Creating the Climate for a Winning Team

Have you ever wondered what makes those badass teams you idolize so good at what they do? John Boyd put in a lot of work figuring it out. For those that don’t know, John Boyd was a USAF Fighter Pilot, and later, a military strategist who spent a lot of time thinking about and analyzing the components of a winning team, mostly as it pertains to the art of warfare.

As it turns out, the answers have a LOT in common with a winning team in the workplace (business and war are, after all, quite similar). The elements are simple to understand, but perhaps more nuanced to put into practice.

Luckily, there’s only 4 key attributes can predict the success of your team. However, they only predict success when they are all present and put into practice together. Any one element is missing, and you’re not quite there yet. Boyd called this the “organizational climate for operational success.” I find it interesting that he used the word “climate” as opposed to behaviors, etc. It really needs to be so imbued in your team that it’s as if these attributes are simply present in the air you all breathe.

Here are the 4 key elements:

  • Intuitiveness
  • Unity (aka Trust)
  • Leadership by Contract
  • Focus

Intuitiveness

On a winning team, leadership is intuitive. It is automatic, requiring no extra brain power. This generally happens on teams when we put people in roles that match up with their talents. Or, even better, we create new roles for talented people. Once a person is in the right role, the next focus must be on developing their skills to the point where they can react automatically — without having to consult policy or escalate above them.

Boyd’s framework uses some German words to describe each of these attributes. The word used for this directly translates to “fingertip feeling” and it’s similar to Michael Jordan’s credo where he states “he already knows the basketball is in the hoop before it even leaves his fingers.” That’s the level of polish you’re shooting for, so don’t be surprised that it takes a lot of practice and hard work to get there.

Putting it into practice: Step 1 for me on my team was to lay out a framework for how I make decisions (an easy example is: how I prioritize new issues). By putting this out in the open and demystifying it, I’ve shared mainly the why’s behind the how’s/what’s, and this allows my directs to also apply this framework themselves without a lot of guidance. It also allows them to challenge my assumptions and other inputs into my decision making process, which also helps foster trust & unity.

Unity

A really easy way to determine if your team is on the wrong track is to observe how many times any individual on your team optimizes for their own performance over the overall performance of the team.

This might look like someone spending overall more time achieving their personal performance/review goals over helping the team react to newly important things that help ship your product overall. I’ve seen before that a heavy optimization of personal “impact” (a term that I’ve found has different meaning to different managers, and further causes confusion) tends to pull people away from team-unity. Winning teams believe wholeheartedly that “we’re all in this together.” If the team fails, we all hang.

Putting it into practice: an easy way to help foster team unity is to build a vocabulary of shared experiences. Do more team lunches, informal offsites. Share some retrospectives on past projects in your team meeting (so that the folks who didn’t participate in Project X still know how it went and what the folks that did participate say they would likely do differently next time and — perhaps more importantly — why). Perhaps consider sending two folks from your team (instead of one) to the next factory build event, so they can experience what it’s like being on-the-ground in China together, and start to generate real camaraderie.

Without Unity, a team will tear itself apart when stressed.

Another word for Unity is Trust.

Here’s a quick and easy test: If I asked you to take 30% of the work items from the critical path of your currently top-line-item project and give it to someone else on your team today (especially someone more junior than you) — (a) could you even identify someone to take over, and (b) how comfortable would you feel that it would still get done? That seems like a fairly good barometer for Trust and Unity on your team.

Leadership by Contract

This is one of the less obvious attributes of a winning team, perhaps. But it’s also probably the easiest to understand and put into practice. Here’s how:

To the extent that you can, stop telling your team how to solve the problems, or any other type of micromanagement. Instead, focus your energies on defining the goals, and offer a well­defined set of resources, and constraints they must operate within to reach said goals. Initially, this will be a back-and-forth process of clarification, until you’re at a point where the team member either completely understands the resources and constraints enough to honestly commit to solving the problem at hand, or perhaps you identify another resource on your team to either help or take over. Once the team member has committed, an unwritten contract is in place between you two. The ICs job now is to get the job done, and the Manager’s job here is to ensure the resources that were promised are provided and the constraints don’t change.

Putting it into practice: Your more junior ICs might need more explicit direction. This is both okay, and expected — you’ll always have less experienced folks on your team, but they’re also probably not your leaders (yet). For me, beyond a certain “rank” or “level” of engineer, this attribute is a key measure of performance. I should be able to hand you a problem, a list of resources and constraints, and have you drive from there — including asking all the questions that you need to in order to clarify any of the above at the beginning and continually along the path. If not, you have some improving to do.

Focus

I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, I know…

In the context of war, winners identify their enemies biggest weakness, and focus the entirety of their effort on exploiting that weakness. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “put all your wood behind one arrowhead.” This is the essence of this attribute. Winning teams do not divert effort due to politics; they do not hedge their bets. It’s all-in, 100% each and every time, and it usually creates a devastating impact.

This one is very intuitive for how to put it into practice, so I’m not going to waste electrons on it.

Wrapping up

The trick here is that each of these attributes is awesome in and of itself. However, they only predict your success when they’re all present together. I’m sure you’ve seen a team that has awesome intuitive leadership, but takes on too many different things (lack of focus) which causes them to flounder and miss important deadlines due to working on too many concurrent initiatives. Or another team with great trust and unity, and even focus, but with a serious micro-management problem to the point where the leaders on that team seek out a new organization.

Here’s a good book for further reading: https://www.amazon.com/Certain-Win-Strategy-%20Applied-Business/dp/1413453767