Insights

What it means to be a high-performance team, and how to get there

“An effective team is characterized by trust, conflict management, commitment, accountability, outcome focus. All possible with great communication.” — Cam Lee, Rock Agency Open Communication

When we talk about high-performance teams, we think of them as a group of highly focused people who accomplish everything they set out to do, bug-free, with performances so outstanding that they deliver even before the set due date, right? A group that never makes mistakes and always works according to initial plans set. What a dreamy project team!

However, even high-performance teams come across their own difficulties, but they face them with an “I can solve anything” mindset, they learn from their mistakes, do their best to stick to the plan but are prepared in advance to negotiate when the expected outcome is at risk. They collaborate, innovate, and fiercely pursue excellence by shared goals, shared leadership, open and honest communication, operating rules, transparent conflict resolution, and strong and shared accountability of a project’s objectives.

It’s hard, but not impossible, to be part of a high-performance team. In the first place, you want to be sure you are working with a “real team” and not just a group of people following orders; a cohesive unit that works towards achieving the same goals. If any doubt about what a “team” is, you can find a fine description in Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith’s book, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed in a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

The “use” and capabilities of teams within organizations has expanded exponentially in recent years due to competitive changes and technological updates. A team allows to apply multiple skills to one single product and leverage different expertise and points of view to foster agility, make better decisions, solve more problems, enhance creativity, and increase productivity and morale – much more than a single individual working alone.

There are three key reasons why teams work:

  1. A group of individuals brings skills and experience that exceed the abilities of a single person
  2. They can be more flexible and responsive to changing demands and ongoing changes
  3. People can have more fun at work than working individually

So, what are the main characteristics of a high-performance team?

Although there is no simple way to measure performance and effectiveness for teams, and no team is identical, there is a shared understanding of what makes an effective group work. High-performance work teams are generally compounded by a combination of missions and goals, human talent/performance skills, safe and trustful environments, rules and standards, a success-driven mindset, empowerment to make decisions, conflict resolution, good communication, and people-centered leadership.

What distinguishes high-performance teams from other groups is that high-performance teams are more than a collection of people simply following orders. To function effectively, they also need:

Self-organization

High-performance teams are considerably more ambitious than the average team. They plan to achieve high-impact goals and big milestones that represent high value for their clients, and they decide who does what in the project. Once a big deliverable is broken into smaller tasks, the team should be able to choose which tasks each person will take, and they do it according to their strengths and specialties, making sure they have the required skills to complete them and keep in mind all the dependencies that could affect others, which means considering needing inputs and delivering outputs to each other. And once they are chosen, they are capable of organizing their time, reporting and working through obstacles, and making sure their plans aim to achieve the established goals on time.

Closely-tracked Performance

As a high-performance leader, you will want to measure performance, progress, and team effectiveness. This is the opposite of having messy information with which we cannot analyze data and make decisions accordingly. For example, if a high-performance team is working on creating a t-shirt sizing guide, past performance measures and tracks would be a great input to identify and log the actual time taken to complete past features in order to estimate how long the creation of future ones would take.

Also, giving visibility to the team of their progress and how much remains to complete their current work fosters collaborative success by providing clarity and building trust within the team, unified goals, and shared accountability.

Here’s another example: to ensure construction is heading in the right way, an architect has to take small breaks to check the work of a house frequently, and the same happens within any high-performance team after every major milestone/deliverable. Why is that? Because this review can provide realistic effort and completion time, as well as an opportunity to foresee blockers that might hinder a project. This exercise also allows to strategically group pending tasks so the team is able to deliver high-value ones in the first place.

In the end, job satisfaction goes up as the progress of completed work is seen regularly. This prompts a sense of completion, team members stay engaged in their tasks, and finally, everybody wins both teamwork and clients.

Trust in one another

It’s important that each team member knows how to value the work of their team and recognize their contributions to the final product. Feedback is wholeheartedly accepted because they feel they’re in a trusting environment in which they can work or fail safely, knowing they will learn from mistakes and improve their methods for future delivery. The team members know they are a diverse team, and each one of them can contribute with a personal touch based on their experiences; they understand that there will always be interdependence among them, and they pursue the best way to handle it.

Rules and Standards

Rules, norms, and standards make up the foundation upon which the team is built. Every team needs rules that support good relationships and guide group behavior. Norms are helpful to improve team performance, but why is that? The main reason is that ineffective or inconsistent processes can cause obstacles with gathering, organizing, and assessing information, which is the raw material of high-performance teamwork.

Norms could include:

  • Open lines of communication so everyone knows when, how, and to what extent they should communicate
  • Fostering early conflict resolution so there is no wasted time on this later on
  • Regular evaluation enables finding improvement opportunities faster
  • Encouraging respect among team members, which build a cohesive and supportive environment to grow in
  • A strong work ethic focused on results and a shared recognition of success

The key is to establish the rules as a team during an open and honest dialogue in which everyone can feel heard and valued. The team determines the standards under which everyone should perform, and consequently, they will be accountable for them.

An “I can solve anything” Mindset

As if they have superpowers, high-performance team members are aware of challenges and are ready to deal with them, always willing to prove themselves and overcome their limitations. Part of team identity is to be committed to success together, and this shared feeling creates synergy among the team members when working towards the achievement of a common goal. Within this kind of environment, people know how to do their jobs and why they are doing them, which is imperative in motivating them to give their best, understanding that each of their contributions is a valuable asset for the team’s meaning, mission, and vision.

It’s key that everyone is aware of the purpose of each new feature, giving everyone a clear perspective of the big picture and what to do and knowing that each part is important and required.

Empowerment to make decisions

Making decisions makes you naturally accountable for them, which is why involving everyone as part of the decision-making process is a must within high-performance teams. Being part of the planning and strategy ideation can boost interest in the project, provide an opportunity to develop and demonstrate new skills of any team member, and lately reinforces team empowerment. Individuals feel safe to innovate, aware that they can learn from their mistakes, and the team benefits from it by having robust, scalable, innovative, and up-to-date solutions for their clients.

Conflict Resolution and Communication

Individuals in high-performance teams don’t let themselves get frustrated when conflict arises, let alone compromise team goals because of it. They know that conflict is natural – it allows us to create unthinkable solutions, to solve differences, and understand that the main benefit of working in a team is that each issue is reviewed and fixed by different people with different perspectives who can contribute to a high-value way.

Conflict management is an inherent part of high-performance teams. Since leaders are not directing and controlling the team, but coaching them toward their best version, discussions are on the agenda and the team is open to it since this is the most suitable way to focus on issues’ solutions, providing motivation, maintaining interest, and finally promoting cooperation. Communication aims for group decisions.

Leadership

Leaders of a high-performance team have a clear mindset of servant leadership, which allows them to accompany the team throughout the project. They are responsible for:

  • Making sure everyone is aligned on purpose, goals, and delivering meaningful and valuable results to the client
  • Keeping the team motivated by encouraging them to learn from mistakes and manage outer and inner relationships
  • Not struggling with power, but encouraging team members to become emergent leaders for the initiatives they can add high value to, according to their strengths
  • Being a company in their growth path, by creating environments and giving them the right tools so they can enhance their skills, both hard and soft
  • Highlighting the opportunities that others can focus on, and doing so without seeking credit for it

Why would we want to become a high-performance team?

It’s known that motivated and happy people are more productive, avoid procrastination, and deliver better products. Being part of a high-performance team is one really good reason to be motivated within an organization. Most members of high-performing teams claim that it’s exciting and fulfilling to work in collaborative environments because they are challenged to contribute to their highest potential while they learn a lot from their teammates.

Other benefits of having high-performance teams in your organization are:

  • Team members are clear on how, when, and where to work and deliver their results due to open and transparent communication
  • Everyone is working towards the same goal, which allows improving delivery cadence
  • Freedom to express feelings and ideas is valued, which encourages the ideation process and continuous improvement
  • Everyone gets a chance to contribute to encouraging shared accountability
  • Everyone has a solid and deep trust in one another and in the team’s purpose
  • Conflict and disagreement are natural; criticism is seen as a good thing that helps improve the performance of the team
  • Decisions are made by the whole team so everyone knows they can collaborate on every deliverable together
  • The leadership of the team varies according to team initiatives; there is no struggle for power and everyone understands that leaders can emerge according to the team’s activities
  • Team and individual performance is understood by everyone and expectations of the team are known among all
  • Each member of the team respects the process and other team members

In addition to that, and for planning purposes, having a high-performance team is a great advantage when it comes to predicting velocity and defining goals/milestones more accurately. Emphasis is made on collective team performance. And because above-average team performance is highly valued, these kinds of teams frequently evaluate and assess when individuals underperform in their contribution so they can together find the root cause and encourage them to get up to speed with the rest of the team.

Now it is clear, but how can we get there?

Pay close attention to the mistakes you and your team make, and acknowledge them so they teach you how to improve upon them next and each time. This is paramount in shaping high-performance teams, and each member must be resilient and not allow themselves to be defeated by mistakes but own them and collect lessons from them for the next time they get involved in similar situations.

Frustration is normal when something goes wrong, but the idea is to learn lessons to improve upon weaknesses in forthcoming efforts. We may take down the wrong walls once, but the key is not to do it again. This entails continuous improvements to your processes and the way things are done.

This is closely related to adaptability to changes. Projects are constantly changing and evolving, and when we talk about embracing and implementing changes, high-performance teams don’t get self-pity and give up – they analyze, adapt, and finally perform, always aware that they will go through the same situation throughout any project lifecycle.

Because working within a team is a constant flow of information, the combination of learning from mistakes and practicing effective communication will strengthen team cohesion in such a way that teams can work as a unit towards the same goals because they are clear, socialized, and well-understood by everyone. High-performance teams set up communication rules from the beginning: everyone should know when, how, how frequently, and with whom to share which information in order to keep the team on the same page. If noticeable effective processes and successful results are the foundation of a house, then communication becomes the structure: scope, goals, constraints, limits, and all vital information should be available, centralized, socialized, and known by everyone.

Last but not least, motivation becomes the trigger of high-performance teams. Intrinsic motivation such as rewards, recognition, and a safe environment to innovate, foster personal satisfaction at work, which leads the people to feel engaged and this impacts positively their performance. Preparing the way to become a high-performance team.

High-performance teams are not superheroes, they are humans who never stop learning and improving their skills, both hard and soft.

We don’t need to be bitten by a spider or even gather all the infinity stones to become a high-performance team. Just keep in mind and practice:

  • Recognizing and leveraging your mistakes to learn how to make them better next time
  • Taking the time to think and analyze your performance as a team and make sure you find improvement opportunities
  • Encouraging yourselves to keep a “we can do it” mindset
  • Documenting your lessons learned from every complete milestone, you might use them for the future
  • Embracing and leverage conflict, making sure you always get a new idea from i
  • Ensuring the whole team has the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process so they can feel accountable for them, keep in mind all of you have shared goals

I want to highlight that none of these characteristics are exclusive for software development teams; any team can be a high-performing one. After reading this article, what do you think should be the first step your team takes to become a high-performance one?

About the author

Alicia Lozada is a PM who has been with us for over 10 months, and though it seems little, she has led a very big and complex project which has helped to improve her skills in higher scales! Her motto is being a motivational leader who always encourages her team to give their best