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High performing teams take time

A few weeks ago, New Zealand was fixated on the Cricket World Cup, soon our attention will be focussed on the 2015 U-20 FIFA  World Cup and later in the year we will be swept away in the drama of another Rugby World Cup.  We Kiwis like our sport and, win or lose, we get behind our teams. For a small country, we’re lucky because we have some world class teams and as sports fans we appreciate their brilliance and enjoy their success.

Good teams take time to become that way

Research shows that good teams put as much effort into being a team as they put into delivering their purpose. They agree on what it takes for them to perform at their best and they put it into a charter. They take time to understand each other and their working styles and personal needs. They have a clear agenda and they have good processes that govern the way the team interacts. They have shared accountability and responsibility that they can measure so that it is easy to celebrate team success. Good teams do all the things that the research says it takes to be a good team but are they truly high performing?

Forming, storming, norming and performing

We can use Tuckman’s model of the stages of team development (forming, storming, norming and performing) as a reference point to look at the theory and the research. If we categorise the activities that good teams are known for (see above) through Tuckman’s theory, most are actually norming activities (e.g. charters are rules and guidelines that norm, as are agendas, measures and processes for working). These activities may lead to ‘performing’ but they are not performing activities by definition. If you read HBR articles such as ‘Make your good team great’ and ‘Why some teams succeed and so many don’t ’ you will see commentary that is largely ‘norming’ based.

Why is this? Well it could be that norming is much easier to observe and categorise and therefore easier to pin down as a set of marketable ideas. The agility and flow that defines ‘performing’ is much harder to observe, categorise and create research conditions for.

At Altris, our meta-system approach would suggest that true performance in any team is achieved by defining the team’s modus operandi around the thinking styles and needs of the team as opposed to fitting the team into a pre-defined process. You are therefore unlikely to see us take the same approach when we work with different teams. In the eyes of research this may seem like chaos.

It could also be that team membership changes often. A good team learns how to integrate new members into their way of doing things and a truly high performing team rapidly re-designs the way it works to integrate the new member’s thinking style and needs. The process of integration inevitably leads to a phase of norming if storming is to be avoided. You could say that ‘performing’ is out of reach for most teams because of their lifespan and the flux of team members so what observers only ever get the chance to see is good ‘norming’.

It’s all about people

Whatever the reason, there are few examples of true ‘performing’ to draw from. One common theme that occurs where ‘performing’ is postulated is a greater degree of activity at the ‘human level’; Myers Briggs, Belbin and Emotional Intelligence are heralded as signs of performance (although they are all just tools that can be used on the path to it) and the words trust, respect and openness are quoted as examples. Whatever model you use, a high degree of ‘interpersonal understanding’ underpins high performance in teams. Indeed we would suggest that true performance can only exist when interpersonal understanding is embedded in everyone within the team and they are using it unconsciously when they interact within the team.

Our meta-system thinking would also suggest that if a team invests heavily in the ‘people’ side of their performance, to the point where respect and trust become truly embedded, the norming tools and rules may not be needed and a team may take a leap to ‘performing’.

That’s what we strive for in our organisations and what we dream of for our sports teams.


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