12 critical steps for building a high performing team
On the first day of team-building, my team mates sent to me...
"The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime."
Without teams, we would be limited to what individuals alone could achieve. And no matter how talented an individual is, there is a limit to what they can do alone.
Despite this, being part of a team can simultaneously be one of the most frustrating parts of our work. Conversely, it can also be the most rewarding. How many farewell emails talk about how your colleague loved working with the people, if not the organisation?
Businesses need effective teams to survive. And we need effective teams to enjoy our work.
Last year, I shared the 12 characteristics of high performing teams in the lead up to the holiday season over on Instagram. (🎶On the 12th day of Christmas my team mates sent to me…🎶) But how do you build a team that has these characteristics? Well, this year I am sharing the 12 steps to building a high performing team.
And so we begin…
1. Define your team’s objective
This is the most essential step. You can never have a high performing team if you don’t have a meaningful objective to pursue. Without this, you can’t align actions nor can you measure your success.
Often times we find ourselves with a team and then develop an understanding of why that team exists. This often results in very watered down general objectives such as “solving problems” or “creating value”. Objectives that could be true of any team at any organisation.
Instead, identify a specific problem that needs to be solved or value that needs to be created and build the team around that. It will inform the skills, processes, collaboration and culture needed on the team.
2. Develop your team members’ self leadership
Once the objective is clear, you can support team members to figure out how they can best contribute to that objective, and build their ability to deliver that contribution. Teams need each individual playing their part well. It’s a drain on time, resources and energy if someone isn’t pulling their weight, or requires a lot of oversight to get their work done.
To avoid this issue, each team member needs to be able to lead themselves well. This is their ability to identify what needs to be done, prioritise the work, execute on the work, and communicate about the work. Further, individuals great at self leadership also understand how to collaborate with their teammates at each step. When team members are leading themselves well, it reduces the need for leaders to micromanage or peers to pick up another team member’s slack.
3. Create a meaningful team identity
When you have team members who lead themselves well, you then need to harness that skill toward the shared reason that the team exists. When your team has a shared identity that is meaningful to the individuals - e.g. the individuals really care about their team - they are more likely to pull together and collaborate well. Think about your favourite sporting team and how their uniforms, songs and shared stories unite them to play well even in the face of challenges.
Many corporate managers have tried to build identity for their teams artificially. They run team building days, send out emails and slide decks filled with values and vision and talk about their team as a “family”. However, team identity is not a one size fits all problem. Not every team needs to be a “family”.
Instead, teams should work out what they already have in common and use that as the foundation to build a team identity that means something. In most cases, this starts with the work that the team has been brought together to complete. And that’s ok. Many teams only need their shared work goal as enough to build an identity that motivates teamwork.
4. Coach your team on communication
A group of individuals who lead themselves well and have a meaningful shared identity can still fail to function well as a team. The number one reason this occurs is poor communication. Whether that’s not enough communication, too much communication or the wrong type of communication, it can completely undermine an otherwise effective team.
Teams should develop communication rhythms that work for them. Rather than copying and pasting an existing framework with specified meetings and routines for communication, design your own approach. Teams can combine synchronous communication such as meetings and calls, with asynchronous communication such as emails, visual project boards and chat.
Beyond the group communication methods, individuals also need to understand how to communicate well one-on-one and in day-to-day settings. Teams benefit when individuals upskill on how to communicate clearly, how to communicate with empathy and how to have hard conversations.
5. Recruit the specialists you need
It’s not enough to have a shared identity and objective and for individuals to be able to lead themselves and collaborate toward that objective. You need to make sure you have the right skills to deliver on that objective.
There’s a trend toward valuing the generalist in corporate teams at the moment. This may be because it’s appears easier or cheaper to build a team of individuals who can do many things moderately well. Or it may be that we have confused the generalist skill set for the more broadly applicable skill of self leadership. But I think teams are missing out on some real value by not recruiting and supporting specialists well.
To deliver truly high performance, you will want to identify the key “hard” skills that your team needs to deliver on your objective. I’m talking about legal expertise, software development, procurement skills or any other relevant specialism. Generalists also have a role to play, which we’ll cover below under “manage your staff liquidity.”
6. Develop skills and systems to support the team
In addition to specialist skills and communication skills discussed above, your team will need skills that help you function as a team. These include creative problem solving, collaboration, strategic or business acumen and other skills relating to how team members work together and within the context of your organisation and industry.
However, there’s a reason recruiting the right specialists come first. Sometimes you will need to choose a specialised skill over softer attributes such as team members that have worked together before or team members with exceptional collaboration skills. That doesn’t mean you can’t have both.
Instead, design systems that enable your specialists to integrate well into the team, organisation and industry context. These include processes for how work is done, checked and handed off to the next specialist. They can also include communication and reporting processes - or better yet, automations.
7. Foster mastery within your team
Now that you have the right specialists in your team and built the supporting structure of teaming skills, you must foster the mastery of those specialists. This benefits the team because the specialists develop faster and therefore deliver better quality. It often also benefits the individual where they are motivated by developing their mastery which contributes to growing their career.
8. Manage your staff liquidity
Staff liquidity is the idea that those with the highest and most specific skill should be allocated to work on tasks requiring those skills. And then those with broader skill sets are allocated to work on remaining tasks. The concepts of I, T and E shaped people (among others) help determine who should be allocated to tasks first and who should be left to jump in and help out as needed.
Managing your staff liquidity optimises the use of your specialist’s time. This reduces wait time when a specialist’s input is required, improves quality to make sure the best person works on each task, and keeps both specialists and generalists interested and engaged in their work as they get to do the type or variety of work that most interests them. It also helps you out as teams are able to “spike” their effort when a higher-than-expected workload arrives, because generalists are able to jump in to accelerate things and specialists are doing the work they do best (and often fastest).
9. Design your team's work
To be able to actively manage your team’s liquidity, it helps to have a level of intention behind how your team gets their work done. This is where work design comes in. Process, templates, job descriptions and work management software are part of work design. But you don’t need a formalised how-to for every element.
Instead, apply a design thinking or service design approach to targeting the biggest sticking points in how your team operates. Then you can iteratively build up the formalised components of your work design to the level of detail needed. Additionally, because design thinking is often done collaboratively, you can build team culture as you build process (instead of process being a culture-killer).
10. Build and leverage trust
Yes internal trust is important for high performing teams. The points above on self-leadership, team identity and communication will go a long way to supporting trustworthy relationships between teammates. But the trust that external parties put in your team is equally as important and often much harder to build.
Whether you serve external clients, or interact with other departments within a larger organisation, your team will be in someway reliant on other people and team’s to fuel your work in the form of revenue, investment or enough work to justify your team’s existence. Being trust worthy as a team is important so that your outside stakeholders keeping coming to you and promoting you (in all senses of the word).
Building trust as a team is like building trust as an individual leader: only commit to what you can deliver (and if you’re not sure—under-commit for a while), follow through on your promises, and take time to understand your stakeholders.
11. Plan for turnover
Turnover will happen. No matter how great your team is, many reasons may draw your team members away. This is true for your best and brightest as well as the team member you’re trying to figure out how to fire.
So you need to plan for this turnover. Look out for key person risks in your team. This is where one person leaving would leave a hole in your team that would be difficult to solve, even if you could hire a replacement in a matter of hours. Sometimes this is obvious—such as having only one expert in an area your team does heaps of work in—but others are less obvious.
Look for people who really drive and maintain the positive aspects of your culture. Or people who know the ins-and-outs of all your admin processes and systems and help the team handle these things. Or the skilled generalist that is constantly helping the experts on your team keep up the pace.
12. Know when to shut down the team
As noted in step one, every good team exists for a reason. In many (but not all) cases, teams can succeed so well at their objective that they make themselves redundant. Once they deliver a project, fully automate a service offering, or otherwise complete their objective. At other times, maybe the team is no longer operating effectively and needs to be disbanded or changed up to refresh the culture or bring new thinking to the work.
It can be tempting to keep looking for new projects or work for that team to keep it running. However, if you’ve built the team well, it will be the perfect team for the work it was doing. And it’s time to celebrate your success, help your team members find their next perfect team, and start from step 1 to build your next team.
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