Demystifying High-Performance Teams!

Demystifying High-Performance Teams!

With almost every business activity now relying on teamwork, it is no wonder that the success of a workgroup, business unit, or even the whole company depends on teams functioning at their best. This single factor can make or break a work group or even a business.

Clients at all levels come to me complaining about various maladies their teams have. From members being socially obtuse; to their technical incompetence; to sheer laziness of some members eager to shun work, not caring about how it gets done, because somehow it always gets done in a team setting. In today’s work context the importance of getting teams working correctly and functioning at their best is grossly underrated in terms of how it rates as a management priority and how much awareness exists among team leaders on how to remedy a team dysfunction.

This blog is about the fundamentals of how teams work, what dysfunctions manifest if they are not provided the right and timely management attention, and the roles of the individual members and their leader in making sure that they have the right management resources to keep the team functioning effectively from the get-go.

Although team-building process involves the four distinct elements (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing), mostly seen as a sequence of evolution of a team in its transition before it reaches the final Performing state, each stage is characterized by a transition point that lifts it to its next stage. Each stage requires specific leadership intervention and team-behavior monitoring before a team is ready for its next stage. Of course, these are not black-and-white transitions, but, rather, seamless ramping-up of a team’s ability to perform at its best in the shortest period after coming together as a group of individuals.

Each of the four elements in this sequential team-building process can be viewed as the bricks in a building or a structure that gives it shape. But, what holds the building—or the team—together—the mortar—is the Social Capital that the team builds, one member at a time and collectively as a group, that defines the strength, power, and effectiveness of that team. For more on this Social Capital and its importance in setting up a team to either perform or to fail and how to build that Social Capital, read The Secret ingredient that makes some teams better than others,” by Margaret Heffernan (TED books; May 5, 2015).

These stages of a team’s evolution are not entirely discrete steps; rather, more like a ramp, there is an overlap among the four stages. The dominant stage in which a team is stuck or operates can be easily identified by how its members collectively behave. For example, a team stuck in Storming state will have lack of leadership clarity and role confusion, despite the specific assignment each member may have. What is missing here in this state of team development is that the leader has not organized the team to create role assignments based on individual skills, but has arbitrarily assigned roles to each member of that team. The other reason a team may be struggling or even stuck in any one stage without moving forward towards Performing is the leader’s belief that the members of the team will sort out their differences and figure out on their own what is best for the team. Big mistake! One classic symptom of team stuck in the Storming stage is mutual finger pointing and recrimination, despite the fact that the customer they are supposed to serve is ready to walk out on them!

To go from Forming to Performing in the optimal time the leader must go through the team development process and know when it is ready to transition to the next stage. Otherwise, a team will never reach the Performing stage and be stuck somewhere in between, exhibiting dysfunctional behavior—even reverting to early stages of development despite its age. Yet another element—the secret sauce—to cement each transition from Forming to Performing is to take the time to form this Social Capital Heffernan alludes to in her book (and her TED talks). Groups of people become teams when they go through the four stages and someone (Team Leader) takes them through it and explains each stage to them to make them aware of this process. Teams become awesome when they have invested their time in building this Social Capital throughout their team-building process and as they are delivering on their mission. A team’s Social Capital can linger in its constituent members long after the team is disbanded, much like the bond military people have after their combat is behind them.

So, what are the typical behaviors teams exhibit in each of the four stages and how to identify where in its development a particular team is stuck? Here are some telltale signs to recognize a state of a team in each of its stages of growth

Forming: Here, the members of the team are coming together and forming a work unit that, together, provides the collective functional expertise to get an assigned task (its Mission) done in the most efficient way. The symptoms of a team stuck in the Forming stage are typically exhibited as the members’ lack of clarity of why they are there in this team, if the team is complete or still growing, who the leader is, why are certain members even participating in that team, and other basic information that allow individual team members to start jelling into a cohesive group—team.

Storming: At this point individual team members are scoping each other out and finding their place in the team informally. Despite formal job titles of the team members the Storming process allows the team members to recalibrate its members based on the Mission and what they know about each member of that team.

To move a team from Forming to Storming the Leader must provide a clear Mission for the team, role of each member, structure, reporting, resources available to each member (goals, roles, and process) and to the team as a whole, the role of the Leader, among other basics. Without this basic intervention the team will be stuck in the Forming stage regardless of how long the team has stayed together.

Norming: In this stage the team is developing performance and behavior norms based on its Mission. In the Norming stage the pace of work and timelines for individual milestone delivery are clearly made known, first inside the team and then to the stakeholders outside the team. The Norming process allows the team to pace its work and to strive towards its assigned Mission with predictable and confident commitments and a rhythm that is apparent in how the team functions.

To move from Storming to Norming stage the leader must provide specific metrics to the team members and to the team as a whole. Individual tasks, their dependencies, how they are scoped in terms of measurable units (headcount, hours needed to complete a task, etc.) with specific timelines, budget elements, and other metrics must clearly be laid out to each member and to the whole team. The team must also take ownership of these assignments and measures, so that clear accountabilities are set at individual member levels.

Performing: When a team reaches this stage it is on track to meet the set project plan, with timelines that are met and with all other deliverables clearly lined up for delivery as scheduled. This does NOT mean that a team cannot miss a deliverable or a milestone. What this means is that if such a miss were to occur the team has a back-up mechanism in place with a leadership process that allows it to stay on track and to create alternatives to still meeting the Mission. This is what how a Performing team delivers.

To move from Norming to Performing the team leader must start alerting team members when their next milestone is due and what they must do to protect it. They must set mechanisms in place to have early-warning systems in place so that they will know well in advance of a slipping milestone and that they have some leeway to set in motion a recovery plan to protect the milestone’s date. Keeping everyone in the loop and communicating (open dashboards showing status and progress) and some of the (project management) tools that help move the team from Norming to Performing stage.

One of the puzzles many team leaders deal with is to understand how a perfectly Performing team can suddenly become dysfunctional when it is augmented by another team stemming from a merger or an acquisition.

There is no mystery here. When a new group of members is injected into an already jelled team that is performing well, it is wrong to assume that suddenly inserting new members will continue the new team’s momentum because the established team was already in the Performing stage. This is a wrong assumption because when a Performing team is disturbed with new members added to it, it resets to zero and has to be taken through the four stages all over again for the new team as if it just formed. Also, its Social Capital has also to be re-established because the new team has an entirely different social structure. It has to build that from scratch, too, and that does not happen without paying a price for it.

So, now that you understand the “Bricks and Mortar” of what makes a team awesome, why not take a look at your own team and see where you need help. Go to your leader and let them know where they have come up short!

Good luck!


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