These individuals are mutually accountable for an agreed upon result. The mutual accountability, as we shall see, is a big deal and a very significant difference between teams and groups.
Avoid the Surgery “Group”
For instance, imagine a hospital meeting where you have a group of physicians sitting at the same table. They are there to swap information and educate each other. Each of these physicians is accountable for their own patients. They for the most part wish each other well and they like to gossip!
When these doctors are back in their hospital units there is no mutual accountability to each other for their work or results. They do work for the same hospital but that is where the connection ends. At the meeting they are there to learn, improve and be collegial. Each will do their own individual doctor thing. They have no mutual accountability to each other. This truly is just a group of doctors.
Now take the medical group that is doing hip replacement surgery on your father-in-law. There are various nurses, doctors and technicians all involved and all engaged in a joint-get the pun-work product. I think humor in writing is healthy. Oh my god, another pun.
Clearly the group of individuals doing surgery are related to each other much differently than the aforementioned doctors at the aforementioned boring hospital meeting. With hip replacement surgery we have a team because there is a group procedure and the individuals involved are, as a group, committed to performing this procedure together. And, beyond just performing a procedure, the surgical team has a commitment to having their patient be alive and healthy.
The surgical team members are dependent on each other for carrying out their mission. There are handoffs and dependences. While individuals have different roles and accountabilities, there is a common focus, an interrelatedness and a joint-that word again but I am not going there-involvement and concern.
The surgical team has mutual accountability for the success of the operation. Whether the patient lives or dies is a group event. As a team, they are also capable of much more complex tasks than a single individual doctor. You can imagine that a single physician simply does not have the ability that a coordinated team of medical experts have.
An Orchestra Without Rehearsals
Back to business-gosh, I like the sound of that. Team performance does not just happen magically. It is not a function of the right combination of personalities or luck. This goes against conventional wisdom and typical business pop psychology.
In my bald-headed estimation, for a group of business individuals to really perform together as a team, they need both practice and group conversation. Now there is radicalism. The individuals involved need to understand the best way to organize for team performance. Then the team needs to take action on that understanding and tangibly perform together.
This focus, conversation and actions allows business teams to emerge. Boot Camp for the military, rehearsal for theater and pre-season workouts for sports teams are the norm. Again no radical thinking here. These practices are undertaken in order to attain improved group performance
Typically, in Business Marketing Salary there is far less interest or appreciation of group development and the need for groups to practice. This borders on bizarre.
What typically happen in business is that groups are formed and marched into the corporate battle zone. They are expected to perform, to fight the noble fight, and when they fail, there is stunned surprise. Again bizarre and again a case of dunderheadism.
When one really looks at what business typically does with groups, it appears ludicrous. Yet this is how business teams are typically organized. No wonder they are not real teams. As I watch business groups perform the above, I see the same pattern of vain hope and failure revealed over and over again
Inside the Bowl
IMAGINE A FISH BOWL where you are the observer watching a group of executives at a strategic planning retreat. Many of these executives are wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans because we are in the wilds of northern Wisconsin. That is what you wear up there in order to blend in with the locals.
In the paneled meeting room, complete with flip charts and no internet, the Divisional Leadership Group is looking at making their sales numbers. Instead of seeing this as a departmental issue, with Sales not making their budget, this group takes on being mutually accountable for the divisions result.
What you do not know is that this type of approach is a HUGE ENORMOUS breakthrough. It is a total break from this group’s past behavior. They have had five years of not making their sales number and not being profitable. They have had five years of operating in silos and competing against each other.
Again, unbeknownst by you, they recently got a new leader. This leader came in committed that they, as a leadership team, were going to operate as a high-performance work team. Heck, they even hired me as the coach. You can imagine their desperation. BACK TO THE FISH BOWL…
“I can give you three million from my funds,” the Marketing Director excitedly blurted out. “It is too late in the year for them to really make the difference. Let’s slide it over to Carl. Sales can use it for coupons and working with the sales reps and the chains. We could make our numbers that way.” The wizened and battle scarred Sales VP nearly fell off his chair. “Wow! That could really work,” he exclaims excitedly.
Then, Ralph, who was the Division Leader and had who had led and supported the initiative to become a high-performance leadership team, leaned forward and exclaimed, “Great thinking! This is just what we are after. It is our money-not designated for silos, but ours as the leadership team to use in the way that will give us the biggest bang for the buck,” he acknowledged. “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how we can best utilize these new funds.”
High-Performance Teams Produce Results
This group went on to make their numbers and profit. They did it as a real team that was mutually accountable for the results. By operating in this fashion, this group made a profit for the first time in five years.
This is not the first time in business groups I’ve seen this type of performance breakthrough. Over the years I have seen many teams that started as groups that then went through a formal process of business team practice and development. Subsequently, from this learning and practice endeavor, true performance breakthroughs resulted.
It happened in Canada with a major insurance company. They, in gratitude, gave me an all-expense-paid vacation and a statute of a goose. It happened in a Minneapolis-based business. Their leadership team grew their company from seven people and under one million to 250 million and 200 employees. The company went public and I got stock and made some real bucks.
It happened in the wilds of Illinois. There a company utilizing a high-performance leadership team doubled in size from 19 million to 40 million in one year without any major glitches. In all these examples, the use of high-performance business teams were critical to the attainment of these business results.
Growing High-Performance Teams
I know that you are now saying, “Ok Bozo head, I am sold. But how do I do this? How do I create a high-performance work team?”
The following are the five things that are critical in having business groups grow and develop into high-performance work teams.
1. Members of a high-performance work teams have a common performance agenda that all members subscribe to and support.
Teams do not spring up by voodoo, magic, and/or mystical thinking. The essence of a good work team is a focus on performance. It is not good communication or good relationships but a focus on team performance and an agreed upon appreciation of what this means that allows a team to really get results. The good communication and good relationships are an outcome and result of a team that is performance driven.
The above is tough to acquire in the typical business work culture. In the common work place people individually are typically and truly related socially. This means that for the most part they are concerned with getting along and staying out of each other’s hair. Basically it is the difference between how do I relate to people at a barbecue and how do I relate if I am a part of the work team who is going out to win a road building contract. The road building team has to work together to have the lowest, but still profitable, bid.
The nature of the relationship of the employees on the team is quite different from the people at the barbecue. The first is based on the social contract of “Lets all just get along” and the second is based on the contract of “Let’s get something remarkable done and perform together so that specific results occur.” One group is social around eating meat and the other is based on performance; on getting the bid against some very real competition.
Who is Really Into It?
2. Teams enjoy and are engaged in what they are doing. They are into it.
The vast majority of employees go to work because they have to in order to survive. In many cases they are victims to work. That is the culture most adults live in. Victims make useless high-performance team members.
This is different than in the world of amateur sports, drama and dance. People voluntarily play sports because they want to and like the game. When members of teams fundamentally do not like the games or do not feel connected to the game the group is playing, there will be real performance issues. For things to move forward and for real results to get produced, the team has to be into the game.
The Team is Accountable
3. High-performance teams are, “a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and a working approach in which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”
I agree with the definition of real teams from The Wisdom of Teams by John Katzenbach and Douglas Smith shown above. Real teams are basic units of performance. Where the mischief comes from regarding teams is that the members of the team are mutually accountable for the result. This is quite different than how most of the work world is organized.
In the typical work place, each employee is accountable for their job. At best, their manager and supervisor are responsible for their work. There is no group or team performance that is formally measured or expected. The pretense is that if each employee just does his or her thing it will work out perfectly.
Unfortunately the work world is more complicated. In many cases, customers are impacted by a group of employees. When a group takes on being mutually accountable for the experience customers have of the business, then they can generate real customer-focused actions. From this tangible and positive business results occur.
A Developmental Process
4. High-performance teams develop in stages.
It is good for teammates to be aware of these stages because they normalize the experience of growing and developing into a high-performance team.
This model is not originally mine, but is a form of the “forming, storming, forming and performing” model. I just gave it a tweak. Groups can be asked to find themselves in this model and then design what they need to do to reach the next stage. Again, this exercise is great for focusing the team on growing, developing and designing next steps.
The stages are Entrepreneur Characteristics as follows:
Stage A – The exciting “first-date” stage. This is the birth of the group and there is typically some excitement and anticipation about the potential and possibility of the group. There is a lot of uncertainty but there is also optimism.
Stage B – The “poop-hits-the-fan” stage when reality sets in about how group life can be hard and demanding work. It is no longer fun and there is finger pointing between employees. Mutual accountability by most is seen as an empty concept and team members look at who to blame for their results.
This is where most teams die. There is the need for the manager’s and coach’s real support and focus. Commitment needs to be generated to work through the issues. This is also where the employee’s love of the game is needed. For most groups, Stage B is where focus and discipline is critical for success.
Stage C – Getting behind the game stage. This is when everyone begins to align behind group performance and what needs to happen in order to allow the group to succeed. Discipline and focus arises with the group following the same ground rules and work approach. For the first time, real group performance results are seen.
Stage D – This is the high-performance stage, where the team is really using its group structure to produce some remarkable results. It is typical at this stage for the team to get recognized both internally and externally by customers for the business results that are being produced. Team members also typically like this structure and feel connected to each other. The team is winning their game.
We Designed Ourselves
5. A high-performance team designs its own high-performance structure.
A manager and leader is critical here. First, I have teams create their Purpose Statement. This is much less abstract than the company’s mission or Vision statement. It is a few simple statements in business terms about what the point and object of the team is and how they are going to work together to achieve this. Keep it simple and real.
I then have the team create one to three simple metrics by which they will measure themselves. Who will measure and when they tell the team how they are doing in achieving these metrics also needs to be determined.
The team then outlines what it is committed to getting done in the next six months to a year. These are clear measurable objectives and results. Have no more than six to eight of them, with a “by when” date on when they’ll be achieved. Monthly milestones and action plans may also be necessary to properly focus action
The meeting structure then is designed by the team. When they meet and for how long needs to be addressed. Who leads the meeting? Are their notes taken and distributed? How does the agenda get set and by who? These are critical issues to clarify.
The last aspect of this high-performance team structure is that the team sets ground rules for themselves on how they will interact. Ground rules are behavioral expectations that the team members have of each other. These include things like: If you have an issue with someone on the team, deal with them directly. No gossiping about members of the team. Silence is agreement, so if an issue is being discussed and you are quiet this is telling the group you agree. If you do not agree then you need to speak up. These ground rules can be quite confronting for some team members.
I have found that having a team design this type of structure really allows them to develop and perform much more quickly. It is important that the team honors and walks this talk.
These are the five critical elements of creating a high-performance work team. It is intended that they be valuable and supportive to you and your work teams. They have been valuable to me as I seek to create and cause high-performance teams in the workplace.
So, do not be another business dunderhead! Get cracking and apply this material. It is worth the effort.

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