Posted by: genevievetaylor | September 23, 2010

4 Keys to Building High Performance Teamwork

We established in the last blog Why Teams Aren’t the Silver Bullet that if you are intent on getting results from a group of people who are united around common cause, you need to create high performance teamwork.

The question, then, is how?

At Global Genesis, we believe that high performance teamwork is created through a number of different elements, depicted in a model we often use with teams to establish what that foundation might be. 

At the center of high performance teamwork – the kind of teamwork that yields synergistic results – is trust and respect.

First comes respect: the kind of respect that comes through observing action over time, values fulfilled, and competency revealed.

Then comes trust: trust that helps the un-discussable be discussed, that allows for an easy play and share of ideas, because everyone knows that their team mates have their back.

Creating respect and trust within a group of people is a dance; it comes over time and in response to how people approach the rest of the key elements for high performance teamwork.   In my experience, it is nearly impossible to enter a new group and automatically respect and trust those around you. It is sometimes even harder to do so with groups that have long histories.   Instead, it is through clarifying shared purpose and roles, clarifying roles, spending time to develop relationships, and fine-tuning teamwork that create room for trust and respect to grow.

So, how do we go about cultivating these other elements?  Below are some ideas for how we approach these essential pieces – and there are  many more.

1. Clarify shared purpose and vision. To help our clients clarify shared purpose and vision,  we like to refer to an article that Jim Collins and Jerry Porris wrote for the” target=”_blank”>Harvard Business Review on Change in 1998.  There they say that a practical, shared vision has the following components:

  • Clear Purpose & Values
  • Big, Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and Strategies to accomplish those.

When we work with clients, we typically customize our approach to working with these two paths.  They compose the largest parts of many strategic plans, and are essential to high performance teamwork.

One of my favorite ways to help clients clarify their purpose and values as well as their goals and strategies is to have them interview each other using the Appreciative Inquiry Interviews. Here, you ask people to take about 20 minutes each to question each other on what is most inspiring to them about their organization, what they know that works based on experiences they may have had in other arenas, and what are the exciting possibilities that they see on the horizon for their team.  In those conversations, which are characterized by active, open listening and reflection, both people have an opportunity to Discover (the first step in the AI methodology) new ways of approaching the challenge of uncovering the purpose and vision for the organization.

This is later compared with what other partners have learned, and is funneled into creative ways of expressing and uncovering the most important possibilities at hand.

We might also do some strategy work with the group, helping the group to analyze trends and opportunities at play in the micro and macro world around them.

Ultimately, this leads us to uncovering and clarifying shared purpose and values, and articulating compelling stretch goals – ones that are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timebound) and that moreover will drive energy and direction for the group as it moves forward.

2. Clarifying Team Roles is the next essential component for creating high performance teamwork.  Particularly when a group is experiencing a lot of change, (adding a new member, losing a member, changing buildings, etc.) doing this well is fundamental to helping them move forward.  As facilitators, our job is to help them clarify expectations and the process for decision-making, as well as fine tune their handoffs and the flow of information.  Teams often get stuck here, creating an enormous amount of stress on the system and on themselves.

It can also be quite fun with a bit of creativity.  In one organization, I helped different departments give a “Day in the Life of…” skits; in another, I asked staff members to give short presentations that included the more prosaic information along with the lighter question of what cartoon character their position would be.

The key here is to help the team do more than simply read off their job description, by cuing them to share what kind of help they need from their team mates, what quirky things they should know about each other, and to find ways to raise the “dumb” questions that people have always wanted to know about their colleague’s work, but never dared to ask.

This leads well into the next key element, which is…

3. Developing team relationships. The quality of the relationships on a team are many times the key reason that a teambuilder is brought into an organization to begin with.   Relationships get stymied, stressed, side-tracked, or stifled for a number of reasons. Many times, clarifying purpose and roles can relieve this tension. The iconic book on negotiations and conflict, Getting to Yes, says that as negotiators, we must “focus on the problem, not the people.” Clarifying purpose and roles may address a number of the problems that can take a toll on the relationships of the team.

Ultimately, however, the success and quality of team relationships is determined by each member’s answers to the following questions:

  1. Are you willing to commit to work on the relationship?
  2. Are you willing to be accountable for your piece of the struggle in the relationship?
  3. And, are you willing to take a wider view on the systemic stressor that might be affecting others in your team?

After everyone has answered those questions for themselves, the job of the teambuilder is to create a container for crucial conversations to occur, where the “Undiscussables” can be discussed with clear-sighted compassion and intelligence.

If the teambuilder has an opportunity to work with a group over time, they can help the group build their internal capacity to name those undiscussables, talk about them, and resolve them over time.  At Global Genesis, we might help the group build skills around managing the pressure of conflict, or work with them on inflammatory language, or help them question each others assumptions.

I work with one group who calls this “Identifying the Elephant in the Room.”  They usually begin these conversations, many times over lunch, as “There is an elephant in the room I would like to point out.”  They might then say how this is difficult for them or for the person who may be singled out, taking some of the sting out of the situation, and then proceed to clearly, kindly, and candidly describe what they are seeing in terms that make it clear it is their perspective.

This practice has improved tenfold their mode of operating together.

It also has a positive impact on the fourth key, Teamwork.

4. Building Teamwork. At Global Genesis, we define teamwork as “the ability to effectively, efficiently organize and coordinate action towards a common cause.” It is easy to see how these four keys to building high performance teamwork all fit into one another.  In a way, this statement summarizes the efforts of the last three keys.

At Global Genesis, we work on the “how” of teamwork.  This tends to be best done through experiential education: offering opportunities for the group to actually solve a problem together, and then to look at how they were doing, what they could improve, what they could build on.

My favorite place to work on this is at a challenge course or ropes course – a veritable paradise of opportunities to create physical, kinesthetic metaphors that have direct correlation to how we work in the workplace.  Here, we have an opportunity to see a group “in live action”, and perhaps dropping their guard a bit as we work through activities together that can then showcase the strengths and potential weaknesses of their teamwork.

However, without the good work done in clarifying purpose and roles, and clearing obstacles that might exist within the team relationships, a pure focus on teamwork can fall flat of the ultimate goal – to build a high performance team.

In my next article, I will discuss how all of this can be used to create the “dream green team.”

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