Any old team won’t do: high performing teams matter

The stats tell us that building great teams has to be a high priority if we want to be competitive: if we want to retain great talent, if we want to produce superior products and services, and if we want to be exceptionally productive and efficient.

Great teams are important not just for employees’ enjoyment and fulfilment at work, but because they directly affect the bottom line. Teams with positive practices have better financial performance, customer satisfaction and productivity. Companies with engaged employees make more revenue than competitors with low engagement levels, and when engagement increases so does revenue. Gender diverse teams have superior team dynamics and productivity. And happy employees are 12% more productive.

But building high performing teams isn’t easy. Every person is an individual and each team’s dynamic is nuanced and different. When a team forms, they typically go through four stages:

  • Forming — a group of individuals who operate independently, with no clarity of purpose or roles.
  • Storming — boundaries start being tested and conflict occurs.
  • Norming — consensus has been reached and the group starts operating as a team.
  • Performing — a committed, autonomous team with a clear vision who can solve problems positively.
The Tuckman Model of team formation.

Here are 11 tips that will help you limit the lasting impact of conflicts in the first three stages and quickly reach that stage of performing.

1. Create a safe place to fail

There are many things about team dynamics to consider, but by far and away there are five things that matter above all else. In 2015 after two years of research, Google published their five keys to successful teams:

  1. Psychological safety: Can the team take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can everyone count on each other to do high quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans for the team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Is the team working on something that is personally important for each of them?
  5. Impact of work: Does the team fundamentally believe that the work they’re doing matters?

What’s really interesting about this study is that it doesn’t matter how much you focus on impact or structure or any other of the other points if psychological safety doesn’t exist in the team. Psychological safety is when each person on a team feels safe to take risks, and potentially fail, and to be vulnerable in front of each other.

Building psychological safety takes time, and to create a safe place to fail you have to demonstrate the behaviour you want to see. When a team member takes on a small risk — congratulate them. If they fail, talk about it openly as something to learn from, not a problem that’s been caused. Show your vulnerability by admitting your own mistakes, and being honest when you don’t know the answer to a question or what someone is talking about. Being vulnerable shows that it’s okay to be wrong, which is a first step in building psychological safety.

2. Foster a diverse team

Diversity is incredibly important, especially in the technology industry. But it goes far beyond gender and race. It also includes experiences, perspectives, thinking styles, and much more.

Diverse teams have diverse ideas, that can help complement the rest of the team and add something a little different. Simply said, considering all aspects of diversity is important in ensuring a high performing team.

There were no women on this team. Credit: Marcy Bain

3. Balance extroverts and introverts

In a great team, all voices will be heard. But in a team with the wrong mix of extroverts to introverts, this may not be the case. It isn’t as simple as just getting the introverts to be less introverted. People are different.

When people clash it’s usually because they have different personality and behaviour traits and they haven’t figured out how to adapt to each other. The DiSC personality profile shows us why people often clash. Some people make decisions quickly based on gut, others need to move slowly. Some people care only about the bottom line, while others care greatly about the team. Some people love big ideas and others need all of the detail.

DiSC behavioural and communication styles.

There are some great tools online to help figure out your team’s personality and communication styles, like Crystal Knows, which lets you set up relationship reports between people and see your entire team’s styles and how you might need to adapt to get the most out of that working relationship.

4. Build confidence

A team full of unconfident people will likely make slow headway on a project together. On the flipside, a project full of overly confident people may rush or domineer over other less confident people, and teams will often follow behind the most confident person — even if they’re obviously wrong!

Nature recently published an article about confidence matching. Pairing a confident person with an unconfident person (with equivalent skill levels) will help increase the confidence levels of the least confident person. And a confident team will be more comfortable taking risks.

5. Have a shared goal

Goals can be long term (mission statements, strategic objectives), or short term (sprint or release goals). People want to get behind something they care about. In the days of Steve Jobs, Apple had an extremely inspiring mission — to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind. One of my favourite project teams had a great mission — to build the fastest airline website in the world and take the stress out of going on holiday.

For a goal to be inspiring, it needs to be clear, challenging and consequential. But most importantly, the team need to believe in it. Simon Cohen from Spotify spoke at LAST Conf about workshopping team missions by starting with a deliberately uninspiring team mission. This way, anything the team come up with will be more inspiring as they helped create it.

For a goal to become tangible, it needs to be regularly talked about — it can’t just be a paragraph in a document buried on a shared drive. Agile methods speak a lot about information radiators, which really just means you need to put all the important things up somewhere visible. They should be reiterated regularly in team presentations, written on a whiteboard in your war room or printed and pinned above your iteration wall.

Great things happen when teams have high alignment and high autonomy.

To build high performing teams, teams need to have high alignment and high autonomy. And as Spotify discuss in their Engineering Culture videos, leaders need to articulate what they are trying to achieve and just get out of the team’s way while they figure out how to deliver it.

Roadmaps are great to clearly articulate an intended plan. They aren’t as detailed as a Gantt chart (because let’s be honest, no one other than project managers look at them), but are high-level and easy enough for anyone to understand.

There are some great tools to create these, like Roadmunk(above), JIRA Portfolio, a simple PowerPoint, or even hand written index cards on a high level iteration wall.

6. Be clear about roles, responsibilities and expectations

Teams often struggle when it isn’t clear what’s expected of everyone, and people either don’t meet assumed expectations or they step on each other’s toes.

One of the best things to do when bringing a new team together (or even trying to reset an existing team) is to build a social contract together. These are great at defining the values, expectations and ways of working that a team needs to achieve to be happy. You can also run an expectations workshop, or a more standard roles and responsibilities workshop.

But expectations can’t just be defined once and never returned to. Adding transparency to your team will help. Physical kanban boards are a great way of communicating this, especially if you’re having your daily standup in front of them. Each day the team regroups, you talk about what you’re doing, what each person needs help with and how you’re going to work together as a team for the next day. You can clearly see what everyone is working on just at a glance.

Kanban boards are great for everything, not just dev teams!

7. Set up cross-functional, self-organising and collaborative teams

The best teams will be cross-functional (so they have all the skills required to do the work), self-directed and collaborative so they can get the best use out of everyone’s diverse skills and knowledge.

There is a great saying; after eight, no collaborate. It’s just hard to collaborate when teams get too big. Scrum says that teams shouldn’t be bigger than nine. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon says that a team should be able to share two large pizzas together.

I’m not sure this was the pizza Jeff Bezos meant. Credit: treastblog.com

Okay, American pizzas are huge but you get the gist. Once you get past nine people, the amount of communication required to move things ahead can become unwieldy.

Building self-organising teams is no easy task. People need to have the right attitudes, mindset and great communication skills. Each person also needs to commit to the team and be accountable for what they do, what they don’t do and be 100% transparent to the rest of the team. Assigning a coach to a team is one of the best ways to help a team becoming self-organising.

8. Create a feedback culture

For teams to become high performing, it needs to be okay to discuss issues openly without fear. This is where psychological safety is so important. When things go wrong, it’s a lot easier to talk about it when you know each other well. While The Office has taught us that team building is naff, it’s actually crucial to a successful team.

Maybe team Tai Chi is awesome?

Team building really is as simple as getting to know the people you work with and learning to trust each other. You can start by having coffee together and getting to know each other — business is built on small talk! You can go to lunch together, or do a team outing like the movies or bowling. You can also do workshop activities like personal maps, Job or Joy, or make your spirit animals out of playdoh — you’d be surprised how much you learn!

Slide!

The options are limitless. But again, team building isn’t a thing you do once. Only when it’s ongoing will you create deep trust and solid team bonds.

You can start to embed a feedback culture by holding regular retrospectives. Ask the team what went well, what didn’t go well, and what would we do differently next time. Importantly, prioritise a crucial pain point to tackle and work on it. When a team knows that change can happen feedback will be more openly given.

Dr Cameron Sepah wrote that your company culture is only as good as who you hire, fire, and promote. The same applies to the behaviour within your team that you reward, that which you redress, and what you ignore. Negativity can be like a virus, slowly infecting the team one-by-one. It needs to be nipped in the bud. When you need to address negativity or give bad feedback, the SBI model (Situation Behaviour Impact) will let you deliver feedback constructively. And in conjunction with a social contract that the team can hold each other accountable to, the SBI model will allow you overcome issues in a positive way.

And of course, don’t forget to celebrate wins regularly and give frequent positive feedback. While the critical positivity ratio of five positive comments for every criticism has been largely discredited, there really isn’t any harm in just giving more positive feedback.

9. Help the team be proud about what they create

Regardless of what you do, if what the team is making sucks, you won’t have the most motivated team in the world. The most successful projects will hit the sweet spot of what users want, what a business needs and what is technically possible.

The human centred design venn diagram.

People want to create useful and valuable work that is actually delivered. Frequently delivering valuable outcomes is key.

A learning culture will help people achieve mastery. Encourage people to share things they learn, host lunch and learns to share knowledge across multiple disciplines and set up a genuinely useful and frequent training programme.

10. Constantly improve your ways of working

Perfection is an unrealistic level of attainability, but we should always strive to be better. Those regular retrospectives are the best way of inspecting and adapting your ways of working and figuring out a path to continuous improvement.

If everyone is clear about what their perfect team might look like, they will know when it isn’t quite that so you can set a clear action plan for change. Referring back to your social contract and doing an activity to help the team define what perfection might look like will set a really solid plan for where to go.

There are many other ways of measuring and tracking progress, like the Spotify health check model, the Atlassian health monitor, or a using a pulse check survey tool like Officevibe. But again, it’s no use tracking how teams are feeling if nothing actionable comes out of those surveys.

11. Provide support when it’s needed

There will always be certain problems that a team just can’t solve themselves. It’s these times that people need someone outside their team they can rely on to help them move forward. Someone they can trust, who will support them, coach them and advocate for them. Whether it’s a coach, a manager, a lead or even a senior who has their back, the best teams will have outside support they can count on.


There’s no one silver bullet to building high performing teams. The process requires careful consideration to ensure the right problems are acknowledged and then solved in the best way possible, with ongoing reflection and refinement to constantly push the needle from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. In doing this, you can help your teams become happier, more engaged, and more productive, while creating incredible outcomes for your company.

Ani Moller, Delivery Director

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