High performing teams meet and exceed their goals over and over again. They survive the loss of members without losing momentum and new members quickly become integrated
High performing teams meet and exceed their goals over and over again. They survive the loss of members without losing momentum and new members quickly become integrated. Often they nut out complex problems where others have failed. They adapt to changing circumstances and others follow their lead. High performing teams are far more than the sum of the individuals.
For other teams it seems that however much care has gone into selecting appropriately qualified and experienced members, team spirit is elusive and by all measures the whole remains far less than the sum of the parts. So what makes the difference?
The answer lies in the amount of time and attention devoted to the processes involved in working as a team. High performing teams know that optimal team performance requires them to have a dual focus. On one hand they focus on the outputs for which they are accountable and the business of organising themselves to achieve their goals. On the other hand they also devote time and energy to continually improving how team members work together.
Making more of differences
When members of high performing teams encounter conflicting opinions they see the opportunity for new learning by exploring differences and calling on their creativity to generate better ideas. They know that there is rarely a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way and most frequently a ‘better’ way. For teams who neglect attending to their processes, conflict often signals the need for arbitration, mediation or, worst of all, a vote!
An interdisciplinary project team was renowned in the sector for its leadership in the development of innovative approaches to health care. Observation of this team at work revealed that whenever opinions clashed on topics of importance to the whole team, they made time to understand what each opinion owner had in mind and the team’s energy was directed to developing an understanding of what could be learned from the opinion differences. Creative solutions were the result.
In order to become skilled in this process, members had honed their active listening skills and knew the difference between listening just long enough to form a judgement and listening in order to understand the other’s perspective. They shunned competitive debate in favour of intelligent dialogue. To assist the process yet without abdicating her leadership responsibilities, the team leader took a facilitation role, assisting the whole team to understand the informed opinions of its members in order to achieve the best possible outcome. The team had arrived at this approach though their team process of continually examining how they worked and testing out new or revised approaches. Trusting, respectful relationships provided a foundation for critical assessment of their team process and adjustments along the way.
Developing collective wisdom
Team outcomes are enhanced when teams make time to develop and use their collective wisdom; their collective learning over time. The creation of collective wisdom begins with the skills, experience and thinking capacities of individual team members. Then, by setting time aside to think together, to combine and build on ideas and to be creative, teams become something far more valuable than the ‘sum of the parts’.
Intent on optimising productivity, a project team leader allowed just one hour for weekly project review meetings. Team members knew that, at the meeting, they were expected to provide a succinct update about progress on their part of the project, any significant challenges and newly identified risks. This took place ‘round robin’* style with each person taking their turn to speak. The final ten minutes were reserved for ‘general discussion’ but this time was usually consumed by the manager’s update about dealings with the project’s client. Although this team leader’s intent was sound and the meeting was a useful information sharing forum, the approach deprived the team of opportunities to build the shared learning which, over time, becomes collective wisdom.
In contrast with that approach, the CEO of a state-wide network of human services agencies was committed to her role as facilitator of her leadership team’s development in parallel with her accountability for the organisation’s overall performance. Fortnightly leadership team meetings took about two hours with some members physically present. Others, located in the further reaches of the state, joined by video conference.
Team members had all experienced the ‘round robin’ approach earlier in their careers and in this setting had agreed that it was an impediment to team learning and optimal management of the organisation. Instead, this team’s agenda focused principally on topics of shared interest which were critical to the organisation’s sustainability. The list of topics varied. At times it included the challenges facing the organisation and requiring collaborative effort across the organisation, led by members of this team. At other times the leadership team turned its attention to ‘blue sky’; imagining future possibilities and drawing on their collective wisdom to generate creative new ideas.
Looking beyond team roles
A range of reliable self-testing tools is available to assist teams to identify members’ strengths, working style preferences and habitual team roles. For example, one widely used instrument enables identification of the ‘shapers’ in teams, the people with the drive and courage to overcome obstacles. Others tools enable people to determine their true psychological ‘type’ and preferred style of social interaction.
Optimal value from investment in such tools is only achieved when teams look beyond individual habits and preferences to explore the effects of these on how people prefer to work together and when people adjust their natural and preferred approaches to accommodate others’. For high performing teams the profiling afforded by such tools is a starting point not an end in itself.
So, where can you make a start on becoming a high performing team? Regular reflection on the team’s internal processes and its interactions with people outside the team – what has worked and where there is scope for improvement – can enable individuals and the team as a whole to make the informed decisions which lead to team process improvement. Professional development too can help develop high performing teams.
Professional development options
For managers and professionals interested in learning more about the aspects of team processes highlighted in this article, look out for professional development opportunities covering the following:
- Active listening for managers and team leaders
- Group and organisation dynamics
- Facilitation for managers
- Systems thinking
- Organisational learning
- Reflective practice for managers
Also consider using an accredited practitioner to guide you through a ‘psychological type’ exercise for each member of the team and for the team as a whole. Even when individuals already know their personal type, the team exercise can be invaluable in developing awareness of others and what drives relationships between team members.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the Professionals Australia website:
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and change through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures. She is an accredited MBTI practitioner.
* ‘Round robin’ refers to an activity in which people are interacted with in turn usually in a circular order. In meetings the term refers to the taking of turns to speak and people usually address the most senior person in the room or the chair
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