Building high performance teams: the challenges and how to overcome them
22 February 2022 • 4 min read
Building a team that not only delivers but does so consistently isn’t something that just happens overnight. It requires serious planning, motivation, and a combination of strategic and emotional intelligence to develop and empower a team that delivers far beyond expectations not just once but again and again. During times of rapid change and, indeed, crisis, this can be particularly difficult. However, counterintuitively, it’s by supporting teams to thrive and go one step further that resilience can be cultivated.
In an upcoming event (and part of our series ‘Guiding Your Digital Future’) AND Digital’s Chief for Delivery Stuart Munton will be joined by author and coach Trenton Moss to discuss the challenges that building high performance teams can pose. To look ahead, in this post we explore what makes high performance teams so valuable and the most effective ways to develop them - with a little bit of help from Stuart himself…
The characteristics of a high performance team
It’s easy for the phrase “high performance team” to get thrown about casually. However, there are a few characteristics that set high performance teams apart from those that are ‘really good’. According to Stuart, it’s not just about delivering consistently beyond expectations, it’s also about energy and enthusiasm. A high performing team, he says is one “that repeatedly delivers against its commitments and has a good morale at the same time.” In other words, it’s not enough to consistently achieve if that success is based on overwork and burn out - it needs to be achieved in a way that’s positive, sustainable, and safe for all team members.
Subsequently, the composition of a high performance team is about more than just talent. It needs, Stuart suggests, to be “well gelled, psychologically safe, and neurodiverse.” That cultural element is vital: it acts as a foundation for team members to take ownership of their roles and possess the confidence needed to tackle tough problems head on.
Fundamentally, it’s important to recognise the importance of collaboration - truly high performing teams aren’t those where everyone has the same perspective and same set of skills. They’re those that recognise the value of everyone’s contributions.
What hinders high performance?
There are two levels of thinking about the barriers that prevent teams from unlocking high performance. The first is about practices - if teams fail to properly collaborate or don’t have the right diversity (of skills or perspectives), “it’s going to be almost impossible for them to breach that 70% level of performance” Stuart says. (That 70% is the level that we might typically view as good or solid in terms of individual team performance.)
However, that's just the foundation. Even if teams can put the right practices in place, challenges at an organisational level - whether cultural or strategic - can prevent teams from reaching their potential. “If an organisation isn’t functioning as it should, that limits teams from moving from that 70% level to 100%” Stuart explains. This means that leadership needs to take responsibility to minimise obstacles faced by the team down the road. Doing this requires both a serious degree of self awareness, but also an attention to perspectives and experiences from inside teams. A great vision means nothing if it’s irrelevant to the day-to-day practices and challenges facing individual teams.
What can be done?
Stuart offers some clear guidance for those involved - at a leadership or team level - as to what they can do to better enable high performance. “At an organisational level it’s about servant leadership, trust and empowerment, diverse recruitment, and effective and continuous funding,” he says. Alongside that, he continues, it’s also vital that there is a “clear vision and a higher purpose - those things are motivating but they are also stabilising.”
At a team level, meanwhile, Stuart highlights that what matters is being attentive to the development needs of your people. “It’s all about training, mentoring, and coaching.” he says. This can help embed a culture of learning and growth that will not only ensure staff are able to develop the skills they need for future challenges, but also give them the desire to continue to share in and pursue that core vision and mission.
The importance of trust
Trust is critical to building high performance teams. “Psychological safety in particular” Stuart says, “is crucial in encouraging the sorts of leadership behaviours that are vital in any high performing team or organisation.” Without that fundamental sense of safety it can be difficult to encourage people to take risks and to be bold.
Again, mentorship is valuable here, but Stuart believes trust is something that comes from creating an environment where social activities are valued. This makes sense: it’s all well and good trying to build a robust - serious, even - professional culture, but if the team fails to recognise and value each other on a more human level, you’re almost certainly not going to get the best out of them. A sense of fun and enjoyment, then, are potentially critical components of success.
High performance requires bottom up and top down change
Karaoke nights and laser quest might not be the secret to high performance (although there’s no harm in seeing if they are), but what really matters is that people are able to feel comfortable and supported in their teams to make the decisions that matter. While bonding can play a part, leadership teams also need to think carefully about how their actions and thinking will shape the foundations on which every team is built. Once we’ve appreciated that high performance is something that can be unlocked from very different points of entry, we can start the exciting work of actually getting there - moving performance from 50% to 70%, to 100%.
Listen to Stuart Munton discuss building high performance teams on on March 3.