A Model for High-Performing Teams

Much has been written about High-Performing Teams in recent years and for good reason. Organisational restructuring as part of the global shift to enterprise agility has shown that the team is the smallest building block of business design.

People are at the heart of agility. Organisational designers who forget this are highly likely to fail in seeing value come from their efforts. Without coaching individuals and teams through organisational transitions, the high-performing team remains a tricky myth that no one can obtain.

We know from Google’s Aristotle project that teams must have Psychological Safety, however, the data gave us no way of knowing how to achieve this, measure it, or even explain it.

In this article, I will explain how teams can become high-performing in a corporate environment. It is based on real work, research, and experience that we at AWA have gained with real organisations and people.

Let’s examine the team through my Team Culture model.

Image: Team Culture Model – Simon Powers, AWA.

Any team dynamic is made up of two distinct parts.

These are:

  • People and Interactions on the inside of the team
  • Interactions and Interference from outside of the team

The crux of creating a high-performing team is to strengthen the relationships on the inside of the team and reduce pressure on the team from outside factors. The wall of safety is the barrier around the team separating these two factors.

Performance = Team Potential – Outside Interference.

Inside the wall: Strengthening the people and interactions.

Our workshop Team Genesis, focuses on the internal relationships and gives practical steps in building a shared model of how the team will operate together.

In our course Enterprise Agility Masterclass we also teach an adapted version of the Core Protocols, which give the class and teams an emotionally digestible way to talk about their feelings towards each other in a corporate environment.

Through team coaching, which can take many months, we help teams to overcome the five dysfunctions identified by Patrick Lencioni, to achieve a strong Team Emotional Intelligence (TEI) and a strong sense of safety.

Building internal team strength can withstand much higher pressure from the surrounding organisation, allowing the team to hold themselves accountable for results and achieve great things.

It is clear from the model that the lines between team members are the emotional connections between people and that they do not involve a manager or a coach. They are the personal connections between people, and as such those people must actively cultivate their own relationships as part of their day to day. This is work, just as much as building a product or creating value for a customer.

High-performing teams can’t be created by top down management or a centralised coaching function that tells a team to be accountable, to get along, or to trust each other. It has to come from within.

Luckily, within Agile processes and from the care provided by a good professional Agile coach, there are lots of tools, coaching and workshops that provide practical, non-woolly, facilitation techniques to give even the most emotionally disconnected individual the ability to participate in a high-performing way.

Support and Pressure on the team from outside

Building great TEI is only half the story, and is actually a second order problem in many corporate environments, because the pressure, structure and dependencies crush the wall of safety or simply never allow it to manifest at all. Without the wall of safety, cultivating good relationships and coaching is a long painful road to nowhere.

Consider the many factors represented in the Team Culture model. Some factors enhance the team’s ability to function, and others hinder it. When the hindering items overpower the team’s ability to maintain the wall, the team crumbles and either ceases to be a team and becomes a bunch of individuals, or descends down the 5 dysfunctions to frustration and lack of trust.

When there is no team, you can’t have a high performing one

Imagine if you will, a crazy set up, such as this. Imagine, an organisation where the ‘agile team’ has a Product Owner that has no decision making ability for the team, and the ‘product’ they are working on, is really a component or service that the customer has no idea about, doesn’t care about, and certainly has never given any feedback on. To further paint a crazy picture, imagine that the stakeholders for this team are actually other development teams who also have no real sense of product, empowered product owner, and no customer visibility.

In this scenario, ‘stories’ or more likely tasks, as they have no customer value, are given to the team with very clear instructions on how long they need to take and how they need to build them. The team are probably asked to estimate but it makes no difference because every Product Owner needs their stories at a certain time so that they can try and create the illusion of control and manage the ever changing web of dependencies that this type of structure creates.

In this scenario, the team is not really a team. At least not in the agile sense. They are really part of a much wider team that they rely on to get any value to the customer. In this case, individuals must work closer in some cases with other teams than their own team members, or spend a lot of time reading and writing handover documents, which is a lean waste, and reduces collaboration / high-performance.

The wall of safety in this environment barely exists, and so high-performance will always remain a mythical construct.

Ideally the team would widen its wall of safety and create a single backlog and PO for the real team, and become feature teams, but this rarely happens.

Large scale team dynamics. – Simon Powers – AWA

Split between Product / Business and I.T.

Teams in a matrix organisation with multiple reporting lines into ‘the business’ and ‘I.T.’ create a structure where hierarchy is required to see the whole product from the customer perspective. If the I.T. part of the business is structured by technology component / service (Conway’s Law), then there is misalignment between the optimisation of the product part (customer focus), and the I.T. part (technology focus), and this creates too much pressure on the team that destroys any chance of high performance.

For an Enterprise Agility and Lean transition, the organisation would need to restructure its I.T. function to be optimised for customer delivery. Then the pressure would be removed and the Team Dynamics would support high-performance.

Image source: Simon Powers – AWA

Reviews and Rewards

Another factor of the corporate environment that the team works within, is the way individuals in the team are rewarded, evaluated, and compared to others. Often this create pressure on the individual and can promote behaviours that are contrary to overall team health.

If the goal is performance, then these types of organisational behaviours are not in alignment with that goal, and actually hinder it. This weakens the links within the team, reducing the team’s ability to trust each other and withstand other pressures from outside the wall of safety.

The very rewards and retention schemes that are designed to motivate and keep people from leaving often have the opposite effect and create mediocrity and frustration at the team level.

Yearly budgets

Large batch budget cycles are an environmental factor which limit the team’s ability to learn and change direction. Reducing the ability to act upon learning that arises naturally through product development, creates frustration and pressure upon the team to work on items they know are no longer relevant.

Project Aristotle identified another key factor in high-performing teams, which was the level that an individual or team felt listened to and their opinion taken into account. Yearly budget cycles force the opposite behaviours.

When a team feels pressured to deliver against a plan that is no longer relevant for them, they lose autonomy, and fail at the 3rd dysfunction of a team, which is the ability to personally commit to their goals. This weakens the bonds between the team, reduces the wall of safety, and keeps the team in mediocrity.

Reducing pressure on the wall

If the organisation’s design, through good, open-minded, and emotionally aware leadership, results in a flexible structure that is aligned with customer value, the team becomes in harmony with the wider organisational team, and has a higher chance of performance.

The pressure on the wall drops allowing space for the team to cultivate high internal connections. They feel safe and are able to try deeper facilitation techniques resulting in even deeper personal connections, commitments, and ultimately accountability for results that they believe in. This is a positive cycle resulting in high-performance.

High-performing teams

Building high-performance is just as much about building an environment that supports teamwork as it is building connections within the team. Both parts of the model must work together to make a high-performing team.

A holistic and systems thinking approach must be taken, and this is part of what moving towards enterprise agility is all about.

Image source: Simon Sinek talking about why good leaders make us feel safe.

Learning more

You can learn more about topics raised in this article by attending our next ICAgile Certified Agile Team Coach course or Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp

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