For most of us, positive team experiences are rare. I am fortunate enough to serve on a team that consistently achieves exceptional results. A key first step to more predictable and enhanced team performance is understanding the common characteristics of teams that consistently achieve exceptional results. The best book I have read on this subject of team is Pat MacMillan’s book The Performance Factor. In this book, Pat outlines a very succinct list of characteristics of high performing teams. It’s a short list; in fact it contains only six characteristics. But each characteristic plays a specific and vital role in making the team effective, and therefore it is worth a closer look. If one of these six characteristics is missing or inadequate, the team is, at best, limping. If two or three are lacking his group is probably not a team at all. The following model shows the six characteristics in abbreviated form.
The single most important ingredient in team success is a clear, common, compelling task. The power of a team flows out of the alignment of a purpose to which every team member is aligned. The task of any team is to accomplish an objective and to do it at exceptional levels of performance. Teams are not ends in themselves, but rather means to an end. Therefore high performance teams will be mission- directed, ultimately judged by their results.
Crystal Clear Roles
High performance teams are also characterized by crystal clear roles. Every team member is clear about his or her particular role, as well as those of the other team members. Roles are all about how we design, divide, and deploy the work of the team. While the concept is compellingly logical, many teams find it very challenging to implement in practice. There is often a tendency to take role definition to extremes or not take it far enough. But when they get it right, team members discover that making their combination more effective and leveraging their collective efforts is key to synergistic results.
High performance teams need clear, competent leadership. When such leadership is lacking many groups lose their way. Whereas a common, compelling task might be the biggest contributor to team effectiveness, inadequate team leadership may be the single biggest reason for team ineffectiveness. Teams are, in the very truest sense, volunteers. Volunteers are not managed but rather demand accepted leadership capable of calling out the levels of commitment, initiative and creativity that motivate exceptional levels of both individual and collective performance.
Effective Processes Teams and processes go together. Many professions take processes for granted. It would never occur to a surgical team, construction crew, string quartet, or a film crew to approach their tasks without clearly defined processes. The playbook of a football team or the score sheet of a string quartet clearly outlines their processes. Business teams have processes as well. Instead of a run off tackle or executing the scene in Act II, such processes might include solving problems, making decisions, managing a meeting, processing insurance claims, product design, and any other avenues we take in pursuit of our mission. Hopefully, in each of these processes, each of us has a clear, specific role based on our function, skills, and expertise.
One of the biggest misperceptions I find in the world of teams and teamwork is the belief that to work and communicate effectively, team members must be close comrades. Not true. In fact, the diversity of skill, experience, and knowledge needed to effectively and creatively divide the task almost precludes high levels of friendship, which is most often based on common interests. Speaking of diversity, we find that the more different a team is, the smarter it can be. A team whose members look at the world through the different lenses of function, gender, ethnicity, personality, experience, and perspective has a decided advantage over a more homogenous group. The diverse group will be able to surround problems, decisions and other team issues with a brighter collective IQ. They will see more solutions and more creative solutions if they can channel their differences into synergy rather than strife. Because diversity provides plenty of opportunity for discord, conflict, and communication breakdowns, especially among teams that must accomplish their tasks in complex, high velocity, dynamic environments, their differences must be offset by trust, acceptance, respect, courtesy, and a liberal dose of understanding.
Communication is the very means of cooperation. One of the primary motives for companies to implement teams is that team-based organizations are more responsive and move faster. A team, or the organization in which it resides, cannot move faster than it communicates. Fast, clear, accurate communication is a hallmark of high levels of team performance. Such teams have mastered the art of straight talk; there is little wasted motion from misunderstanding and confusion. Ideas move like quicksilver. The team understands that effective communication is key to thinking collectively and finding synergy in team solutions. As a result they approach communication with a determined intentionality. They talk about it a lot and put a lot of effort into keeping it good and getting better.
To summarize, when it comes to teams, these six characteristics are the lightning in the bottle. If a team gets these few things right, they will realize results as well.
I offer a one day workshop for anyone that is interested that will bring these six characteristics alive through interactive adult activities, use of video clips, workbook, and PowerPoint Presentation. If interested then please feel free to contact me.
[An excerpt from Pat MacMillan’s team book The Performance Factor published in March 2001]