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TEAMING: The Look, Tone, and Feel of a High-Performance Team

There is something really cool about watching a high performance team in action.  Recently, a senior leadership team scheduled a two-day work session to revamp their priorities and direction for the coming year.  The processes they used to surface and acknowledge their weak spots, develop strategies to address their challenges, reach consensus and develop concrete action plans bear examination and discussion.


Day 1

8:30am Welcome and Meeting Set-up

9:00am Setting the vision and strategy

10:00am This particular team, not unlike any other leadership team today, is inundated with challenges:  do more with less, work in the global, regional and local arenas with equal dexterity; adapt quickly to changing regulatory restrictions and requirements, improve efficiencies and lower cost of goods with, by the way, no additional resources.  The list is endless, overwhelming and nearly self-defeating.  The team’s first task was to categorize all of their challenges utilizing a 4-Blocker chart that placed the challenges along two axes:  existing capacity to address the challenge and whether overcoming the challenge was needed to meet supply demands.  Based on the results of the 4-blocker, the team had a preliminary priority order for eight critical requirements.

12:00pm Their next move was to conduct a gap analysis on each of the eight priorities: where are we today; where do we need to be in the next year or two, and how wide is the gap?  To examine the gaps in a structured and comprehensive way, the team used the 7S’s Shared Values, Strategy, Structure, Systems, Skills, Staffing and Style (approach).  This was an unfamiliar process for the team, yet they resisted the temptation to be haphazard in their approach and instead trusted that the process might yield important information for them.  One common characteristic of high performance teams is a willingness to embrace group process tools (e.g. affinity diagramming, 4-Blocker, force field analysis, etc.) rather than just rely on group discussion.  The tools create powerful common understanding and group memory.

3:00pm The structured gap analysis proved to be very insightful.  Utilizing the items listed under each priority and S element in the gap analysis, the team then flipped the process around and listed each priority issue under each S element.  Here they found common weaknesses across the board:  lack of an agreed-upon planned strategy for almost every priority challenge; current structures that did not provide the flexibility and adaptability needed for the current challenges; significant competency (skill) gaps including some of their own; and conflicting and competing priorities in terms of style and approach.  These were not minor deficiencies, and it would have been easy to point fingers at the various departments represented in the meeting, or toward others within the organization.

Day 1 Insight: This spot in group process is often what separates a group from a high performance team.  HPTs are able to stay focused on their common goal rather than fragment into sub-groups when the going gets tough.  They are not afraid of ambiguous points in processes where the picture is muddy and the unknowns exceed the knowns.  They avoid the “ready, fire, aim” tendencies so prevalent in today’s leadership.  They stay true to their mission and to each other.

Imagine a big flipchart sheet of paper with Shared Values at the top and then underneath it, all the “shared values” issues across the eight priorities.  Repeat this process for each of the other S elements and you begin to get a picture of what the team was seeing – really for the first time.  Always in the past the focus had simply been on the tasks at hand – frame a goal, identify the initiatives, put people to work.  They had never examined the values, strategy, systems and structures that are imperative to accomplish the goals.

Day 2

9:00am For each of the S elements, the team identified their key insights – some of which were truly painful to acknowledge.  These are incredibly intelligent, hard-worked people who were not happy to see that they were repeating their weaknesses over and over across all of their priorities.  Developing a systemic, agreed upon plan (strategy) was the most common weak spot.  Here the team openly explored their tendencies and personality traits that cause these difficulties.  One remarked, “I feel constant pressure to take action and quite frankly just don’t focus on getting people to buy into planning – it seems, in the beginning, like such a waste of time.”  They also surfaced other weak spots:  “Do we even know what reducing cost of goods requires?  We use the term, but do we know how we impact it?”  It’s important to note here that the senior manager of this team was present and engaged throughout the two-day event, and at no time did the team feel self-conscious or fearful of telling the truth.  The senior leader carefully navigated the course between providing “big picture” direction while encouraging openness and honesty.

1:00pm The team was ready to formulate action plans for each of the S elements, capitalizing on actions that would address issues in one or more priorities.  In other words, fixing Skill and Staffing issues in one priority would have a ripple effect in several other priorities.  Now it began to get exciting, as the fog lifted and the game plan emerged.  This team is so skilled in meeting process that actions are automatically followed by identification of owners and deadlines.  The meeting scribe (one of the team members on a rotational basis) reported out nine pages of action items by the conclusion of the meeting.  The team is also very adept at consensus decision making, framing decision proposals quickly, openly surfacing and mitigating all concerns and focusing on what people can live with rather than on individual agendas.  Each day, at the end, the team heard from their process observer (another team member who rotates the role) on team behaviors that really supported the goals and any behaviors that were problematic.  The process observer on this team is never shy about pointing out behaviors that need fixing:  interrupting, domination by a few, positioning quickly rather than exploring options, etc.

3:00pm The last activity of the session was to conduct a force field analysis process to identify what pressures (driving forces) will help them work toward the goals and what pressures (restraining forces)  will work against the goals.  The team identified how to strengthen the driving forces and reduce and/or relieve the restraining forces.  Interestingly, the team identified allocating more time to the 7Ss on a regular basis – the very process that had seemed so confusing in the beginning.

Day 2 Insight Three years ago, this team was a group – dependent on a manager to make decisions, protective of their own departments (silos) and rarely open, honest and direct in their communication with each other.  Today, by building their team process competencies, they are committed to and represent the best in high performance.

Deborah Mackin is the author of the Team-Building series including: The Team-Building Tool Kit (AMACOM, 1994), Keeping the Team Going (AMACOM, 1996), and recently, The Team-Building Tool Kit II (AMACOM, 2007). With over 25 years of partnering with organizations and creating high performance teams across the nation, Mackin is seen as an authority on effective workplace teams.

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