Those who have experienced youth during the 80’s, would know that when referring to a high performing team, it inevitably implied a ‘notorious’ team led by Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith. The A-Team, an acclaimed 80’s television show, kept millions around the world nailed to their seats.
‘High Performance Teams’, a phrase echoed in meetings, trumpeted in workplace passages and often tabled as the business case for expensive team building interventions. So then, what is this phenomenon that we so eagerly demand and encourage?
"...he and his team outperformed all expectations, and moreover, they achieved that which no other could possibly dream of achieving."
In the book, ‘The Wisdom of Teams’, Katzenbach defines high-performance teams (HPT’s) as; “A concept within organization development referring to teams, organizations, or virtual groups that are highly focused on their goals and that achieve superior business results.” Katzenbach continues to state that HPT’s outperform expectations compared to all other similar teams. Maybe this was the underlying message when Colonel Hannibal Smith, at the end of every programme, always said with a broad smile; “I love it when a plan comes together.” Hannibal, knew that, at the exact point of that statement, he and his team outperformed all expectations, and moreover, they achieved that which no other could possibly dream of achieving. With that smile, the Colonel knew that they have reached a point of superior performance.
The concept of High Performing Teams is older than most would imagine. In fact, many scientists have attributed superior intelligence to species that could develop the ability to hunt and kill in teams. We, for instance know, that the reason why Orcas are our ocean’s top predators, is primarily due to their ability to work in teams. This amazing ability has led them to create different cultures and dialects. The only other animal species who operate at that level of team performance are chimpanzees. And, of course, our own specie, humans, would have not been able to produce a fraction of our current modern advancement if it were not for our ability to work and produce in teams.
"...the process I’ve just described sometimes has a sense of ‘divine intervention’ – magic happens!"
The HPT concept was first described in detail by the Tavistock Institute, UK, in 1950, but was only popularised during the 1980’s by companies such as General Electric, Boeing and Hewlett-Packard. During the first decade of this century, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Human Dynamics Laboratory team, investigated explicitly observable communication patterns and found energy, engagement, and exploration to be surprisingly powerful predictive indicators for a team's ability to perform. My own research fully concurs with this finding, and I therefore propose that for any team to produce superior performance they must have the resources (energy), which implies sufficient people, money, assets and time. Secondly such team must focus (engage) with the task at hand. This is more than knowing that they should do something, but rather matter of being passionately involved with a task, to the extent where consciousness beyond such task is lost. Lastly, there is the ability to collectively explore. Here, the team needs to solve, resolve and change whatever it is that they are working on. This dimension is much more complex than a ‘face value’ understanding would permit us to perceive. Collective exploration directly implies that minds must meet, merge and produce synergy. Hence, tacit intelligence (that in the individual minds of people) must become explicit (explained and understood by all in the team) and then internalised into a process (made implicit). Those who have the privilege and opportunity to function in a high performance team, would testify that the process I’ve just described sometimes has a sense of ‘divine intervention’ – magic happens!
Yet, with all this said and done, I cannot help but think of the Colonel’s words; “I love it when a plan comes together”, since these words indicate that beyond energy, engagement and exploration, there is something else; a pivotal glue that orchestrates the magic that must happen. I believe that this central nexus is a clear and undisputed goal. Plans only come together if those who have to get it done unquestionably believe in the possibility, probability and impact of the final result... Hence, there must be a clear, well communicated and concurred goal.
"...even though they have their differences, they have the utmost respect for each other’s skill and ability."
At this point we have, I believe, established sound definition and elements of a HPT. It might now be a good time to work with the character of such a team. Of course, my first thought would be to analyse the amazing A-Team of Hannibal Smith, especially since they were so diverse in terms of character and behaviour. They were absolutely nothing alike. There is Bosco Albert "B.A." (Bad Attitude) Baracus, the practical strong guy of the team. BA fixes things and is a hard opponent to beat in any physical battle. Then we have Templeton "Faceman" Peck, who is the team’s negotiator and seducer. Where resources are needed, Faceman is the guy who will negotiate for such. Lastly, the A-Team has their precision pilot, "Howling Mad" Murdock, who lives in a metal asylum. The team tolerates Murdock’s madness for his ability to fly any aircraft. Now, what strikes me most is that it is the different personalities and skill of these team members that make them great. They rarely like each other and often have immense conflict, but where task calls, they unite into a formidable force. It was mission that brought them together and it is mission that puts them into action. Moreover, even though they have their differences, they have the utmost respect for each other’s skill and ability. Where Murdoc gets into an aircraft, the whole team believes and trusts that there is absolutely no one better for the job; where resources are needed, every member knows that Faceman will negotiate that; where something has to be build, the team never interferes with the instructions of BA; and where the plan is made the team knows that the Colonel knows best.
"Of course there will be conflict and there should be, since this is nature’s way of testing the strength of any argument."
Most articles that you read will emphasise communication as key to effective team work, but I strongly believe that goal clarity is the real key. People at a party communicate effectively, but we can hardly call them a team. That which separates groups from teams is mission. The stronger the goal, the more effective the team. Where you add trust and intelligence to a goal, you have a formidable force. I am in no way implying that communication is not important. I am merely emphasising that clear goals attract functional communication. I’ve been to many meetings where competent people sit and talk rubbish; simply because they have no idea what the purpose of the meeting is. In this example, the lack of effective communication has nothing to do with communication skills, but rather reflects on the absence of a gravitational force that pulls relevant information. When you add competent people to a clear goal, effective communication will follow. To me this is the bottom line. Of course there will be conflict and there should be, since this is nature’s way of testing the strength of any argument. You might argue that people, even though competent, might take things personal. This might be so, but even then, it is a matter of weak emotional intelligence, of which communication is only one facet.
Through the years, may attributes and characteristics have been listed under the heading of ‘High Performance Teams’. I have read many of these and offer the following list as my contribution to a myriad of existing advice…
1. Clear Goal
I have said much on this, but would like to add, that it is not only about having a clear goal, but also about having a goal that is 100% acknowledged, sponsored and sanctioned.
Irrelevant of how well you define your goal, it can never outperform stupidity. Our A-Team was not great because they had clear goals, they were fantastic because each team member possessed extraordinary and relevant skills. Surround yourself with brilliance that holds relevance to your goals and the results will be beyond comparison.
I sincerely do not think that team members must get along, be friends or even like each other. But trust is non-negotiable. In one episode, BA Baracus (who dislikes Murdoc beyond expression), saves Murdoc from drowning. BA did not do this because he likes or dislikes Murdoc; he did so because they are team members who trust each other. This is the essence of integrity. No team will surpass mediocracy without this virtue.
4. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
Yes, teams will have severe conflict and will differ on many occasions, but at some point you need to move on. The past is a place that does not exist. Those who live there, without doubt, struggle with emotional intelligence. EQ is tested on two levels, namely; (1) your ability to work with own issues and (2) your ability to function within a community or group. The former strongly relates to your ability in moving past disturbing experiences and the latter to connect and communicate with those whom form part of your system. High EQ is essential to high performing teams, especially if they have to keep on performing over a long period.
No, I am not referring to the effective management of conflict; I am referring to actual conflict. Conflict is the essence of evolution and growth. It is nature’s way of eliminating the weak. You might complain that your ideas are never accepted because the people who judge them are stagnant thinkers. But, just maybe, the real reason is that your idea is simply not strong enough to withstand the turbulent forces of organisational functioning, in which case it is a good thing that it is not accepted. Ideas and creativity are like tadpoles. There are millions being born and ponds are often swamped with such. But, very few ever become frogs. The purpose of conflict is to test, scrutinise and judge your ideas, concepts and creative thinking. And, as with tadpoles, you have to earn the right to become a frog.
At the core of our A-Team lies diversity. In terms of personality, behaviour, physical ability and thinking; Hannibal, BA, Murdoc and Faceman have very little in common. And exactly that, is their secret. Two sperm cells can never produce a baby. It is in the crucible of opposites where innovation and renewal is forged. The price of uniformity is stagnation and the price of diversity is conflict. The former will pave your road to the kingdom of irrelevance and the latter will ensure long term survival.
The next question into our journey of discovering HPT’s, is how to create one. I believe that this was already answered by explaining the characteristics above. To recap, I offer the following steps…
1. Define a clear and relevant goal;
2. Attract and recruit brilliant people to execute that goal;
3. Build trust trough constant and honest feedback and facilitate processes whereby members can understand each other. Psychometric testing such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and team development will go a long way here. In my previous article; “Does Team-building Really Work?” I discuss this thoroughly.
4. Tolerate conflict. Instead of trying to avoid and resolve conflict, rather endorse and develop emotional intelligence.
I hope that this article has contributed to your quest in developing a high performance team. If this write-up has stimulated your interest, then please make use of my resource centre on ‘Team Development’. Where you struggle with the given link, you can simply go to www.derekhendrikz.com and under the ‘Resource Centre’ tab, click on ‘Management Resource Centre’. From there you can select the ‘Team Development’ resource page. There is no ‘log-in’ procedure and all slides, video clips and other information is directly downloadable.
Thank you for reading this article…
- Katzenbach, et al.: 2003: The Wisdom of Teams, HarperBusiness
- Pentland, Alex "Sandy": 2012 Issue: The New Science of Building Great Teams: Harvard Business Review
- The A-Team: Wikipedia: Accessed 19 May 2016
© 18 May 2016
© 2016 Derek Hendrikz