Building High-Performance Teams at a time when they matter most

Building High-Performance Teams at a time when they matter most

The effectiveness of an organisation’s teams plays a crucial role in its success. Smart thinking around their structure, and performance gearing, will pay dividends. In the first of a sequence of articles, we assess key considerations in forging high-performance teams.

Performance. It’s become an overused word, perhaps. In government, industry and business, endeavour and sport – any analysis homes in on this X-factor.
The origin of the word combines the 500BC Proto-Germanic language root frumjaną meaning to accomplish, and the later Old French fornir meaning to provide for. The synthesis indicates not just an action, but also an aspect of nurture or care, confirmed by words associated with the same origins: first, impress, pressure – and pregnant.
In its outcome, a great accomplishment has a purity and a sense of perfection. Hence – simplicity being the art of perfection – it often appears straightforward. In reality, achievement usually requires significant strategy, planning, effort, and perseverance through complex difficulties.

Sports, especially team sports, are a useful analogy to illustrate the concepts in action. When Siya Kolisi lifted last year’s Rugby World Cup trophy, the on-field players were spotlighted in the glory. But the entire squad, head coach Rassie Erasmus and his support staff, and the backroom team of physios, fitness instructors and kitmen were all crucial contributors to, and components of, a longer journey to success – as was the team’s strategic and day-to-day management.
In a workplace context, companies need to fuse corporate vision and mission, culture, individuals’ attitudes, motivations and goals, and rewards. Two engines drive this fusion and the performance of teams: their design, and their functional processes, practises and dynamics.

Great teams are purposefully designed. Corporate structures are evolving because businesses face increasingly complex challenges. Interconnected global value chains optimise efficiencies, but often come with new levels of risk, and the hyper-competitiveness of most industries today requires a ceaseless quest for advantage and innovation. In this environment, tight vertical integration within silo-ed organograms is inadequate. New business ecosystems require high-performing teams which operate in fluid, flexible structures.
This means that building and sustaining effective, achievement-oriented teams starts with thinking about optimal team structures for business divisions or units, for departments, specific projects and their lifecycles, or administrative functions. Cross-functional or networked teams; project teams to drive a transformation exercise; virtual teams to deliver innovation by capitalising on a worldwide talent pool; cross-organisational teams (such as category management in retail): these are examples of newer team structures designed to drive productivity and performance by triggering greater collaboration.

Team size may be a factor in its performance. Studies by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar point to limit to the number of people with whom we are able to maintain social relationships. This has an implication for the cohesion of teams. The Dunbar Effect suggests that the effectiveness of communication erodes when a group exceeds 100, and the maximum for effective collaboration is 150. Above that, productivity is hindered by an overload of administration and ad-hoc interaction. “The size of the business unit can affect success,” summarises Dunbar.

Diversity can unleash excellence. Consider the dimensions in the individual make-up of the team. Increasing evidence correlates a team’s diversity with its ability to problem-solve, embrace fresh thinking, to generally think smarter and thereby generate improved performance on multiple metrics, and to scale digital initiatives.

Build teams that are not only gender- and ethnically-diverse, but also cognitively varied: look to blend the attributes of people who think with different habits, styles, processes and perspectives. This prevents a propensity towards groupthink, raises the calibre of intra-team challenge, and hence its overall expertise and calibre.

Teams require leaders. Leadership encompasses multiple aspects, but its essence is to ensure an enabling environment, and to align the team’s direction with the corporate purpose and plans.
The domain of leadership, then, is largely about culture. Pinpointing the ‘right culture’ is difficult, because it differs for each organisation. But two threads are common to almost all companies with high-performing, dynamic cultures: trust and respect is sacrosanct, and a rigourous discipline permeates the methodology of how individuals and teams work. “[T]he point is to first get self-disciplined people who engage in very rigorous thinking, who then take disciplined action within the framework of a consistent system,” writes leading business consultant Jim Collins.

Leadership is also about mobilising the strengths of individuals. People have their own minds, mindsets and agendas. It’s vital to corral these in a way which amplifies attributes, mitigates weaknesses, irons out creases. Unity is strength, and that strength comes from a togetherness. Nurturing an individual’s personal growth, knowledge-building and achievement – but always within a commitment to the overarching team cause – is a fundamental role of team management.

Communication is the lifeblood of a team. The delivery of a team is distilled in its processes and practises, the most important of which is communication.

Autonomy, trust between members, accountability, flexibility: these are all linked to how the team communicates. Achievement-oriented teams have clear communication policies and procedures, conflict resolution mechanisms, and multi-directional communication and backchannels for informal collaboration are strongly encouraged.

The ability of team members to intuit one another’s thinking and pre-emptively synchronise decisions and actions, known as transactive memory, may be important in certain aspects of the business, especially those involving a high degree of specialised knowledge and expertise in combination with the need for fast decisions and efficient responses. Again, there are lessons from sport as to the power of this kind of deep-rooted, even non-verbal and reflexive communication. In Formula-1, a pit-stop involves a crew of 20, each with a rapid-fire, specific role which they need to perform in a heartbeat. And that heartbeat needs to be absolutely in synch with the other 19 crew. When this teamwork really works – including the transactive memory of the brain and the habituated muscle memory of the body – a pit-stop can be completed in under two seconds!

This illustrates the power of practise. We know the mantra ‘practise makes perfect’. But what we don’t necessarily think through is how to do this in practice, and how practise is, actually, a steady stream of routines that can drive improvement. Work performance, too, can benefit hugely from truly focused practices, including harnessing the right habits. (This area is a rich field of recent research, and will be the subject of a subsequent article.)

High-performance teams never stand still. Training, more training, then re-training: making learning central to the firm’s philosophy, and part of how performance is defined, is vital to core task delivery and to gear for innovative thinking.

Interestingly, a recent global CEO survey reveals a correlation between an organisation’s progress in upskilling talent, and the confidence of its CEO that it will achieve revenue growth. The factors which underpin individual employees’ and teams’ growth will simultaneously, CEOs believe, boost company-wide resilience and spur its prospects. As such, it has perhaps never been more important for businesses to build those employee skill sets critical to their business model, and to forge next-level performance.

High-performance teams are forged, and nurtured, through significant effort. Take the trouble to do this, however, and the phrase ‘I couldn’t have done it without my team’ will ring true in your organisation.


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