Illustration by Ben Newman

Defining a High Performance Team: It’s not just about Structure

sarah hui
sarah hui
Jul 13, 2015 · 6 min read

Recently I’ve had a bit of an epiphany about teams — the best teams, the high performing teams. How are they defined? How are the mindsets of individuals within them formed?

These are not new questions, they’re asked by many companies. My epiphany though, is that the answers most look to are focussed only on the structure of teams — studying, duplicating & defining only this — when there is actually so much more to it!

This realisation started with a presentation from Jimmy Janlén, a former Agile coach for Spotify, and someone very familiar with the fact that so many look to the SpotifyModel™ for influence when creating or improving their teams — taking role & group names, and attempting to duplicate their success.

In this presentation Jimmy used 4 categories to define & explain the Spotify team and how they work — 1 was structure; the other 3 were not. These other 3 categories are often completely overlooked, or rather assumed instead of documented and deliberately outlined & shared with the same importance as structure.

The 4 categories are

  • Structure
  • Habits
  • Values & Culture
  • Leaders & Management

I will outline all 4 categories here and use the Spotify content Jimmy presented as an ideal example of a fully defined team.

For me, the 2 categories Structure and Leaders & Management, define the team WHAT’s. The Habits category defines the HOW. And the Values & Culture category defines the WHY.

By consciously outlining and sharing all of the what, how’s and why’s with all team members, greater alignment of mindsets for correct focus & decision making can be created within your team.

Team Structure —WHAT

The SpotifyModel™ structure jargon like Guilds, Chapters, etc. can be very interesting and successful to interpret and re-create. Traditionally this is defined as pretty rigid horizontal and vertical lanes. In reality this is more of an organic structure.

The important part though is that any structure like this should just be in support of relationships between individuals, like neurons connecting in the brain.

These are the important connections that we try to enable via any structure we implement, Jimmy says of Spotify and other successful teams he’s worked with. The groups and names of them are less important. Jargon is confusing — there are only so many synonyms for Group.

“Network of People, Network of Teams”

Teams structure themselves.

“1:1s and close active leadership are important for distributed governance to work”

1:1s are held with more than just direct line management, and can be casual.

“Informal all the time 1:1s become the nervous system”

Jimmy emphasised what he calls Close Active Leadership as the way great teams succeed.

“Teams without this struggle”

This generally means that the leaders (product owner, chapter lead, for example) regularly sit with teams and regularly have formal and/or informal 1:1s.

“It’s hard to become a great team”

For successful teams, co-location and wall space are a big thing.

Spotify documents their team structure and versions it. When updates are made the version number changes following Semver, similar to how changes to technical documents are tracked.

Team Habits —HOW

In-person communication is emphasised at Spotify.

“What tools do you use for remote work?


Spotify has a huge culture of experimentation to stay ahead.

“Waste repellent” culture

“The good things tend to stick”

Visualisations were a big theme throughout any photos of team work presented. Spotify use paper & whiteboards a lot. I enjoy this but also really like digital dashboards & other flashy images on big screens.

“Visualise everything”

Learning & sharing is not viewed as overhead by anyone, at any time.

Spotify run hack weeks twice a year company-wide, as well as un-conferences for Guilds (interest area groups).

These can contribute to more neuron connections (relationships between individuals) as well as R&D and innovation.

Team Values & Culture —WHY

Jimmy emphasised great teams focus on team deliveries not individual time optimisation, and this is what Spotify does.

“Because it works, not because it’s nice”

This kind of value is evident in successful teams & not simply for employee benefit & a happy workplace but for real business benefit.

With these, you can begin to see how outlining these values deliberately alongside structure & roles helps to shape mindsets for highly aligned, high performing individuals within the team.

Team Leaders & Management — WHAT

Flattened structure doesn’t mean no managers, or no hierarchy of responsibility. It more means that the leaders with more responsibility share openly and include people. This is what flattens the structure.

“Honesty and transparency really flattens the organisation”

The purpose of leaders & managers is to minimise bureaucracy and optimise hope, teams self manage otherwise.

The main job of team leaders is to provide vision and road maps.

For individuals, Spotify relates to the Drive book, with individuals motivation as the main goal here. Managers strive to help people solve their own problems rather than (micro)manage tasks etc.

Reward behaviours not results.

When hiring culture is a biggie.

“If you grow from 15 to 85, who are the people that will most impact the future culture of your company?”

Answer: The people those first 15 people hire

Photograph by Yener Torun

Widen the focus & define it all

That’s a brief outline of the 4 categories — Structure, Habits, Values & Culture, Leaders & Management — and some examples of what successful teams like Spotify include as the content.

At Vend, we are in the process of customising the content for our team — just as structure varies between company’s, it’s likely that the content of the other categories will vary too.

High performing teams are created through a melding of all 4 of these categories deliberately defined, outlined & shared.

If the content of each of these categories is clear to individuals of your team, they will know what habits to squash or keep, what to value, how to lead. Thus, they will more likely become high performers and high performance teams are made up of individual high performers.

So the question to ask next time you’re involved in defining teams — have you simply defined and shared groups and roles, focussed only on the what and missed the how’s and why’s? Widen the focus and define it all.


Stories of our excitement, trials & tribulations building Vend. #webuildvend

sarah hui

Written by

sarah hui

hi, how are you


Stories of our excitement, trials & tribulations building Vend. #webuildvend

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