A functioning team and a high-performing team are not always one and the same. In this blog, we look at a great American pastime to learn the qualities your teams need for high performance in today’s digital-first landscape.
A team is more than a group of individuals. It’s a living, breathing entity that, when deployed on the most important goals in your organization, performing at the highest levels, can accomplish virtually anything. But throw in a global pandemic and an always-changing technological landscape, and even the best teams will struggle.
How do we create and foster high-performing teams in a digital-first world? How do we ensure teams in different parts of the organization align toward the same business outcomes? And how do we hold our teams accountable for results when we’re working miles or even countries apart using only digital communications?
Patrick Lencioni defines a team in his book “5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” using a few qualifiers:
- A team is a group of people brought together to accomplish a common goal sharing the responsibility and the rewards (without these aspects, the group is just a collection of individuals)
- The team’s success is wholly dependent upon its members working together successfully
- The team readily puts aside their individual and personal needs for the greater good of the team.
Decent Versus High-Performing Teams
Let’s go further. For this, I’ll rely on my favorite analogy – football. I love football for a million reasons but mainly because I spent my high school years in Texas, and there, football is religion. I caught the fever of the most evangelized zealot.
I love everything about it – the strength and endurance of the players, the colorful character of the coach, the pomp and pageantry of the band, the maniacal support of the fans, the energy and athleticism of the cheerleaders, etc. But most of all, I loved the feeling I got in the stadium on a Friday night under the lights when the excitement was at a fever pitch. That electric feeling, to me, is what makes teamwork special and different. It’s the collective energy of all things pulling in the same direction for the same outcome.
But any football fan knows there’s a big difference between a decent team and a high-performing team. I’d like to name two teams and let you sit with your feelings – The Cleveland Browns, circa 2016/2017, and The New England Patriots, when Tom Brady was the quarterback.
If you’re a Browns fan, my apologies, but humor me a minute longer. The Brady-era Patriots, arguably the greatest football team of all time (certainly the winningest with the most playoff wins and tied for most Super Bowl wins), were a different kind of team. To make it in the NFL, you must be an elite athlete, whatever team you’re on. So, what is the difference between a group of elite athletes – the Browns – and a team of elite athletes – the Patriots?
According to organizational researcher J. Richard Hackman, who studied teams for 40 years, these are the key ingredients:
- A compelling direction
- A strong structure
- A supportive context
- A shared mindset.
In the context of the Patriots, here’s what this looks like:
- A compelling direction: Winning the Super Bowl
- A strong structure: Erhardt-Perkins offensive system and a Fairbanks-Bullough 3 – 4 defensive system executed by a team of multi-generational players, a no-nonsense coach and an exceptional quarterback
- A supportive context: High-trust, high-accountability environment
- A shared mindset: The Patriot Way.
For the Patriots, everything clicked and worked together. The Patriots dominated because they were exceptional in all areas, consistently. The Browns, by contrast, had deficits in many of these areas. Sorry, dog pound.
Now that we’ve seen what a high-performing team looks like let’s make the leap from the gridiron to the conference room. Or, in this case, the virtual conference room.
High Performing Teams, Digital-First Space
This is where it gets tricky.
Conducting digital communications and virtual meetings can prove much more challenging than traditional collaboration. Teams in non-pandemic times had the luxury of gathering regularly in person to build trusted relationships, hash out problems and discuss solutions. While there was no guarantee you’d achieve alignment, there was ample opportunity to read the room, watch body language, feel the energy (or lack thereof) and do something about it.
Teamwork is more than a well-composed email or a great meeting. It is a mindset. To become a leader in your industry – when everyone is working from various locations, across multiple time zones, or in multiple teams across the organization – you need trusted relationships among people focused on the right things.
To be a high-performing team, you must commit to a shared purpose and common goals and find creative ways to achieve them when you can’t be in the same room together. It takes accountability for results which means owning your spot on the team and performing at the highest level. And further, it means being receptive when someone calls you out for not fulfilling your promises. Finally, it takes great leadership and a supportive structure to motivate and inspire your team, regardless of your title.
As an organizational change management consultant at Centric, I see client teams struggle to perform at an elevated level in a digital-first world. I see team members shrink back because they’re overworked, and leadership hasn’t made the time to focus on their people. I observe a lack of clarity around goals and competing priorities. I experience a lack of progress on projects because our meeting technology allows us to stay silent while looking like we’re paying attention.
I’ve also seen and been a part of highly functional and robust teams, where everyone is engaged, listening intently to one another, riffing on each other’s ideas and making the whole experience better and more productive.
From these experiences, I’ve learned a few solutions for taking your team from decent to high performing.
Five Steps to Becoming a High-Performing Team
Here are five steps to creating high-performing teams in a digital-first world:
1. Become Aware
Have you heard of body awareness? Elite athletes know where their body is at all times on the playing field. They know shifting their eyes left tells their opponent what direction they might pivot. They know if their hands are cold, they won’t feel the ball as well. And they know exactly where every other player on the field is at any given moment.
Think of your team as your body. By heightening your senses to pick up the nuances of your team’s interactions, you’ll see what they are overtly and subtly communicating. This will take keen observation skills during digital and virtual interactions. Are emails overly curt? Are people hiding out on video conference calls by joining audio-only or multi-tasking? Are people prepared for meetings, or are they uninspired or incapable of their responsibilities? You will be amazed by what you find when you focus and observe behavior.
2. Ask the Tough Questions
If you don’t like what you see – disengaged, distracted team members, lack of meaningful interaction, lack of accountability to results, or more, — it’s time to get real and ask yourself the hard questions. Understanding your role in the problem is key to making meaningful changes. Here are some questions you can begin with:
- Does my group meet all the criteria Lencioni lays out for a high-performing team? Why or why not?
- Does my team trust me? Does my team trust each other? How do I know?
- Am I demonstrating leadership?
- Have I provided ample opportunity for each team member to express commitment to the team?
- Have I established a shared purpose and set of goals to which every individual contributes and is accountable?
- Am I leveraging digital communications to my advantage, or am I letting it be an impediment?
- Is there a better way to connect with my team?
- Have I talked with my team about the best ways to work together given our digital-first world?
- Have I engaged my team in the solutions?
- Is there anything I am not seeing?
Once you figure out the answer to those questions, you can take the steps necessary to correct any issues and boost team performance.
3. Engage Your Team in the Solution
If your team is performing more like the Cleveland Browns than the New England Patriots, chances are they’ve noticed. They’re looking for ways to make things better, too. Sharing your observations with your team is a great way to start the dialogue, gauge commitment and ensure each team member plays a role in the solution.
4. Develop a Playbook to Build Relationships
Tom Brady was known for his close relationships with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, as well as Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick. These relationships were critical to the team’s success. But great relationships in a digital-first world don’t always happen naturally.
In “Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams,” our co-founder and president Larry English says, “Building relationships over virtual channels requires vulnerability, bringing your whole self to work, taking time to foster personal connections, and knowing how to resolve conflict when it arises.”
There are volumes of books and articles about building relationships to find your own set of plays to build those critical team bonds and chemistry.
5. Keep Score
Dynasty teams don’t play hard for four quarters and walk off the field without looking at the scoreboard. High-performing teams know exactly where they stand at all times. Further, they watch the game film repeatedly to understand what they did well and where they need to improve.
Your observation efforts can’t be one-and-done if you’re building a consistently high-performing team. It requires long-term, consistent, rigorous commitment. You consistently guarantee your hard work will pay off when you monitor your teams’ interactions, levels of engagement and progress toward high performance.
So here we are, the game tied in the fourth quarter at the two-minute warning, and your team has the ball on third down. You’ve got no timeouts left and one more opportunity to score a touchdown, and you’re too far from the end zone to kick a field goal. Will your team come together as Patriots, trust each other in the clutch, or turn the ball over and give the other team a shot at victory?