Throughout the world of business, there are average teams, and then there are high-performance teams. High-performance teams are a wonder to behold. They work well together, they’re unerringly efficient, on target, and highly effective. They’re the dream of every manager and every executive, and they’re capable of immensely benefitting the business that they work for.
For anyone on the outside looking in, it may be an open question of how these teams are formed. Do these highly effective people happen to find one another and snap together like pieces of a puzzle? Did their management luck out on finding these hires?
The answer is no. These teams are built, and they aren’t an accident. You, too, can build a high-performance team within your organization – you just need to go about it the right way.
We’ve put together some tips to help you achieve this goal for your own company.
1. Choose the Right People for the Job
While it may look like a well-oiled machine from the outside, the truth is that high-performance teams are built from many different parts, and those parts are individuals with skills, knowledge, and experience.
These teams often look like they are experts at anything they set their minds to, but the reality is that they only focus on the things they’re good at. Put them up against a task outside their wheelhouse and they’ll be just like any other team, though perhaps with a bit more experience in working through challenges together and relying on one another.
The right people for the team need to share certain qualities.
- They must have the right skill sets to accomplish the tasks they’re set to do.
- They must have the right mindset to solve problems and face challenges as a group.
- They must have the willingness to work as part of a larger team or group, rather than a sole superstar.
- They must be open to change as the pressures of a challenge or a team guide them.
Finding the right people can be a surprisingly challenging task, which is why so few teams truly achieve high-performance status. Your hiring process needs to be accurate, your assessments need to get an accurate picture of the skills – both hard and soft – your employees have, and your management needs to accurately discern what challenges an employee will be good at facing.
By far the hardest of these to find is the growth mindset. Some people, when confronted with a challenge, try to work around it, ignore it, or simply ignore it. Others see it as an obstacle to be surmounted, a challenge that can lead to personal and professional growth. As Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, says:
“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”
2. Choose the Right Size Team for the Job
If you’ve ever seen the movie Ocean’s Eleven (or any of the similar genre of heist movie), you know that a highly effective team has members who are unified in an overall goal but have defined purposes and roles within that group. A high-performance team in business operates the same way. Each individual has a unique set of skills and experiences, and they bring different perspectives, different opinions, and different ideas to the problems they face.
A team needs to be the right size for it to work well. Ironically, the titular Eleven isn’t a good number for a high-performance team. According to studies from McKinsey, a team needs to be within the right range to be effective.
The lowest number to make a team effective turns out to be about six people. Having fewer than six people in a team leaves little room for diversity of experiences, skills, and opinions. The dynamics of a team at a lower number than six results in power plays and unified ideas that can lack forethought and the unique perspectives that make a team truly high performance.
The upper bound, as it turns out, is about ten people. This gives your team a diversity of ideas and skills that allows them to cover all the bases while allowing everyone to feel heard and to leverage their unique skills.
A team larger than 10 runs into issues with team members who slip through the cracks and fail to pull their weight, who drag down the team, or who bias it in the wrong direction. Large teams are also less agile; it becomes more difficult to schedule their meetings, there’s more room for failure, and the debates on different approaches and ideas can grow out of hand.
The truth is, the size of the team depends heavily on the task needing to be accomplished. The larger, more important, or more complex the task, the larger the team that should be leveraged to handle it.
3. Give the Team a Leader
Leadership is critical for a team, but it might not necessarily come from within the team. Giving the team someone to report to, who guides their overall mission and points them in the right direction, is critical. This allows each member of the team to work independently, while still working towards a common goal.
Each member of the team should see the whole picture. Working blindly towards a goal without knowing where other members of the team are working leads to inefficiencies and overlap. This is one of the few benefits of regular team meetings – it gives your team a sense of what’s important and the greater goal. It’s also important that the team lack the power dynamics of having a central leader to make all determinations; a council or democratic arrangement tends to be more effective.
“The common purpose must be clear, organization-oriented, and adequately communicated to the team members.”
4. Give Your Team SMART Goals
Creating a team and telling them to “improve my business” doesn’t do anything. Every member of the team may have unique ideas on what an improvement might look like, how to accomplish it, and what steps need to be taken in what timeframe. Worse, some of those ideas may conflict with one another. The solution to this is SMART goals.
SMART goals, as you may know, are tangible goals that fit five attributes.
- SMART goals are precise and specific; there are no “grow the business” recommendations. Try “We’re going to increase conversion rates by 5.3% this quarter.”
- A SMART goal needs to be measurable in some way. After all, without the metrics in place, how can you tell whether or not your team’s actions were successful?
- Setting realistic goals is critical. “Double our profits this year” may be feasible for some startups with high funding, but the vast majority of companies need much more reasonable goals.
- A goal has to be relevant to the overall purpose of the business and the specific purpose of the team. Setting a high-performance sales team towards developing a new product doesn’t make use of their expertise.
- Give the team deadlines to achieve the goal, but make sure those timelines are reasonable. Don’t let them take too long and waste time, but make sure they aren’t pressed to achieve the impossible in weeks.
The SMART methodology is time-honored and proven.
It may be worth internalizing for every aspect of your business.
5. Assign Each Team Member a Suitable Role
Part of assembling a powerful team is ensuring that each member of the team has a defined role. This role should suit their skills, their experiences, and their motivations. Roles should be assigned with logic and rationale behind them, rather than by intuition or by drawing straws.
Assigned roles are important for creating a smooth flow of work towards achieving an objective. It helps streamline individual purpose, leverage individual skills, and build synergistically as a whole.
For a general business example, applicable to almost every business, consider blogging.
A high-performance blogging team might have:
- A content strategist. This person performs topic research, keyword research, and overall strategizing for the content created for the blog.
- A content creator. This person writes the content for the blog.
- An editor. The editor ensures that the content created is on target, free of errors, and well-composed.
- A graphic designer. This person creates the images that are necessary for every good blog post.
- A publisher. This person specializes in CMS management and does the detail-oriented task of publishing.
- A marketer. This person is responsible for promoting content through outreach, social media, and advertising as necessary.
Different teams may have different distributions and different assignments. Some might combine writer and editor. Some might combine strategist and publisher. Some might divide labor further. A lot of it is contextual. The important part is that each person involved in the process has a defined role, knows what their role is, has the skills to best suit the role, and knows who in their team to turn to when an aspect outside of their wheelhouse needs doing.
6. Encourage Communication and Collaboration
Communication through every part of every process is critical to the success of any high-performance team. Without it, collaboration is impossible.
- Communication from the leader to the team to guide the direction of the team and give feedback and updates as necessary.
- Communication from the team to the leader to update them on the process, performance, and ideas of the team.
- Communication within the team to discuss ideas, collaborate, and implement solutions.
- Communication between the team and external groups, to interface with others as necessary to achieve their goals.
To quote Agi Marx from Thematic:
“Not being clear on what needs to be done or when, or changing goal-posts without clearly documenting and sharing these means that employees miss important tasks and become increasingly frustrated. A clear flow of communication benefits everyone.”
7. Don’t Suppress Ideas
The strongest part of a high-performance team, and the element that most other teams lack, is the encouragement of free speaking and ideas. When a team member has an idea, they should be encouraged to present that idea for discussion. No ideas are stupid. Even if an idea doesn’t work, it should be treated as valid and explained why it won’t work, not dismissed out of hand.
This is critical for two reasons. First, it helps to educate everyone as to the entire scope of a problem. If one person has an idea and it won’t work, they should be taught why it won’t work, so they can use that information to further formulate future ideas. Second, it opens the door to lateral thinking and novel ideas. Someone might have a great idea, that looks obvious to them, but they never speak it because if it’s so obvious, there must be a reason no one else has presented it, so it must not be valid. Right?
The truth is, many times those ideas are the best solutions to a problem, and no one else has the unique perspective necessary to come up with them or see them as obvious. What might seem obvious to one team member is brilliant to another. You would never know without encouraging the free presentation and discussion of ideas.
8. Address Conflicts ASAP
Whenever two or more people are working on the same problem, there are going to be conflicts. Part of choosing people to be part of your team is picking people who address conflict as a healthy part of working on a problem. People who get heated, who get defensive, who get overly attached to their ideas; these people can be valuable team players, but conflict needs to be addressed properly when it arises to prevent hard feelings, disconnect, and even sabotage within a team.
When you (as the leader of the team) notice conflict arising, set aside time to address it and clear the air. Make sure you take feedback into account; if a team is fighting because their time pressure is immense and their goals look unachievable, it’s not the team’s fault. Listen to them when they say a goal can’t be done, and return with more realistic goals.
Sometimes, you may need to remove divisive elements from a team and replace them. Don’t be afraid to make changes to a team to keep that team functioning smoothly.
Building a high-performance team is very much a matter of knowledgeable decision-making, building a team of the right individuals, training them the right way, and encouraging communication. High-performance teams aren’t a coincidence; they’re carefully engineered, iterated upon, and continually growing. You, too, can create such a team.