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Is High Performance Intrinsic?

Good teams take time to become that way. All the research shows that good teams put effort into being a team as much 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 always have clear agendas and they have good processes that they apply to the way they interact. They celebrate together and have shared accountability and responsibility that is measured to make it easy to celebrate team success. Good teams do all the things that the research says it takes to be a good team because that’s what the research says and they start off by wanting to be good. But are they truly high performing?

If we take Tuckman’s model (everyone has heard of forming, storming, norming and performing) and use that as a reference point we can then look at the theory and the research through those lenses. Just take the activities above to start with. If you categorise them through Tuckman’s theory you would probably conclude that most of these are actually norming activities (charters are rules and guidelines that norm, as are agendas, measures and processes for working). But whilst they may lead to performing 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, categorise and therefore pin down as a set of marketable ideas, and the leadership industry is fuelled by its ability to market tools and models that can be replicated. The agility and flow that defines ‘Performance’ is harder to observe, categorise and create research conditions for (after all there are rules to academic papers, and rules match norming). 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 the same approaches taken between different teams and in the eyes of research this may seem like chaos.

It could also be that team memberships change so often and whilst a good team learns how to integrate new members into their way of doing things (and a truly performing team would rapidly re-design the way it works to truly integrate the new member’s thinking style and needs) the process of integration inevitably leads to a phase of norming if a storming is to be avoided. You could say that achieving ‘performance’ is something that most teams will never be able to do because of their lifespan and the flux of team members and that therefore what the observers only ever get the chance to see if really good ‘norming’.

Whatever the reasons, there are few examples of true performing to draw from (and of course you would not want to replicate because that would mean you were not truly performing).

The one common theme that occurs where performing is postulated is a greater degree of activity at the ‘human level’. It gets called whatever the writer wants to define it as. From Myers Briggs to Belbin to EI (Emotional Intelligence) all 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 that interpersonal understanding is embedded within everyone within the team and they are using it unconsciously when they interact in any format 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 performance.


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