High Performing Teams: What Are They and How Do I Build One?

High Performing Teams: What Are They and How Do I Build One?

Every Rolls Royce is a car, but not every car is a Rolls Royce. Similarly, not every team is a high-performing team.

To know what high-performing teams are, all we have to do is upgrade our team definition:

Creating a high-performing team

Now that we know WHAT a high-performing team should look like, the next question is HOW to make your team high-performing.

The creation of a high-performing team doesn’t just happen on its own.

According to certified scrum trainer Mike Levison, there are five things you must do if you want your team to become a high-performing one.

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Form a stable team

When teams form, you should focus your attention on the stable stage. You should take your time and carefully select team members. And once you do, you should stick with them through thick and thin.

If everything goes smoothly, it takes at least six months to create a high-performance team. If members often come and go, and the only real improvements come from strengthening the inter-team relationships, forming a high-performing team becomes very difficult.

Value cohesion

Cohesion is a state in which members possess bonds that link them to one another or the whole group. Cohesive teams don’t happen overnight - it takes time and diligence to achieve them. Team networks with a high degree of cohesion provide a free stream of information and build trust amongst team members - thus increasing the performance.

However, you have to be very careful as there is a real danger of teams becoming over-cohesive and susceptible to groupthink, where, over time, their shared beliefs and assumptions become wrong if unchallenged by someone.

Therefore, while cohesion is crucial for high-performance teamwork, it has to be carefully managed and regularly offset by the input of ideas from outside sources.

Coach the team as a team, not as a group of individuals

Usually, human resource departments focus solely on individual skill development, rather than the growth of a team. This approach will not get you a high-performing team, but a drastically inferior high-performing group. Mike Levison has a few recommendations:

  • Have regular one-on-one meetings with your team members. Use them to discuss an individual’s habits and behaviors and how they affect the team. You should hold these meetings off-site, where no other members can eavesdrop. If you’re dealing with less confident team members, ask for written feedback instead.
  • Provide thoughtful feedback on small but important things, like the way the individual in question faces other members, how much they interrupt others, and how well they listen.
  • You are a leader, so be an example of the behavior you expect everyone to follow. Know your failings and work on them. Your team will react well to such behavior and are more likely to follow your lead.
  • Rearrange office seating to encourage member interaction, and create opportunities for social conversations. Set desks so everyone can see each other and choose an office that suits the size of your team: if it’s too small, it’ll feel cramped and uncomfortable; if it’s too big, the distance between members will discourage interaction.
  • The most important thing: change team members only if you don’t have any other choice.

Get them out of their workspaces

Stimulate interaction between team members in places other than their desks: it can be around a water cooler, in a kitchen next to the coffee maker, or a lounge area with a foosball table. Casual chit-chat and a relaxed atmosphere provide incentives for great ideas and increase team cohesion. This is also known as the water cooler effect.

"Bonding over media such as books, movies, etc. is a good point for shared experiences and discussion. Ideally, you find common ground between people and help them communicate themselves through that." — Kalila LangDigiSomni

To take it a step further, get your team out of the office altogether. Organize a simple team lunch, or any other social event (like drinks over a game of darts), and just let them bond. Work-related topics will come up sooner or later, and the relaxed atmosphere will encourage everyone to give their input on the subject - whether it is useful or not. Somewhere among those suggestions, there may be a solution your team has been looking for.

Set effective performance goals

The difference between effective and ineffective goals are actions with clear intent. By setting effective goals, you will make the team more effective as well: they will be more energized, focused, persistent, creative, and tactile.

High-performance teams are called high-performing because they are able to do much more quality work in a shorter amount of time. However, it is up to you as a team leader to provide them with the means to do that by setting HIGHLY specific goals. A goal that states, “Increase the loading time speed of page X to under 0.7 seconds,” sounds much more specific and challenging than a generic “Increase the page loading speed” request.

High performing team characteristics

What separates a high-performing team from any other team are its specific characteristics. To explain this better, we’ll use a ‘house-building’ metaphor.

Effective working procedures

The foundation upon which the house (or the team) is built. Similar to a shaky foundation, ineffective procedures prevent the team from being constructed and can cause problems with gathering, organizing, and evaluating information, while at the same time discouraging creativity, innovation, and risk-taking.

Shared values

All members know that the house has to be built, but in a high-performing team, they also share a vision of what the house should look like. They also share goals, objectives, and values, while being focused on results and solutions. The final goal is always clear, frequently re-evaluated, and shared by all.

Shared leadership

Depending on the floor (or the task) the team is currently working on, different members take turns in being the leader. When workers are installing wiring, the electrician is in charge while everyone else just wields the hammers. As he is an expert in the field, others will follow his orders and instructions, no questions asked. Mind you, there is always one formal team leader, but their sole purpose is coaching and mentoring.

Complementary abilities

Builders can provide you with the walls, but the house won’t be functional if there are no plumbers or carpenters. In properly made teams, each member possesses a certain knowledge, set of skills, and personals strengths. Synergy with other members is what makes the team highly-productive.

Trust and mutual respect

If you ask a member of a high-performing team about their colleagues' ability, they will always answer: “If anyone can do that job, they can. And not only that - they will do it right!”. Everyone values and supports each other, and feedback is wholeheartedly accepted. There is no bad blood - only a desire to succeed.

Adaptability to changes

Projects change all the time: the yellow wall suddenly has to become a green wall, and the existing tiles in the bathroom should be replaced as well. When it comes to handling drastic changes, high-performance teams don’t revel in self-pity and give up. They analyze, adapt, and perform.

Constant learning and improving

Mistakes are a learning tool, and there are no repercussions if members examine what went wrong and don't make the same mistake again. They may knock down the wrong walls, but the important part is they won’t do it again.

Regular result evaluation

To ensure construction is heading in the right direction, an engineer has to take a step back and take a look at the house from time to time. A high-performing team does that after every major milestone. Why? Because it gives them a realistic completion time, as well as an opportunity to foresee obstacles that may arise.

"An effective team is characterized by trust, conflict management, commitment, accountability, outcome focus. All possible with great communication." — Cam Lee, Rock Agency

Open Communication

If effective procedures are the foundation of a team, communication is the roof. In high-performing teams, dialogue and attentive listening are ever-present, and there is a constant flow of information. Constructive conflicts between team members do happen but are mostly personal and organizational in nature. It is important to remember that misunderstandings can be a good thing because they prevent groupthink.

High performing team model

The Performance Factor, a book by Pat MacMillan, CEO and Founding Partner of Triaxia Partners, gives the best graphical representation of a high-performing team model:

The model is represented as a circle because each characteristic is equally important for the team to achieve a desired and measurable business result.

Business Results

The center of the circle and the ultimate goal. The point of teaming up is accomplishing results that you, as an individual, can’t achieve alone. However, those results need to be measurable. Without a clear goal, team efforts can come down to focusing on how we “feel” about our team. When members concentrate more on their feelings rather than meeting goals, team efforts tend to get treated like HR exercises - the focus remains on team building. Strong relationships are an important piece, but they’re not the only piece, which is why business results are at the center.

The Reason for Cooperation - Common Purpose

The team’s common goal has to be clear, relevant, significant, urgent, and achievable. It represents the cornerstone of a high-performance team. Without it, team members won’t be able to align their efforts in the same direction. And since teamwork is a means to an end, an effective team must be purpose-directed and judged against its results.

The Strategy for Cooperation - Setting Clear Roles

Member roles have to be defined, compatible, complementary, complete, congruous and should cover everything that needs to be accomplished. The key to tapping into the potential synergy of the team is proper task delegation, based on various strengths of its members.

The Structure for Cooperation - Accepted Leadership

High-performing team leaders are flexible, service-oriented, and task-driven. An effective team leader quickly adjusts to various situations and personalities, keeps the team's purpose in mind at all times, and remembers that the leadership role is designed to serve, not to be served.

The Method of Cooperation - Effective Processes

The process needs to be well defined, designed, documented, straightforward, and continually improved. It’s not just about how the team gets things done, but how it thinks as a whole as well. These processes need to be mastered, mapped, and changed when required. The unoptimized process is nothing more than a time-waster and taxation on productivity.

The Climate of Cooperation - Solid Relationships

Solid relationships are based on trust, understanding, sincerity, respect of contribution, acceptance of differences, and mutual accountability. The objective is not to become best friends, but to know how to work together. By being “solid”, relationships can withstand misunderstandings, conflicts, and occasional bad days.

The Means of Cooperation - Excellent Communication

Communication within the team should be clear, honest, timely, and accurate. It allows the team to coordinate divided roles, provide feedback, clarify details, and resolve conflicts effectively. Excellent communication is the glue that holds the team together.

Final words

Once you take a ride in a Rolls Royce, other cars simply can't compare anymore. Similarly, once you become a part of a high-performing team, going back to work with an ineffective team becomes a punishment.

Forming a high-performing team takes time and effort, but once they jell and start producing results, they become an indispensable asset of every company.