What makes a high-performing team? Thousands of studies have been completed, but my colleagues and I have boiled them down into four key characteristics.
Talent matters, but teamwork matters more. In the Academy Awards, about 20 percent of the time, the movie that includes the Best Actor or Actress wins Best Picture. In the NBA, about 20 percent of the time, the team with the top scorer wins the NBA championship. Further, when Michael Jordan led the league in personal scoring but his team did not win the NBA championship (3 times), he averaged 34.55 points per game. But when Jordan led the league in personal scoring and his team won the championship (6 times), he averaged only 30.5 points per game. When he personally scored less, his team won the championship.
Like movies and basketball (all sports actually), business today requires teamwork. In our research (see Victory Through Organization) on 1200 businesses, we discovered that organization capability had four times (yes four times!) more impact on business results than individual competence (talent). Organization capability may occur in a plant, function, division, business unit, geographic unit, or enterprise-wide. In each of these cases, teamwork enables organization capabilities. So what makes a high-performing team? Thousands of studies have been completed, but my colleagues and I have boiled them down into four key characteristics.
Any successful team needs a clear purpose or reason for existing (call it mission, vision, strategy, agenda). A successful purpose must meet a number of criteria: aspirational to go beyond what exists today; measurable results in output or service; energizing to inspire team members; and customer centric to deliver value to those served by the team.
Leaders co-craft a team’s purpose with team members and customers so that all share in its creation and are thus more committed to it The leader then has the job to communicate the purpose through words, symbols, messages, and actions in order to make the purpose real to team members and the users of team services.
Governance refers to how the team operates on administrative routines like roles, decisions, and support systems.
- Having clear roles means knowing who is on the team and why. Team roles need to include technical or functional experts who have special expertise and perform the general work of the team, customer experts who adapt knowledge to customer requirements, and managerial experts who coordinate work, set deadlines, and administer the team activities. Within these roles, team members should present a diversity of thought to generate innovative ideas.
- A team functions through the decisions it makes. Successful decision-making increases with clarity about decisions to be made, accountability for who makes what decisions, timeliness for when the decisions are made, processes to make decisions, and follow-up to monitor and learn from decisions made.
- Team support systems deal with things like compensation, logistics for team meetings, administrative support, and the like.
When leaders pay attention to these governance mechanisms, teams work together more fluidly.
A team survives with healthy relationships. Two dimensions create positive team relationships: caring and conflict. When team members care for each other, they make and receive bids and make amends. Bids represent the willingness of individuals to engage with each other. Bids may manifest themselves in personal questions (e.g., “How are you doing?”), awareness of non-work-related personal concerns, respect for differences, listening openly to one other, expressing gratitude for good work, and building trust. Making amends means that team members recognize mistakes, apologize to each other, and let go of past grievances. Honest and genuine apologies enable people from different backgrounds to work together.
The other side of relationships includes being able to manage conflict. Teams succeed because people with different views come together for common interests: being able to disagree without being disagreeable, have tension without contention, or debate without demeaning indicates healthy team relationships. This healthy environment requires that team members run into problems rather than away from them, provide honest and direct feedback to each other, and sacrifice personal interests for team objectives.
Leaders set the tone for both caring and conflict. They are sensitive to who is more or less connected to the team. They work to engage the less connected. They appropriately use some team time for personal celebration and support of team members. They model debate and dialogue without personal rancor. They are candid and transparent with team members.
Any team does some things that work and some things that do not work as well. For teams to thrive and improve, they need to commit to learning, which means:
- Taking time to reflect and assess: Teams can spend time in meetings to think about an event (“How did we do on this activity?”) or a timeframe of work (“How have we done in the last 60 days?). Additional questions (“What worked and what did not? Why?”) as part of an after-action review prepare teams for the next action.
- Identifying the patterns of common errors made by the team: For example, a team might tend to be too slow in making decisions. For a helpful outside view, ask those affected by the team but not on the team to help identify patterns of mistakes.
- Fostering a spirit of learning not blaming: Acknowledge that mistakes are made, apologize, and move forward without getting too consumed by the mistake or ignoring it altogether.
Learning means that teams have a self-improvement process built into their regular work.
Leaders need to be learners by modeling curiosity, being open to feedback, apologizing when necessary, taking accountability for mistakes, sharing credit for successes, encouraging risk-taking and creativity, and performing periodic learning audits where teams can process their experiences.
The requirement for teams to turn individual talent into collective success continues. Creating effective teams is not terribly complicated as these four criteria capture much of successful team dynamics. The challenge is to bring discipline to these four dimensions of high-performing teams so that individual skills become organizational capabilities.
If you're interested in helping your leaders acquire team management skills in addition to other foundational leadership skills, learn more about our development services.