High Performance Teams
Randi S. Brenowitz
article appears in The Handbook of Business Strategy Fall 2002
and was featured on HR.com on April 14, 2003 and in Supply Knowledge
in the May 2003 issue.
drivers of success are speed, cost and quality. One way to harness
these drivers is through the formation and development of high
performance teams. In virtually every organization, teams can
be used to realize a plethora of short and long-term goals and
outcomes. In fact, their agenda of responsibilities can be staggering.
Accordingly, it's important to look at not only how teams are
formed but also how they are nurtured and encouraged to achieve
continuous positive outcomes. If these two areas are not considered,
teams are likely to get so overwhelmed in detail, they forget
their purpose, become disinterested, distracted and ultimately
accomplish very little. New teams are more successful when they
have a jumpstart and from time to time every team will need a
restart. For these reasons, it's important to look at which
models corporate teams can follow to keep the process running
Essence of a Team
What is a team? Authors and consultants Jon R. Katzenbach and
Douglas A. Smith undoubtedly summed it up best in their book,
The Wisdom of Teams. They describe teams as: "A small
number of people with complementary skills who are committed to
a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they
hold themselves mutually accountable."
of where career paths take people, there is nearly a 100 percent
chance that they will work on teams. Solving complex problems
demands the integration of many different points of view and the
collaboration of many individuals. Teams offer a great opportunity
problem solving - Because team members have varied expertise
and experience, they approach problems from many perspectives.
With diverse perspectives at its disposal, a team is much less
likely to view a problem narrow mindedly and much more likely
to generate a broad array of potential solutions.
of the resources of individuals - A team can collectively
decide how to divide work to make the best possible use of each
person's knowledge and skills.
each member to contribute to the fullest extent - Because
team members work interdependently toward shared goals they believe
are important, they can motivate each other to work at their highest
communications - Team members quickly find out that the
only way to work interdependently and to achieve their shared
goals is to communicate with each other clearly, honestly and
have existed for hundreds of years in every conceivable circumstance,
such as in factories, corporate settings, research laboratories,
universities and on the playing field. Today, what's unique about
teams is their ubiquity - their ability to become cross-functional
teams and even virtual teams by means of Internet capabilities
and technology. At some point, everyone finds himself or herself
on one team or another regardless of its technological or physical
makeup. In some cases the experiences and outcomes are quite successful,
while others are a complete waste of time. This occurs primarily
because the ground rules and clear goals were not laid out early
on in the process. In order for teams to be high performing, each
team member must understand what it takes to work in a collaborative
effort from the start. What can stand in the way of success are
unclear goals, conflict among team members, a lack of resources
and a lack of management understanding. How many times have team
members said, "If only we had done X, this
team would have accomplished more and been more successful?"
While anyone can look back and ask, "What if?" the key
to success is for each individual team member to be involved in
setting the team's goal. In the past, setting team goals was generally
reserved for management. However, today's best team outcomes occur
when team members are involved in setting goals from which they
can create positive outcomes.
Solo Benefits No One
Cross-functional and Cross-organizational teams are the single
best structure for successful team collaboration. Why, because
no one person or function can possibly have all of the knowledge
to solve problems. What is necessary in order to achieve the goal
of the team is providing a cross section of talented individuals
with diverse experiences and knowledge. If a team needs to get
things done quickly, cross-functional and cross-organizational
teams can be the ticket. The benefits of cross-functional and
cross-organizational teams are:
time to market
and cross-organizational teams also allow organizations to take
advantage of new information more quickly because that information
can be integrated by whole teams rather than by just one individual.
High Performance Teams
High performance teams don't just happen magically. They are architecturally
made up of carefully selected individuals with complementary knowledge
and experience, who are willing to work together toward a common
goal. Individuals who have been members of high performing teams
in the past are more likely to understand the benefits and therefore
be willing to engage in the team formation process simply because
they understand how much better the team functions when the entire
group is united in a common purpose and goal. First-time team
members who are new to the high performance team concept should
be willing to engage in the process with the understanding that
it will lead to more team collaboration. Again, no one
individual has the knowledge or ability to tackle highly complex
problems solo. As David Bagby, senior director of business development
at a major networking company in Silicon Valley explains, members
of successful teams can conceptualize what their individual roles
are and understand from the beginning what their goals are. "Most
organizations take a bunch of people, throw them together and
tell them they are working on a specific team project, and then
they wonder why it doesn't go smoothly. If you are wearing the
management hat you gradually being to figure out that there are
various reasons why these people are working on this particular
project," says Bagby. "You have to get down to what
is motivating each individual team member. I find that you can
get a team to get along a lot better if the members of the team
have some conception for what's motivating the other members.
That's not generally a conversation that ever happens by default.
At least I have never witnessed any team members walking in and
announcing their intentions and purpose to the rest of the team."
makes an ideal team member? The ideal team member possesses most,
if not all, of the following qualities:
trustworthy and focused
communication skills, both verbal and written
to provide conflict resolution
of giving and receiving feedback
to participate in team planning, problem solving and team meetings
cannot expect to assemble a group of people, put them together
in a room and get quantifiable results. Organizations need to
provide these high-performance teams with true management understanding,
sufficient resources, continuous support and a model for success.
In addition, high performance teams require team leaders who can
provide true leadership. Every team leader is accountable for:
clear goals - Goals that are believable, achievable
and agreed to by the team.
team members on track - Work with the team to constantly
monitor its progress and modify its directions or tasks when
harmony among team members - However, harmony is not
the only goal. Some conflict and contention is actually desirable
on a team. What is needed is a leader who knows how to arrive
at a consensus when there are differing points of view.
regularly -The team leader's job is to communicate regularly
and inform senior management of the team's progress, apprise
them of any problems and to secure the necessary resources that
will help the team achieve its goals. Also, the team leader
needs to get from senior management any changes in strategy,
direction or the corporate mission that might affect the team's
Bagby agrees that in order to form, maintain and keep a team
on track all of the above elements need to be in place. "In
order to keep a team motivated it needs clear goals. Also, team
members need to take responsibility and embrace the fact that
they are committed to the team's goal. A big part of it is buy-in.
In my experience I had teams that existed in name but not in
spirit and cooperation," says Bagby.
the Team Essentials Model
as there are a large number of teams existing in corporate America
today, there may be an equal number of training and consulting
firms offering programs for team effectiveness. While some may
work for the short-term, long-term effectiveness is not always
attained. Why? Most often the reason for failure is due to the
lack of appropriate models or blueprints to follow as well as
lack of management follow-through and commitment.
model many organizations are embracing to jumpstart high performance
teams and restart stagnating teams is the Team Essentials Model.
If there is one issue that team members struggle with, it's complicated
strategy that is supposed to lead them in a direction to help
them reach their goal. What's attractive about the Team Essentials
Model is that it has streamlined the process. It's simple but
powerfully successful. Using four clearly stated elements, it
includes all of the essentials for insuring a highly effective
Any team effort is doomed from the beginning if it's not receiving
internal support from management. For example, has management
provided the team with the essential materials it needs to get
the job done? Are team members meeting in a desirable location,
and do they have the necessary tools to complete their tasks?
(i.e. research materials, computers, networks, high-speed Internet
connection, laboratories, groupware tools, electronic bulletin
boards, etc.) Does the team leader brief management on the team's
progress? This level of support speaks volumes to team members,
boosting morale and ensuring all members that senior management
notices and appreciates their efforts toward achieving the corporate
Goals. Setting clear goals provides structure and direction
for each individual member of the team. It provides a mental picture
of accomplishment for each team member to strive toward. Clear
goals also create the context in which team members can make their
day-to-day decisions. This is especially important in cross-functional
teams because with a single functional team, the team leader is
also clearly the boss. With a cross-functional team, the members
are in a matrixed organization. As a result, they have to answer
to the team leader and their functional boss. The more team members
are told about team goals, priorities and the direction of the
team, the better they'll be able to represent the team when they
go back to their functions.
a team to be effective, clear goals need to be established and
agreed upon from the very beginning. Team involvement in setting
goals will increase each member's buy-in and commitment. This
will be important when times get difficult and hard trade-offs
need to be made. Remember as well that goals don't necessarily
have to be huge accomplishments. The very fact that cross-functional
teams gather in the first place may be a small goal toward organizing
a high performance team. As well, goals can happen at each session
or after many team meetings. However, of utmost importance is
that team members define team goals and work in unison toward
reaching those goals.
Agreements. These represent a clear set of agreements
about how each member of the team will behave and how the team
will work together. Such details include:
when and how often the team will meet
behavior is expected from each team member
will they make decisions and who will be involved in decision-making
communication venues will be used
and when to ask for help
information will be shared with each other
information will be shared with the outside world
information will be kept confidential
decisions have to be made by the entire group rather than be
delegated to one individual
an agreement amongst the entire team needs to be made in regard
to what specific tools and formats will be used (i.e. electronic
bulletin boards, email, face-to-face, voice mail, etc.). While
everybody has preferences, a clear agreement must be made about
which of these will work the best for the team. Assuming everyone
automatically knows and understands these details is a mistake.
For example, it's not fair to assume that email responses will
be received in a timely fashion unless ground rules for email
replies are established. Some team members may define a "timely
fashion" as several days, while others may think it means
before the end of the business day, two hours after the meeting
ends or even next month. Here, too, the entire team must reach
an agreement on their perception of "timely fashion".
creation of the Operating Agreements serves as one element
of the team building process, as the very fact that a team is
meeting to create a set of Operating Agreements is in itself
an experience of the team setting and reaching a goal. Once completed,
the team's new set of rules can be used for the duration of the
Dependable, Trusted Team Members. The last piece of the
model, and probably the most difficult, is selecting team members
based on competence, dependability and the ability to build trust.
While no one is perfect, it certainly stands to reason that team
members want to be assured that their fellow teammates can be
trusted to come through with their assignments. Can they be counted
on to come through with their assignments and tasks? Can they
be trusted with confidential information?
is also a comfort factor, which is one indication that trust exists.
People who don't trust each other are usually not very friendly
toward each other. Managers or team leaders need to evaluate how
comfortable members of the team are with each other. Do they joke
around and have some fun with the process? These are indicators
that the team members are creating a bond, which is necessary
for a common goal and comfortable working relationships.
motivated teams hinge their successes on the respective dependability
and trust of each member. Fostering dependability and trust is
exactly what helped jumpstart David Bagby's corporate team. "In
the formation of many teams you may end up with members who set
up pecking orders and others who want to be the star at the expense
of everyone else on the team," adds Bagby. "My point
to them is that I do not reward them for taking on that role.
I reward them for getting the task at hand done as a team. I want
them to re-direct that energy into something constructive."
trust, is one of the model's most important elements. Quite
frankly, it's the hardest piece of the model to accomplish and
when lacking, the quickest to destroy the entire process. Teams
that embrace a healthy set of agreements and keep them over time
will begin to see that they are actually building on the element
of trust. Any team member who relinquishes his/her agreement to
complete a task breaks that trust. If team members agree to do
certain tasks and don't, they have created problems for themselves
and their goals as team members. Failing to realize the
importance of being competent, dependable and trusted, harms the
Slow to Go Fast
A surefire way to diminish the efforts of any high performance
team is to ignore any one of the elements assuming that every
member of the team just needs to tackle the project at hand. Examining
each element of the Team Essentials Model is worth the
time and will ensure that all team members are part of establishing
the goals and strategies of the team and will put all of their
efforts into meeting their deliverables. Sometimes members will
take more time with one or more of the elements in order to gain
a comfort level, which could enable them to work faster later.
Being too quick to get to the task can sometimes hurt the team
more than help. Too many "super-charged" teams dive
into the process too quickly, only to spend far more time later
rehashing what went wrong with the team's process and foundation
rather than achieving their significant goals. While utilizing
the elements of the Team Essentials Model may take some
time, once a team becomes proficient in looking at their processes
through this model's lens, members can move along much quicker.
In addition, the model also works well with virtual teams (teams
that are formed with distant members via the technology of the
Internet), but requires some implementation modification.
of Using High Performance Tools
There are literally hundreds of tools that are available to teams.
Every day the Internet avails new ones. Many of these tools are
outstanding and are essentials for teams to become high performing.
On the other hand, tools must be introduced within the appropriate
context. Consider the analogy of building a house. Providing even
the best-intentioned person with a hammer, saw and sufficient
wood will not guarantee the final outcome will be a house.
the same reason, you can't throw a group of people into a room
with tools and expect them to provide successful outcomes. Teams
will be successful if they are given the right tools, which are
used in conjunction with an overall plan, proper training and
direction, as well as team agreements.
Team Essentials Model provides teams with a simple, understandable
and powerful performance tool that can be adapted to any organization's
team efforts. This is a working model that has helped jumpstart
many teams nationwide. It provides a well-defined way to approach
a complex topic. It's explained quickly, and most importantly
it can be used by anyone in any type of industry or organization.
a perfect world teams would be comprised of intelligent, capable
individuals who are capable of realistically solving problems
and reaching attainable goals. The perfect team is made up only
of members who can work collaboratively and reach mutual agreed
upon goals. However, it's not a perfect world, nor are teams always
the perfect combination of people and ideas. In fact, many managers
believe that teams are more trouble than they are worth. That
may be the case when teams are given little direction, no guidance,
no tools to complete their tasks, no training, and no clear model
to help them identify the process from the beginning to the end.
Given these important considerations, many organizations may soon
be rethinking how to address their attitudes towards company teams.
If corporate America beings to seriously consider providing teams
with a solid foundation, a reputable model to follow, and enthusiastic
support, more teams will achieve their levels of desired success.
Randi S. Brenowitz is principal at Brenowitz Consulting, a Palo
Alto, California-based Organization Development Consulting firm
dedicated to improving productivity through teamwork and collaboration.
For over 20 years Brenowitz has worked in partnership with her
clients to develop teams, team leaders and team members in order
to create collaborative work environments and increase corporate
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For more information, contact Brenowitz Consulting at (650) 843-1611
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