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Why Your Team Will Never Become High Performing


There were only eleven of us. Huddled in an anonymous room located in the depths of the vast and winding labyrinth that is the Marina Bay Sands convention centre in Singapore.
Eleven people in the centre of an oddly large room. Hunched over. Examining a graph projected on a screen.
At this moment in time, to an outside observer, we would appear to be doing a rather typical thing. A typical group of business people, drawn from across the globe, having what would appear to be some sort of financial forecasting conversation. The almost impenetrable stream of company-specific acronyms and technical jargon notwithstanding, to a stranger who may stumble into the room it would be immediately obvious what was happening.
And they would be right.
They would also be wrong.
Because to an outsider turned insider like myself, something very different was occurring. Something very exciting.
A team was forming.
But not any team. This was the first time this executive team had met face to face. A new regional VP leading the team, having moved from across the globe a month previously. Five new members within the last couple of months. A team responsible for bringing in billions of dollars in revenue. Responsible for thousands of employees’ jobs. In a position to make decisions that impact vastly more people than that.
And while in that very moment we were focused on a task (a decision which could have far reaching implications for many years to come), my job as an outsider turned insider, was to help them focus on the team.

Why would this be my focus?

What I can say is this: when you have worked with as many teams as I have now – over a hundred close up – you notice patterns.
You’d have to be an idiot not to.
And one of the many patterns I have noticed is that to become a truly high performing team, the team has to learn to (and commit to) working on the team itself.
Most teams work on tasks. They get together and make decisions about the work to be done. Sometimes they use clever methodologies to do this. Then they part ways to make it happen.
This is common. This is relatively easy and comfortable.
Many teams will do ‘team building’ at some point. But this is usually another way to simply focus on a task. It is also relatively easy and comfortable.
It is very rare – in my observation – that teams spend time and effort working on the team itself. This is a MASSIVE missed opportunity.
I believe that avoiding this difficult work is the number one predictor that a team will not become high performing.

But why is this important? 

Because high performing teams don’t happen by accident. In fact I believe they tend towards dysfunction (to use Patrick Lencioni’s phraseology). Some people may explain this tendency with the second law of thermodynamics known as the Law of Entropy. Others may link it to Chaos Theory.
Let’s keep it simple.
Any group of individuals will tends towards chaos, dysfunction and self interest unless intelligent, strong forces actively work to create alignment, openness, cohesion, courage and commitment to a common goal.
This goes for all groups. No matter how intelligent, experienced, emotionally sensitive and well meaning the individuals happen to be, the group will only become a high performing team (and stay that way) if the team learns to (and commits to) working on the team itself.

What does the team work on specifically?

This is no easy feat. And within the confines of this article I would struggle to fully unpack this.
So let’s start with one practical first step.
This brings me back full circle. To that anonymous room in the Marina Bay Sands. At the end of that first day together all eleven of us mentally and physically stepped away from the tasks at hand. We assembled at the side of the room in open space. Unencumbered by chairs, projectors, pens and paper.
We stood in a circle. We faced each other in silence for a moment. We eyeballed each other.
And then we spontaneously broke into song.
*Just kidding about the song bit (but that would have been awesome!)
No. We just stood there.
I then explained our challenge in that moment. To examine the entity that is the team. To openly, courageously and sensitively talk about the behaviour of the humans in the room. To openly discuss the communication dynamics. The balance of contribution. The patterns we saw or felt. The times where individuals dominated. Or emotionally disengaged.
And I was shocked with what occurred next.
Most groups somewhat struggle with this. Not every individual, but enough that it can feel clunky or uncomfortable at first.
Not this group. These emotionally intelligent, thoughtful and observant leaders took to the challenge (seemingly) effortlessly. By the end of the thirty minute discussion everyone could feel the difference in the room. We gave a little cheer. Some people embraced. Then we packed up our things for a team dinner.
There was more work to be done, but this was an incredibly promising start. 

Two years later

The reason I thought of writing this post is because right now I am at an executive retreat in a far flung resort in Asia with some of the same people from two years ago. It is the end of Day 1. In this humidity my sweaty fingers are literally sticking to the keyboard as I type these words.
As I look across the group it is clear much has changed. There is a new area VP leading the team and half the people are new to the team or organisation. A global restructure has changed job roles and territories and performance metrics and more. There is much work to do over the coming couple of days.
This much change could be frustrating if you see building a high performing team as a destination. It shouldn’t be.
Building a high performing team should be an ongoing practice.
Teams require constant work. Otherwise they devolve into dysfunction. Or, at best, they stagnant in mediocrity.
How’s your team at the moment?

Posted to Building Extraordinary Teams on 9th November 2017

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