There’s a reason that teamwork feels deeply intuitive for us. From humanity’s earliest days, we were naturally inclined to work together in groups so that we might outsmart a lion, sidestep poison berries, and sleep a little easier at night.
From this perspective, teamwork allows for specialization of skills, where each team member gets to show off their strengths. You’ve also got the added bonus of pooled resources and shared knowledge. Beyond that, the very nature of a common goal creates stronger bonds of trust between people.
Despite how natural collaboration seems, high-performing teams don’t just appear miraculously. There are plenty of cogs whirring, and each member needs to know exactly how everything connects up so that they can recognize their role, follow the ground rules, and ultimately achieve the goal that unifies everyone.
Important Rules for High-Performing Teams
To steal some lyrics from the late, great country star Kenny Rogers, “If you’re gonna play the game, you gotta learn to play it right.”
And when the name of the game is high-performance team work, here is exactly how you do team building:
1. Set Roles
Teams can only properly function when everyone holds a common understanding of roles and responsibilities. Indeed, this explains why so many collaborative projects stall or outright fail. Roles carry expectations, so when there is little clarity on who does what, tasks inevitably fall into the space between two bodies.
With an incomplete task here, and an unfinished step there, the team soon sees key performance indicators (KPIs) aren’t being met. This leaves people confused and frustrated, further harming the productivity of the group.
In order to run a successful collaborative project, each member absolutely must know their position within the team, the exact space they fill and the scope of that claim. If you establish definite roles, you get minimal duplication of effort, greater accountability, and a higher respect for each member’s unique contribution towards the goal.
2. Establish Goals and KPIs
Speaking of goals, high-performing teams have a lot of them. Now we won’t bore you on the fundamentals of goal-setting, other than saying you should identify the larger goal, break it into smaller parts, and assign relevant metrics to track the progress of those tasks.
Instead, we’ll focus on how high-performing teams use KPIs for their goals.
High-performing teams certainly don’t underestimate the merit of involving members in the process of goal-setting. When you choose KPIs that team members actually see the value in, they’re far more motivated to work towards actually achieving them.
Limiting KPIs also helps clarify focus. Take this example from Agoda, an online booking company, who cleaned up their KPIs to focus on what created the most impact. Having too many KPIs could be a distraction.
“When our goals were too numerous and too complex, employees’ decisions didn’t sync up within or across teams, which meant groups and individuals were tugging in various directions and failing to produce desired outcomes at scale,” the Agoda leaders said in an article with the MIT Sloane Management Review.
Another key distinguishing feature between average and high-performing teams is KPI visibility. It’s crucial that you post information in a shared location, perhaps a knowledge base, so that everyone on the team gets to see them. This keeps people motivated to progress and identifies areas that may require additional support or resources.
3. Determine How the Team makes Decisions
As a group or project becomes larger, there are more components to consider, and more ways thinks could go wrong. It’s just a fact of life that decision making tends to slow down in these cases. Unfortunately, time waits for no one and high-performing teams are required to make a hundred decisions every day.
How do they manage it?
Enter the directly responsible individual, handily shortened to DRI. It’s a title given to the person who is ultimately responsible for the completion of a task (or set thereof), and is thus expected to make the decisions that allow for that. The term was coined by Apple as a progressive alternative to a simple project manager framework. We use DRIs at Tettra.
Team leaders are the obvious candidate for DRI, but actually high-performing collaborations can have multiple DRIs.
Empowering people to make the decisions surrounding the goal raises accountability, sparks motivation, and ultimately raises productivity.
4. Have a Feedback Loop
Feedback may be a sin in the eyes (or perhaps ears) of sound engineers, but it’s definitely good news for highly functional teams. In the latter context, a cadence of feedback is used to improve idea-generation, decision-making, and team communication.
When teams have a space for open and honest feedback at their disposal, they are better equipped to troubleshoot issues and resolve disputes. In a more positive light, they’re able to get points clarified, make efficiency improvements, and share their appreciation for fellow team members.
High-performing teams know all too well that the best feedback is specific, constructive, and actionable.
There is literally no point in comments that can’t meet these simple criteria. It’s useful to remember the actual purpose of feedback is to raise your team as a whole, and not diminish the efforts of individual parts.
5. Encourage an Entrepreneurial Mind-set
The research shows that if an organization wants an entrepreneurial mind-set, they need to be open to change, have employees with high self-efficacy, and promote creativity. The trouble is that many employees shy away from initiative because they’ve been admonished for it in the past.
In high-performing teams, it’s understood that a sense of ownership, a willingness to try new things, and a genuine appetite for faster growth is the fast track towards an entrepreneurial culture. Only through these principles do you challenge the status quo and come up with novel ideas that benefit the larger organization.
The best ways to encourage an entrepreneurial mind-set is to make it clear that’s what is desired. Announce your openness to change and be ready to reward any individuals who contribute. Give team members a degree of autonomy and allow for failure – it happens all the time. When innovation does come along, reward it seriously.
6. Create an Innovative Learning Environment
A lot of what we’ve already covered applies to creating an innovative learning environment, namely encouraging employees to share their thoughts, empowering teams to make their own decisions, and allowing new ideas to be tested without fear of reprimand.
Add to that a genuine commitment to continuous learning and you won’t be far from innovation. Even though skill specialization is a core element of collaboration, high-performing teams recognise that individuals should always be looking to further their knowledge, especially when it’s available from fellow members.
Allowing team members to make their own decisions, effectively turning them into DRIs are more engaged in their work, plain and simple. This can have the great result of driving those employees to take ownership of their learning, too. At the end of all this, you raise the self-efficacy of the workforce and open the door to innovation.
7. Create an Operating System
Similar to how your computer’s operating system (Windows) manages your hardware (CPU, RAM, SSD) to fulfill basic functions (task scheduling, resource management), a business operating system is a standard, company-wide aggregation of pretty much any processes within your organization. They also go by the name of operating principles.
For high-performing teams to be able to rely on what we’ll call a co-operating system, they’ll need to have a place to actually document their processes and principles, make easy amendments, and have other people actually find it. Some cool Google docs features and a messaging app or two might work short-term, but for anything sophisticated you’ll likely need some kind of internal knowledge base.
8. Focus on Core Values
As American motor mogul Henry Ford advised, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
Long-term collaboration can be a real chore when members lose focus on the ultimate purpose of your work, and the core values that fuel it. It’s common practice to include both in your operating principles so be sure that you do!
It’s widely accepted that high-performing teams grow from a culture of shared values, which means it’s good to regularly review them, but also adapt if and when opinions shift. Regular communication is important to ensure that everyone on the team understands the values and mission, which can happen in team meetings, one-to-ones, and written correspondence.
Core values should always inform the decision-making process so that any one decision made by an individual clearly reflects the underlying beliefs of the team. You can make this simpler for people by having core values and mission statements easily accessible in a centralized location, such as in a company wiki.
9. Communicate Openly
We’re certainly not going to be the first to tell you how important communication is for teamwork, but we hope you’ll appreciate the reminder. Open discussion is a prerequisite of innovation, but what’s more is that the two are actually self-reciprocating – they feed each other. This is why it’s an absolute must to encourage employee feedback without fear of judgment or criticism.
When a team does feel comfortable to propose ideas and raise concerns, not only does their problem-solving ability soar but also the collective productivity. It is worth mentioning that open communication alone cannot reconcile every matter, but cohesive teams already know that. It’s that dreaded word again, compromise.
Lastly, it’s useful to remember that not everyone on your team may enjoy the same communication channels equally, and also that certain means of communication will be more effective in certain situations. Providing that it all connects up somehow, it’s more than fine to use a variety of communication methods.
10. Be Efficient
“Be more efficient” is not great advice, similar to how telling a professional runner to just be faster is pretty meaningless.
It’s more advantageous to look at the factors driving your efficiency. The most immediate are task management, communication, resource usage, team morale, and the larger culture for improvement.
When teams lack a clear understanding of the goals, a sophisticated task management platform, or effective communication with one another, they’re far more likely to duplicate work, or miss tasks entirely.
Likewise, teams with poor tools and resources are forced to either mismanage what they do have or find alternative (slower) solutions.
In order to avoid this sorry state, teams need to set clear expectations that correspond to the roles and responsibilities of each member. Any tasks that spring from there must be closely managed in a system that everyone can see, ideally one that integrates with your existing platforms.
And there is something to say about good old-fashioned leadership, too. An effective team leader cultivates a positive team environment where members feel respected, well-utilized, and appreciated. Proper delegation also keeps people clear on their individual scope, which keeps the small jobs from falling through the gaps.
11. Resolve Conflict Quickly
Conflict between team members doesn’t materialize out of nothing, but often the source is not what you’d expect. It may be that someone has felt undervalued or unappreciated and those feelings have translated into frustration. Alternatively, it could be that shared values haven’t been identified across the team.
Whatever the cause, it’s imperative that conflict gets resolved quickly. The happy truth is that most people do want to create strong relationships with those they work with. High-performing teams can go one step beyond and stop disagreements from harming team dynamics by using relationship-building language.
The PEARLS system devised by Professor Anthony Suchman in Leading Change in Healthcare is perhaps the best example of these phrases:
- “I really want to work on this with you.”
- “I bet we can figure this out together.”
- “I can feel your enthusiasm as you talk.”
- “I can hear your concern.”
- “You clearly put a lot of work into this.”
- “You invested in this, and it shows.”
- “I’ve always appreciated your creativity.”
- “There’s no doubt you know a lot about this.”
- “This would be hard for anyone.”
- “Who wouldn’t be worried about something like this?”
- “I’d like to help you with this.”
- “I want to see you succeed.”
Turning tension into an opportunity for growth is certainly not easy, but it is extremely worthwhile if you’re interested in high morale and greater productivity in the long run. It’s the responsibility of the team lead to help diffuse any escalation, though a lot can be done with respectful discourse and a mutual effort to understand the concerns behind a disagreement.
How to Keep Up with a High-Performing Team
It’s true that team collaboration can sometimes feel like doing a 1,000-piece puzzle blindfolded. You don’t know what pieces you’re holding or which bit you’re doing, and you can’t even see the picture on the box.
Nevertheless, we have an unshakable impulse for cooperation. That’s precisely why high-performing teams are such a thrill to be a part of, why they are eye-wateringly productive, and why these essential team rules were definitely not made to be broken.