In order for team development to have a lasting effect, the process must follow the overall purpose defined by a client (usually the team’s manager or his/her boss) or sponsor (someone from outside the team’s direct hierarchy who might have an interest in the team’s development, such as a project or industrial program coordinator.) Team development is no end in itself, but rather a means to an end. This end is generally a high performance culture. Clients or sponsors define the performance indicators by which the development’s success is measured.
Once the overall purpose is clear, we like the team to set the concrete goals of the team development process. We then support the team to reach these goals as quickly and effortlessly as possible, maintaining our posture of even-handedness: always in support of the agreed upon goals, never in support of any particular party’s personal interest.
Team performance enhancement follows certain fundamental rules. These include clear expectations, unambiguous roles, candid and transparent feedback, clarity of expectations and scopes of responsibility, a purpose that relates to tasks and roles, and a good job-talent fit. All of these elements of performance culture are scientifically proven to be effective in the development of high performance teams.
But even with a room full of top talent, high performance only unfolds within a certain climate. This is why, at some stage of team development, working on relationships might be a critical variable for high performance. Bringing mindfulness – non-judgmental awareness – into the picture changes perspectives fundamentally: interactions under difficult circumstances immediately become more constructive, more productive and efficient, and more respectful – sustainably so.
Good preparation for a team development intervention is critical. We therefore have extensive preliminary meetings with the sponsor and/or team leadership/client about the desired performance indicators. We also have fundamental principles of our own: When we see that our work is intended to be just a smokescreen to make teams believe they’ve participated in decisions that, in fact, have already been made, we decline. For us, a workshop is always part of an overall development process. The more a team can generate this process autonomously, the more powerful the impact of its development. For this reason we also enable teams to help themselves: We train them to continue their development on their own.
Our approach to supporting individuals and teams in their development simultaneously consists of a top-down and bottom-up cascade. It is the key to goal-oriented cultural change in organizations.
The Most Effective Method of Developing High Performance Teams: Cascading Team Spirit!
At the outset of this type of team development program, it is paramount for the top leadership to set an overall goal. That serves the purpose of a precise orientation to those qualities the learning teams and their leaders are expected to develop. Once this objective is agreed upon, we implement it team by team, in a top-down and bottom-up cascade. Through this approach, organizations generate sustainable cultural change throughout the whole system.
The outcomes defined by this client were a team culture of transparent, timely feedback, learning from mistakes, and a leadership style that would transport top-down decisions with clarity and that would involve teams in open-ended decision-making processes and continuous improvement.
We began by running a workshop with the organization’s top management team. We first had interviews with all team members to discover where they saw the system relative to the desired outcome at the time and to get their anonymous feedback on relevant subjects. At the same time, the team members had the opportunity to express their views on desired outcomes. Subsequently, we ran the two-day workshop with the team and its leader. At the workshop, three activities took place simultaneously:
1. Training in feedback
2. Practice of real rather than simulated feedback within the team as well as between team leader and team
3. A plan of action to develop a specific team culture and a specific form of leadership that included a common agreement on how to further cascade the team spirit to the team members’ own teams.
Not all teams are organized the same way. Some see themselves more like a football team or an orchestra. In some cases, teams appear to be collectives of individuals acting without much mutual interfacing. Others are organized analogous to a business process. By running interviews with the team members, we ensure that each team develops along the lines of its actual needs. The overall principles, which in the case described were feedback, transparency, clear advocacy, and bottom-up inclusion, remain the same.
The cascade begins right after the top team’s workshop. Thus, the system development can be as synchronous as possible. Six to twelve weeks after the initial workshop the team gets together for a short review workshop to reflect upon its initial development progress, to discuss what has worked best and which agreements are difficult to implement.
The top management team can use the opportunity of the progress review to share the initial results of the workshops with their own respective teams: How did they go? What were the overall results? What were the agreed upon take-aways? What was the impact of the workshop on individual people? They can hear about Best Practices from each other and support each other where they feel challenged.
This in itself is a powerful intervention tool to bring sustainability to the development program. And by linking training and development to actual current issues we ensure immediate application of learning to daily life:
► If the current challenge is a lot of staff turnover in the team, the focus of the workshop could be team roles and getting to know each other better personally.
► If the challenge is current interfacing with customers or other stakeholders there may be an exercise focusing on involving team members in contributing creatively to managing the relationships with these stakeholders and/or on getting the manager to give the team information on the political situation involving these stakeholders.
► If there is a need to improve governance, we work on meeting structure, regular communication etc.
In order to get the optimum benefit from such a development program there should be a steering group consisting of representatives of the organizational units, supported by Human Resources and an external consultant. The groups’ task is to monitor, evaluate and, if necessary, intervene to correct the process. In the vast majority of cases it is highly beneficial to continue this process after the initial workshop. How often and how frequently is a context-relevant question and needs to be answered case by case.
Working in the zone is a state athletes achieve when they almost effortlessly render peak performance. It means to effortlessly give one’s best at work, regardless of outer circumstances; to stay healthy and motivated.