Have you ever been on a high performing team? Not just a good team, with a good manager, where things mostly get done on time and people enjoy their work and team, but a truly high performing team? A team where you can't wait to start the day. Where problems seem to evaporate before your eyes and the team accomplishes more than anyone expected? The team has an outsized impact and other folks look at the team and want to join?
Most of the teams I've been on have been good, solid teams, doing good work and making a difference. I've also been on a few high performing teams, and that is a wondrous experience. You learn, you have fun, and you have an impact. The question is, what turns a good team into a high performing team?
It's not just having the smartest people on the team. How many all-star teams in whatever your favorite sport is could beat that year's champion? Very few, if any. Because while those players might be the best at their position, they haven't spent enough time as a team to play together. Back when I was building my first ethernet network none of us knew how to do it, only that it could be done. So we built a multi-cockpit man-in-the-loop simulator out of the tools we had.
It's not just having good management. Bad management can destroy a team. Micro-managing, information hoarding, and favoritism are all things that will keep a team from being high performing. On the other hand, the absence of those doesn't mean you'll be high performing.
So what makes a high performing team? I think there are a couple of enabling things. The first is a good mix of skills and levels. The team needs to have people who are willing to lead in all of the areas that need leadership, and willing to follow in the areas where there is leadership. Ideally you have people who have experience in the problem space and know some of the pitfalls, and people who are willing to learn and/or challenge the status quo and figure out new ways as well.
Second, you need to understand that performance takes time to develop, and there are stages people and teams go through on their journey to high performance. The best models I've found for these are Hershey and Blanchard's Situational Leadership for individuals and Tuckman's Stages of Group Development. And if you look at them you'll see that individuals and teams go through mostly the same stages.
But what turns a group of D3s (from Hershey and Blanchard), capable, cautious performers who are Norming (Tuckman) as a good team into a high performing team? That, as Tevye said, I can answer in one word. Tradition. Ok, not tradition as Tevye described it, but a tradition of TRUST.
Trust within the team. Trust that the entire of the team is going in the same direction. Trust that you all have the same goals. Trust that the team has your back. Trust that the little things won't fall through the cracks. Trust that if someone says they'll do something it will get done, or you'll know it won't with plenty of time to adjust, Basically the folks on the team trust each other to work together in support of the each other and the team.
Trust of the team. Trust outside the team that the team knows when it can make its own decisions, trust that it knows when it needs external inputs to make those decisions, and trust that it knows when to provide options to others for them to make decisions. In short, the organization trusts the team to do the right thing, not micro-managing or constraining the team.
Trust of the organization by the team. Trust that there will be support from the org. Trust that the overall goals and direction are not going to be changed on a whim. Trust that people are listening to the team. Trust that no one is trying to undermine the team. Or, in other words, trust that what the team is doing is important and that the team will be allowed to do it.
And maybe, when you think about it, that tradition of trust isn't all that different from the tradition that Tevye was talking about.