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?
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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
© 18 May 2016
© 2016 Derek Hendrikz
Very thought provoking article. It is however a little bit more difficult when the team is more virtual as they are located at each of our BASF sites in SA. Subsequently the team interacts more via telecom. What does add to higher performance though is the diversity that we have in our production sites as this allows the team to learn from different environments.
I agree with most of the points raised in this article but I would like to talk more about more about Emotional intelligence ( EQ) . From experience the EQ of members of a team becomes visible when serious deliberations are on-going and at this stage it is difficult to make necessary adjustments.
It is also important that team members remain focused on the goal and learn not to take conflicts and attributed fallouts personal. When people fail to realise it’s strictly business and become emotional then the trust among team members dwindles.
I really enjoyed the blog. I liked the conflict management part. In most organisations this part is often forgotten. Teams fail because of trying to resolve conflicts especially the dysfunctional conflict. High emotional intelligence becomes crucial in High Performance Team. In your article you mentioned we should not try to resolve a conflict but rather endorse it.
Fantastic blog – it has definitely helped me view things from a different angle. Trust is critical to the overall performance of a team but how do you trust someone if you do not like them? This to me is something extremely difficult to conceptualise. But what the blog has pointed out to me is that your level of EQ will help move you to that point whereby trust trumps liking someone and helps you to focus on the bigger picture and your purpose in the business!
Another characteristic I believe is what makes a HPT is their ability to understand a problem. Often the strategy of many teams is to jump in and find a solution only to find out at the end that the solution is highly complicated and doesn’t address the problem to start with. HPT teams have the ability to look at the bigger picture from start to end and are able to sensitise each other on the pros and cons of their approaches in solving a problem or executing a project.
Lastly, team dynamics is crucial in ensuring a HPT performs at their optimal. Many organisations, I believe don’t appreciate that either when a person joins or leaves a team, the overall performance of the team is impacted. People need to be mindful of these changes and address these challenges timeously.
The triangle which depicts the indicators of a HPT, makes reference to Energy & Engagement, both of which have explanatory notes which include the elements of time/single focus.
This elements are not reflected upon again within the broader passages which follow, but in my experience this is something, which if not "enabled" often results in a team being less than that of a desired HPT.
Often there is not only 1 task/project/plan, as in the case of the A-Team.
The lack of undivided focus and time, can result in aspects being rushed/over-looked/not completed. This is an element that needs to be incorporated into the project management plan up-front, and strictly adhered to. Again the Leadership Style of the broader Team can often enable/disable this element.
The consideration of a CLEAR & RELEVANT goal is also critical to the success of a team, and I like how a distinction between communication (talking) and goal clarity is made.
To be effective and high performing team you need to understand that life is, by nature, highly interdependent. Together you can accomplish far more than, even at your best. you can’t achieve greater success independently in an interdependent world. For me this is the starting point. Team members needs to understand this concept. As a team, we need to combine our talents and abilities to create and achieve something greater together. If we create this kind of mindset in our team, then we know conflicts can help us improve instead of talking us backward.
I like the principle of “inside out”; start first with self; with your character and motives. Understand and embrace diversity. Relationship plays a great role and emotional intelligence is the key. understanding your goal and working towards the same goal is very important. Acknowledge one’s strength and supporting on their weakness create a conducive atmosphere to let people contribute their best.
“I love it when a plan comes together” still rings in my mind.
I would agree that clear goals are crucial in creating a high performing team, for as the saying goes: ‘A man without a goal is like a ship without a rudder.’ In other words, a team that is not clear on where they are going and what they need to do to get there will surely get lost along the way. On the other hand, a high performing team who understand what they need to achieve, have a far higher chance of problem solving independently, innovating, and handling conflict in order to achieve that common objective. However, as a manager, defining goals for a team can sometimes feel more achievable
Every one wants to be part of the A Team. But can we all be ? When you look at a HPT, one has to look at all the individuals in the team. It is wonderful to have different types of people in a HPT. It is very interesting to see and hear the different opinions and behaviour on a subject matter when put forward. To have diversity in a team is great. Lots of excited energy is emitted. Yes, we will most definitely have the optimists on one side and the pessimists on the other but what better collaboration it will make? Goals are always set to achieve a positive result with taking into account the pro's and the cons. Each person in the team has his/her own strengths and as a manager one needs to tap into those strengths and achieve that ultimate goal. The right people doing the right job. Trust also plays a vital role. It works both ways as a line manager and as a direct report. To have set a goal and achieve that goal is simply elation at the end. One feels proud to have been part of this achievement. Encouragement, self motivation will then stem from this one achievement to the next. We all become goal setters and goal getters... I hope
“Firstly, thanks for the ten pointers. These are powerful means to achieve success, however we may not always be in a position to apply the ten steps. To create our own opportunities is important, but again not always possible, as much as we may like it to be. I guess with all the learnings that we’ve had in the past year, and the tools that we’ve been given, creating our own opportunities will be that much more easier and hopefully applying the ten steps will assist us in climbing the corporate ladder to ultimate fulfilment of our career pathing”
I fully agree with you. I have to say, while reading the article I picked up a lot of similarities with my team at work. Creating a clear goals, assess individual strength and aspiration then match goals and tasks for them. Give the necessary resources. This will be the foundation of the high performance team throughout the project at hand. Establishing measures that individual can have an impact in advancing the company goals and personal aspirations. Focus attention on short term results that will contribute to overall goals.
Communication is one of the underutilized forms of recognition . Using clear concise communication to recognise all individual contribution.
what an interesting read.
The leader should firstly have a clear picture in their mind of what the goal is and what they want the end result to be.
This should then be clearly communicated to the team in order for them to know what the end result should be, without this chaos will erupt and reaching the end result will not happen.
Depending on the goal, the leader should make sure that their team is of a sufficient size, be diverse and contain the various skills that will be required.
A follow up action tracker should be complied together with the team which reflects tasks, time lines and person responsible for relevant task.
Open robust discussions should take place where the team should feel comfortable to bring their ideas to the table.
The team must be empowered and trusted to carry the task through to end result but the leader should be available to step in and out when required.
I am happy to say that my current work environment is wonderful, where I am part of a high performance team. with the result is that for the most we are highly motivated, goal orientate.
This filters down from the site Manager all the way through the team. I feel empowered, trusted, needed, important part of the team, and with the result is that my own team are the same. And hence our site is a "happy place to be" and we class ourselves as family.
Very enjoyable article! I agree that having a clear goal is the only way to achieve HPT. We often fall into the operational traps of trouble shooting and day to day issues, trying to resolve these by giving guidance and training but essentially no long term sustainable HPT will establish if the team members are pulling in different directions. A lot of unnecessary issues can be bypassed if a clear goal is aligned upon. Goal first!
The essence of this article for me indicated, that a HPT does not necessarily have to be friends or even like each other, but needs to TRUST each other, and this needs to also arise from the mission we have, because this common goal will bring us all together as 1, Everyone is unique and has their own sets of strengths and weaknesses and we need to use those strengths to best of our ability and ensuring we get the best of each other to achieve our goal. Compromise from everyone is required especially if we have to place our trust in each other to achieve our goal together
This is a very good article. I believe at BASF especially accounts payable there is still a long way to go to create a HTP. For any team to become one the team will need to have enough emotional intelligence so that team members can work interdependent and understand, respect each other roles and the importance thereof.
As Leader, we need to define how decisions is made, set goals, attract correct talent, and provide constant feedback. Build trust among team members and team leaders as such.
I’m glad to see that the author has chosen a group of people, the ‘A’ Team, that we all can assimilate with. The ‘A’ Team, is what any group of people calling themselves a team would want to aspire to. I agree that every team has to have a clearly defined relevant goal, however the make up of the team has to be people with the right skills set for executing the tasks which allows the team to achieve its goals with as minimum disruption, as far as possible. While disruption to any process is necessary, and hence there will be conflict within the team, this ensures that the process was fully interrogated with a sound solution being provided, so the statement of attracting and recruiting ‘brilliant people’ to execute that goal is not entirely true. What’s important is that the right person is chosen for the task at hand. Every team should have a leader, to guide the team in the right direction and to motivate the team to push ahead. A joker to break the monotony and to remind people that there is life out there. An administrator to keep things in check. A pessimist, who will always point out the negatives and an optimist who will always see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In short a HPT is a team of good or rather exceptionally competent, diverse, trusting, conflicting, emotionally intelligent people aligned to a strong mutual goal that is 100% sanctioned and sponsored. This is no easy feat to get right as a leader and can be considered as a goal in itself! Thank you for the insights. I think personally I should work on trusting in people where there is high conflict as conflict can be a way of getting to the actual topic to be addressed in the goal.
Reading the article makes it easy to identify with a lot of the points being raised therein. One of the points which I agree with the most is that HPTs work towards achieving the same goal. There is also a very clear communication between the team members as to what these goals are.
To me, not every team is a HPT. If we for example use take the "Galactico" Real Madrid team as an example looking at the makeup of the team and their achievements, then it will be a lot easier to identify with this article. The club president also set out the goals of the club even though they seemed absurd at times. This was then followed by recruiting only the best players to achieve this goal.
One word which kept cropping up in my mind as I read the article with respect to HPTs was that they embrace diversity and therein lies the strength of these teams. As was alluded to in the above article, each member of the A team was an expert in his field.
I would also state that having HPTs has its inherent challenges as these teams need to be managed and the energy within these teams sustained. These could sometimes present challenges for managers or leaders if they are not adequately equipped to managing these issues - An example could be recognising and embracing the diversity of a team member or coming to terms with their need for continuous clarity of purpose and goal.
Very good article.
I clearly see and connect the key attributes of a HPT's as explained in the article. One aspect that I picked which can easily complicate issues is lack of understanding goals that lead to ineffective communication. I have witnessed this throughout my career life more so in project roles. The leadership communicates hazy goals, accompanied by trillions of reading materials that further explain the goal. The otherwise brilliant team members do not bother to read these materials or prepare adequately. What ensues in the boardroom is a chapter from a comic book. The most aggressive and loudest members of the team (who have no clue what the goal is) will force their augments to the team members, manoeuvre through any challenge /conflict and at the end, a useless list of action points not connected to the goals emerge. Disaster follows.
Hence I strongly believe the statement "When you add competent people to a clear goal, effective communication will follow" with a big emphasis on clear goals.
I would ensure that goals are clearly explained in the most simple way (fools proof) and would even go further and spend time ensuring that team members individually understand and support the goal (the what and by when) before any further steps are taken. Once this is achieved, plans will come together since the team unquestionably believe in the possibility, probability and impact of the final result...
I would agree that clear goals are crucial in creating a HPT, for as the saying goes: ‘A man without a goal is like a ship without a rudder.’ In other words, a team that is not clear on where they are going and what they need to do to get there will surely get lost along the way. On the other hand, a HPT who understand what they need to achieve, have a far higher chance of problem solving independently, innovating, and handling conflict in order to achieve that common objective. However, as a manager, defining goals for a team can sometimes feel more achievable. I believe that the second step of ‘surrounding yourself with brilliance that holds relevance to your goals’ can often seem more daunting, as oftentimes one has to work with the people that you already have. This requires skill on behalf of the manager in carefully identifying and best utilising each team members’ individual strengths so that the team is strengthened by their differences rather than impaired by them.
I agree with most points articulated in this article. However, in my view both goal clarity and communication are key and go hand in hand. Clear goals maybe set but without effective communication methods and channels, people end up working in Silos and hardly share new ideas/experiences. People need to be consistently reminded that their work is tied to the big picture, the bigger goal. Communication is important to build trust, create energy and encourage exploration within the team. Therefore effective communication must happen in order to build a high performance team and achieve that common goal.
Enjoyed the article, especially as a child of the 80’s who can relate to the fabulous TV programme, The A’ Team! Embracing diversity is key, but also requires a lot of energy sometimes as a leader. Some people are given a task or goal, and race to achieve it, and competently. Others are competent, but due to their personal make-up and way of working, need the task or goal clarifying and re-clarifying, and almost pushing along to achieve in an effective manner. Assigning the right resource to the right task can be possible, and perhaps goes in-hand with choosing a team. We are rarely afforded the opportunity to truly select, or “attract and recruit” a team, but we can make sure, where possible, people are given tasks which they will succeed with, rather than expecting a square peg to be forced through a round hole. Where possible. The nature of our day to day roles do not usually allow for perfect distribution of tasks whereby every person works 100% of the time on things they are strong in, or perform well at. This then also feeds into building an environment of trust where people feel they can discuss their feelings and thoughts openly, and more importantly that these thoughts and feelings will be considered. More than that; that by having developed the EQ of the team, each team member knows a little about how each other already may already be acting and working more productively and harmoniously together.
Finally, I did like the reference to the fact that functioning in a high performing team is a privilege. I have had the experience of being part of such a team once before in my working life; and it was a joy, a frustration, the best and worst of times all rolled into one. But ultimately rewarding and fulfilling. It is something I have aspired to create for my team, but I realise that there is a lot of work to do to get there.
Hi Julie - glad that you have enjoyed the article, and thank you for the elaborate feedback. You've mentioned that team leaders hardly get the chance to choose their teams. This seems to be a problem world-wide, especially since the performance of a team is a direct reflection on the managers performance. To hold a manager responsible for the team, such manager must have chosen the team. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that this practice will change in many years to come, so we must learn to work with this. And the best way to do so is to really know and understand the strengths ans weaknesses of each team member...
I agree with most of the points raised in this article but I would like to talk more about more about Emotional intelligence ( EQ) . From experience the EQ of members of a team becomes visible when serious deliberations are on-going and at this stage it is difficult to make necessary adjustments.
It is also important that team members remain focused on the goal and learn not to take conflicts and attributed fallouts personal. When people fail to realise its strictly business and become emotional then the trust among team members dwindles.
"I love it when the plan comes together", and as the team develops and matures more and more plans do come together. In the early days of the team development, this is often a struggle; and this is where the influence of the Leader is paramount. As the Leader you are there to provide inspiration, to teach (but also to learn). Even with young teams, be bold, but also humble. One of the key aspects of team management / leadership that is so rewarding is seeing the team develop, seeing individuals in the team having initiative helping the team to achieve success. This is when you realise that you have a high performing team, and not just a gang of followers.
I agree that in the beginning the leaders influence is paramount. Unfortunately, during these early stages, you might just have that gang of followers. In this, it is the leaders task to cut that 'umbilical cord', to empower the team and to let them function interdependently. The leader must in actual terms work hard to become a manager
Clear goals are crucial to the success of any team. Sharing and discussing these goals with the team and getting their insight and possible suggestions in reaching these goals is imperative. Trust, mutual respect, an open mind to new suggestions and very important never to take conflict personally is some of the key factors for me to be a successful high performance team. Unfortunately there will always be a type of resistance as it is human nature to panic when there change. This will always be the challenge for the leaders getting the complete team to have the same vision for the goal that is set. Because personalities are different I suppose their vision for reaching these goals will also differ. The challenge is to get these different personalities to trust and accept the road that the team has to take to reach the goal. You will have to rely on the positive thinkers and go getters to influence the negative members to get this team to work to the best of their ability and be the best of the best. Surround yourself with these positive members and the goal will surely be achievable.
Hi Jaco, and thank you for taking the time to read this article. You have accurately summarized the content. One thing, that I would like to reflect on from you comments is where you say; "You will have to rely on the positive thinkers and go-getters to influence the negative members to get this team to work to the best of their ability and be the best of the best. Surround yourself with these positive members and the goal will surely be achievable." My question would be 'positive' or 'negative' according to whom and measured against what? What is important here, and something that is not adequately addressed in the article is team values. This is so, since the only objective way to measure 'positive' and 'negative' attitude will be to measure such against pre-defined values. hence, I would state that your comment holds merit, provided that we use values to measure behavior.
The article clearly points out that a high performance team must have a clear goal and that the team members must be fully committed to it. Team members have to trust each other in order to achieve the common goal. I think it is critical for every organization to create an atmosphere where high performance teams can develop. A leader must select competent people and encourage the collaboration of different personalities to make the team strong.
Thank you for reading the article Gerhard. I agree that competent people are key to team success. You mention the collaboration of different personalities. In math, different personalities would present variance. Where you bring variance into harmony, you create symphony. This is the essence of team composition, and yes, it is no coincidence that the word 'composition' relates to the word 'compose'...