What prevents high performance teams?

Have you ever worked in a high-performance team? A team that really “clicked”? A team which was harmonious, complementary and truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Have you ever worked in a real “self-organising team”? A team that could quickly and respectfully work out for itself what would happen in some situation.

It’s a wonderful feeling to have had this experience. Anecdotally, and from personal experience, this type of team is very rare.  I’ve been on more than 50 project teams and have been a part of only 1 or 2 high-performance teams.

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”  Vincent “Vince” Lombardi (1913-1970), coach of 2 Super Bowl Championships and 6 NFL Champions 

How do such amazing teams happen? Was it planned or accidental?  Accidental teams can happen, but the members typically have positive and successful experiences from previous teams.  To have a planned outcome requires a level of emotional maturity and security in each person’s sense of self. This can enable that creation to occur without damaging individual psyches.

Why do we see so few examples of high-performance teams?  What common behavioural issues are preventing the teaming effect from taking place? What behaviours are present in good teams?

The answers are many and varied, but fundamentally teams don’t form into high performance team due to

a) the existence of threats to teaming

b) lack of tangible and positive examples to guide teams to self-form towards positive behaviours

The anti-teaming threats aspect is dealt with in other places, e.g. Project Action Principle #4: “Remove Teaming Threats, Ruthlessly” and Building a No-Assholes Project Team.

This article addresses item b) and provides a set of 9 principles that provide positive examples and guidance to teams who want to be excellent, and in particular to self-form into excellent teams.

Nine Teaming Principles to build a True Self-Organising Project Team

The 9 principles that we can apply to ensure we have a high-performance team, are listed below.  Each principle is outlined in a separate article which will also provide a clause in the Charter.

Principle #1: Understanding ”there’s no ‘I’ in team: The most fundamental element of putting together a great project team is the unambiguous and explicit commitment to the right team behaviours. Individuals can be in a team without putting aside their individuality.

Principle #2: Delivering fast and furious value: We need to ensure that the project moves forward at the desired rate, and delivers real value to its customers This needs to be a clear expectation for every team member.

Principle #3: Sharing the dream: A common mental model of success will help form a team, guide its efforts, and even in the absence of a plan, keep it on track as problems and gaps emerge.

Principle #4: Playing position: One powerful way to destroy or limit a team is to add constraints that aren’t really part of the problem they are trying to solve. Bringing in fixed ideas about who you represent, how you do things or what you deliver causes friction and gaps in the team structure.

Principle #5: Demanding accountability: Projects move forward by the accumulation of outcomes: decisions, completed tasks, successful milestones and so forth.  Each outcome is achieved based on someone taking accountability for its completion.

Principle #6: Leaving footprints: Every team needs to leave footprints. Anyone who doesn’t document their work in a project, or actively participates in helping create a persistent record of the project, is a Project Asshole.

Principle #7: Disrupting respectfully: Doing things the same way, or allowing habits to constrain the team’s creativity or opportunity will lead to disaster; and allowing complacency or personal problems to evolve disrupts harmony and builds contempt not trust.

Principle #8: Undermining bureaucracy: All organisations develop their own ways of doing business.  Their internal systems, processes, rules and management style can evolve organically or under the direction of the company strategy. But every organisation will eventually end up with a certain amount of process that doesn’t seem to provide value

Principle #9: Practising awesomization: Teams that are open to being excellent will often surprise you with what they can achieve.  Allow teams to become too comfortable and they will starts an inward spiral to mediocrity, corner-cutting and, ultimately, failure.