What is meant by a high-performance team?
The term ‘high-performance team’ is being used more and more in organizations and amongst coaches and consultants. Although there are varying definitions, it tends to describe teams who are highly focused and outperform in anticipated productivity.
Organizations that desire effective and successful teams strive to find that “secret sauce” that moves a team from ordinary to extraordinary. But the real key to creating a high-performance team is to understand the journey before you begin.
How do you begin to create a high-performance team?
In his book Collaborative Intelligence, Richard Hackman, Harvard University Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, states that team leaders have limited impact once the actual work begins. Instead, what matters most is the intelligent preparation the leader makes beforehand.
Hackman outlines his 60-30-10 rule for high impact team performance:
- 60 percent of the difference in how well a team performs depends on the pre-work the leader does before the team even meets for the first time
- 30 percent depends on the quality of a team’s launch
- 10 percent depends on the leader’s hands-on, real-time coaching
What conditions are necessary for high-performance team success?
Ruth Wageman, Ph.D. of Harvard University, explains that there are 6 conditions necessary for team success. Wageman describes 3 of the conditions as essential and 3 as enablers.
The essentials are:
- That it’s an actual team and not a group
- That the right people are on the team
- That there is a compelling purpose for the team to exist
The enablers are:
- A sound structure
- A supportive context
- Team coaching
Let’s discuss these essential and enabling conditions through the lens of the intelligent preparation leaders must make to develop their high-performance teams.
Condition #1 – A team is not a group
As per Wageman’s essential conditions, it’s critical to understand the difference between a team and a group, so let’s look at some definitions.
What is a team?
A team is a collection of individuals with complementary skills committed to a shared purpose and who share common goals. They are interconnected by shared processes and procedures, mutually accountable, and work closely together to get work done and solve problems.
They share a vision that is not only compelling and inspiring but also consequential.
Consequential means the work impacts the lives of others, failure means losses, and the team will have to answer for their part in that.
What is a group?
A group is a collection of individuals who share a common purpose or are part of a coordinated effort but who are not collaborating on a shared goal and are not mutually dependent on achieving their goals, shared rewards, and shared consequences. In a workgroup, people strive to achieve personal goals, are independent of one another, and have individual accountability.
Before you begin the work of developing your high-performance team, consider these definitions and ensure you are working with a team and not a group.
Condition #2 – The right people
As the number 2 essential is getting the right people into the right seats, here are a few criteria to consider.
Who are the right people?
To be selected as a team member, a person should:
- Have the necessary skills to contribute to the achievement of the defined goals
- Be a needed member to avoid unnecessary or redundant headcount. Avoid inviting those who are only included in the spirit of inclusivity to ensure all departments are represented
- Play nice with others: high-impact leaders will agree with Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, who said: “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high.”
- Bring diversity to the team to avoid ‘group think’ or stagnation over time
Condition #3 – A compelling purpose
A team must have a compelling purpose. When creating high-performance teams, we need to address culture before we define a purpose, vision, and mission.
Culture and Shared Values
A strong team culture creates a positive environment for innovation and collaboration. Culture provides the necessary environment for trust, innovation, and collaboration while giving clarity and boundaries for when it is time to get work done autonomously.
Leaders need to create and maintain team culture intentionally, and the underpinning of culture is shared values.
Leaders are wise to put in the necessary work to understand what is essential to each team member and how their personal values come together to create shared values that all team members support. When we start by understanding our values, our purpose, vision, and mission come to life.
Now that we’ve discussed Wageman’s 3 essential conditions for team success, let’s look at the 3 enablers:
Condition #4 – Sound structure
What is necessary to have a sound team structure? There are several important elements, including:
> Shared Goals
> Objectives and Initiatives
> Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
> Common Team Practices
> Measurements and Results
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
Having a sound staffing structure in place means that the team has enough people with the right skills, knowledge, and abilities to execute strategy and achieve goals. Staffing includes ensuring that:
- Employee roles, responsibilities, and reporting relationships are clearly communicated, understood, and agreed to.
- The leader has clearly defined and communicated (in writing) the duties, deliverables, and expectations for each role.
- The leader has clearly defined reporting structure and authority boundaries and enforces them when necessary.
- The leader has clearly identified and communicated all stakeholders and stakeholder groups to the team members.
Agreements and establishing them are very important to successful high-performance teams. Agreements can include handling conflicts, accountability, inclusion, and respect, to name a few.
Establishing and achieving goals is crucial. A goal is an outcome you wish to achieve. It provides direction that is broad and long-term. For high functioning teams, the members know the high-level company goals, then one tier down, they know their team’s goals that support the company goals, and then another tier down individuals have their goals in support of the team.
For example, a high-level company goal might be to build a workplace culture of strong employee engagement by being an ICF Prism Award-winning organization for coaching culture by Q1 2025.
Objectives and Initiatives
After you set goals, you need to set the objectives.
While goals describe what you want to achieve or become, objectives are the clear steps to achieve the goal.
Goals include strategic objectives that describe the steps, actions, or activities involved in achieving a goal. Strategic objectives for the goal of becoming an ICF Prism Award-winning organization could be:
- Establish internal coaching services
- Adopt coaching as a leadership style
- Build a bench of external coaches
After objectives come strategic initiatives. Initiatives break down how you are going to achieve the objectives. Some initiatives for our coaching culture goal could be:
- Create a coaching culture roadmap
- Train the executive team in core coaching competencies
- Train 5 employees to make up a bench of internal coaches
- Create a list of 5 ICF credentialled external coaches to contract with when appropriate
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
KPIs are the measurable results and outcomes of initiatives that can be tracked and communicated. They indicate whether or not the team is tracking well with the objectives and on target to achieve their goals.
KPIs give us a way of keeping an eye on the small and large milestones of progress, and when well-charted, they allow teams to know if they are on target or if they have to course correct. They are the victories along the way and give good cause for celebration!
Common Team Practices
When developing common team practices, values need to be clear because shared values are the foundation for a thriving culture.
Once team values are clear, the next step is to clarify the behaviours we expect to uphold in honour of the values, and these behaviours become our common team practices. What we DO NOT do to succeed is equally as important to our mission as what we DO DO.
As a simple example, all businesses value revenue and profit. However, the way we go about getting that revenue and profit can differ.
One person can earn money through hard work. The other can steal it. Both share the value of bringing money into the company, but the behaviours for how they do that are drastically different.
This example is simple, but it makes the point that HOW we get results is important, and what is expected and what is not tolerated needs to be clear.
Here are some additional examples:
Value: Everyone’s time is precious
Value: Appreciate Inquiry
Value: Our employees are our most important asset
Value: Rest and Recovery
Behaviour: 100% of our workforce (championed by leadership) logs off between 6:30 PM and 7:30 AM
Another aspect of a sound structure is having efficient, respected processes in place. A work process is the action steps we take to complete the work and achieve a result.
To be efficient, effective, and productive, a team needs well-designed and consistently upheld processes and procedures. Processes and procedures take into consideration:
Communication – How does the team coordinate the work, keep each other informed, and report progress to leadership and stakeholders?
Decision-making – How are decisions made, explained, and executed? How do we ensure that our decision-making process is consistently sound as well as fair?
Tools and Resources – What project management methodology, tools, and resources do we share?
Change management – what change leadership model are we committed to using?
Process improvement – How do we stay awake and aware of new and better ways of getting work done?
Meeting management – How do we ensure our meetings are productive, meaningful, relevant, and useful communication and accountability tools?
For additional information on holding productive meetings, read our guide to improving your virtual team meetings.
Measurements and Results
Witnessing results is inspiring and motivating, so it’s vital to track, measure, and report progress frequently and build ways to acknowledge and celebrate wins along the way!
When things go off track or fall short, use appreciative inquiry to learn and grow.
A culture that balances accountability and celebration is fundamental to high-performance teams.
Condition #5 – Supportive Context
Supportive context is made up of rewards and consequences, information, and education.
Rewards and consequences – we succeed as a team; we fail as a team. In high-performance teams, all members know why success matters and the consequences of failure. Additionally, all members have clear and meaningful rewards and consequences associated with success and failure, both as a team and individually.
It’s crucial to remember that rewards alone do not create collaboration. Reward initiatives can even backfire if they are not perceived as fair. Also, poorly designed reward systems may inadvertently create unhealthy competition between team members or divide the team into camps.
Information – Information means ensuring that there is an appropriately paced flow of relevant information, data, and news coming to the team members consistently so that they always have all of the up-to-date information to work with and base their decisions on.
Education – Smart, motivated people want to be developed so that they always feel that they are at the cutting edge of their skills and can contribute to the best of their abilities. If they think they are starting to stagnate, they will soon feel that their careers may stall. High performers will look elsewhere for employment if this is not addressed.
Condition #6 – Team Coaching
Last but not least, in Wageman’s lineup of essential and enabling conditions for high-performance team success – coaching and coaching culture!
The team coach is an ICF certified coaching professional whose role is to facilitate team performance and challenge a team to maximize its performance to achieve meaningful organizational goals positively and productively and elevate employee engagement.
Team coaching topics can include all of the issues addressed above from the perspective of what is working well and how we keep it up. If things feel like they are derailing, then the 3 essentials and the 3 enablers serve as anchors for the team coach to re-align.
Many coaches use the appreciative inquiry model to uncover obstacles and barriers and remove these impediments as quickly and effectively as possible while still upholding our values.
Team coaching conversations also serve to align values with desirable behaviours to keep the culture alive and well, as culture is the context for everyday work.
The engagement of the team leader is key. Their involvement is fundamental in ensuring that the team has time and space to focus on desired results.
Considerations Before You Add In Team Coaching
All five previous conditions from the essential and enabler lists must be in place for team coaching. Wageman’s research revealed that while team coaching will accelerate a team’s performance where the five elements are in place, coaching is detrimental to teams where the first five are lacking.
The team coach can look for symptoms that the other five conditions are not in place. These symptoms will show up as stumbling blocks stopping real teams from operating as high-performing teams. A few examples of these stumbling block symptoms are:
- Low motivation
- Lack of clarity around strategic goals, objectives, and initiatives leading to frustration, confusion, and even conflict
- Stalls or bottlenecks due to poor decision-making processes
- Confusion and inefficiencies caused by poor communication
- Conflict, low trust, high stress, overextended behaviours, turnover, burnout
- Mistakes, duplication of efforts, and ineffective prioritization of tasks
The list above is far from exhaustive; however, it gives you a sense of what you would be observing if the other 5 conditions are weak or lacking.
Wageman recommends that coaching should be directed to senior leadership to support them in establishing team essentials and enablers prior to investing in coaching for team performance. In other words, coach the leader on structuring the team before engaging in coaching the team around the process.
The benefits of a high-performing team
High-performing teams are focused, productive and achieve superior business results. They outperform other similar teams, and exceed expectations. But developing a high-performance team requires intelligent preparation by the leader before the work even begins.
When a leader understands the essentials and enablers that create a high-performance team, and works to set them in place before the team begins, they can move their team from ordinary to extraordinary.
Not only does this work create high-impact teams that get outstanding results, but it allows organizations to grow and thrive, even in today’s intensely competitive business landscape.
Creating high-performance teams takes commitment and investment in continuous growth and leadership development, and often guidance through training or consultation with experts. Services such as coaching culture transformation teams can help you bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be. A transformation team can act as your change management consultants who understand high-performance team coaching, coaching culture, and how to bring it to life in your company.
By: Corry Robertson