Rapidly creating high performing teams

Rapidly creating high performing teams
Published: 15 October 2014
We all need results and we need them fast. The importance of having the right people on the job and ensuring that they are performing has never been more critical for organisations.

The debate on how this done is heightened as we often bring together teams from very different organisational and cultural values and we quickly need to have the same ideas around what it means to deliver, what a deadline is and how we are going to work together. It is also argued that global economic challenges are making teams more risk averse and spending has reduced - making traditional norms of time frames less achievable. It seems that the prevailing attitude is to do it, and do it now, or get out while we find someone who can deliver.

We are familiar with the work of Tuckman (1965) which highlighted that a team moves from forming to performing.

The stages of team development

In recognition of the life cycle of groups, Tuckman proposed that there are hierarchical stages of team development, all of which are necessary and inevitable as a team grows and delivers results.

The first four stages are:

    forming - teams get together and colleagues want to impress each other and start putting forward their ideas and agendas;
    storming - a period in which people all move forward and chase at the goal while there is no clear leadership and working style;
    norming - recognition of what each member is there to contribute and starting to share information and collaborate on solutions that take objectives forward; and
    performing - acceleration of collaboration and progress towards the goal.

Wheeler (2003) showed a team would not become high performing until it has progressed through all of the earlier stages.

The start-up phase on an initiative still remains the most critical aspect of getting teams to perform. The challenge is to effectively support high potential teams from the beginning, to minimise the time they spend in the less productive forming, storming and norming stages. Most importantly, research seems to emphasise the importance of assisting teams through the critical storming phase quickly, to reduce unnecessary conflict and to prevent undesirable behaviours and cultures from developing, which can have far-reaching consequences for a project or organisation.

What is a high performing team?
To achieve a high performing team, organisations are looking at ways in which to accelerate the process and not to leave it to an organic evolution. Rather, through employing innovative strategies we are moving teams into higher performance much faster.

To define high performing teams, we need to look at what they do. A high performing team exhibits innovation, an effective working style and through collaboration provides the greatest value to their specific organisational or project goals.

A high performing team also proactively finds ways to effectively undertake a function, without unnecessary conflict and supervision. This does not mean that there is no conflict, but that conflict is about ideas that move the programme forward and lead to meaningful progress and appreciation of the different perspectives and working styles of individuals and teams. With this type of flexibility and adaptability, a high performing team is well positioned to achieve its outcomes and make decisions that are implementable and realisable in the context of goals. This idea is called the regenerative power of the high performing team, as the next step always brings us closer to the end goal and feeds an adaptive cycle of growth.

 Practical steps
A great team starts with getting the right people in the team. This may not be all the 'A-Players', but a range of roles that can support each other and work together. Organisations unfortunately often take a skills-based, rather than a team-role based view of teams, and this has been proven to limit the effectiveness of teams.
A great team needs:

    a clear team vision;
    an agreement that each person understands what the vision, mission, purpose and goals actually mean;
    clear performance indicators and performance standards to be set;
    agreement on deliverables and procedures;
    clear communication;
    a clear definition of behavioural expectations, including respect and collaborative working;
    the implementation of issues such as reporting and team discipline from the beginning;
    to operate as adults, with agreements around open and honest communications;
    agreement on fostering collaboration and involving all key members in key decisions;
    agreement on conflict resolution mechanisms; and
    effective feedback to be built into the team work process.

Organisations that accelerate team performance are using the project initiation process to establish these new types of ground rules to create a team environment that functions effectively; and that can draw back on a pre-defined architecture of 'teaming' that means that everyone is on the same page at the start.

This approach highlights the need for effective team and task design for high performance and it challenges managers to really understand what they want from their people.

Moving beyond the obvious
A lot of the above is 'as expected', but some organisations are moving beyond these approaches into more advanced teaming practices.

Some ways to achieve the above, in the context of the 'quickening', are outlined below:

    Enforcing direct team protocols and behaviours to optimise workplace climate and project outcomes e.g. forced communication and resilience measures. All projects follow this type of outlook and there are for example, forced weekly meetings and set agenda’s to ensure that all elements are dealt with.
    Teams are often co-located into residential environments to pressure-cook the storming and norming phases and to ensure a high level of understanding of personal and work motivations for doing things.
    Teams are more often composed through detailed psychometric assessments based on peer review and peer selection. Peers are given options on people with specific skills to compose a team that is balanced.
    Reward systems are being reshaped to be highly dependent on high performance, team innovation and peer-based performance review.
    Team purposes are defined upfront and the team leader is 'inducted' into this purpose by the higher management level. This 'board of supporters' approach ensures that the team leader has a high level of authority and is compelled to drive the project purpose with the team.
    Aligning of team performance measures and metrics with company and project performance metrics through fluid performance frameworks and bonus systems that recognise the roles people play in different initiatives.
    The use of effective team-based inductions to create, enforce and re-enforce team expectations and behaviours.
    The use of buddy systems to ensure that teams work together and different deliverables are adequately supported. This micro-peering approach socialises the solutions more effectively.
    The use of team advisors and team coaches to provide external validation of progress.
    External auditing and maintenance of team agreements.

While each of these measures has its place, it shows that organisations are exploring new and innovative ways to accelerate team performance.

It has been found that teams that have clear ground rules and support operate quicker, more effectively and maintain clarity of purpose. Team unity and cohesion minimises wasted time and energy, and reduces timeframes and overall cost. People also like working in teams where things work and this reduces anxiety, increases 'fit', and leads to long-term retention.

Poorly formed teams suffer from slower delivery and less than ideal performance. Management often needs to get involved in poorly formed teams, spending time managing fallouts from missed deliverables and getting involved with people and performance issues. Costs increase and projects fail, often leading to major loss of reputation and value in an organisation.

As a manager and leader you need to focus on navigating the entry of each person into a team very carefully. For new project teams it is important to set the tone and delivery parameters clearly, and there are techniques to assist with this.

To maintain high performance requires an ongoing investment of time and management effort, but you should rather spend time challenging people to achieve a higher purpose than investing time in managing poor performance. Managers and leaders should constantly look at support mechanisms and be brought back to the basics when those storms hit the team environment.

Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Development sequence in small groups, Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), pp 384-399
Wheeler, S.A. (2003). Group size, group development, and group productivity, Small Group Research, 40(2), pp 247-262

- Regenesys
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