The team rules have changed

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Written by Dominic Ashley-Timms on 1 July 2013 in Features

Organisations that invest heavily in developing high-performance teams are wasting their resources, says Dominic Ashley-Timms

When we think of the word 'team', certain generic characteristics automatically spring to mind - trust,  common beliefs,  shared leadership, mutual support, shared commitment to the collective vision and to the team itself, and, that holiest of grails, team spirit: the magical bond that both cements a team together and underpins its success. Or so team mythology would have it.

Heavily influenced, as most of us have been, by the repeated heralding of what makes for successful sports teams, our deeply held impressions of how a team should manifest itself, particularly the pursuit of a strong team spirit, have determined past approaches to team development. While they may have had currency in the 1980s and 1990s (and, arguably, some residual relevance to functional teams today), ramping up investment to develop 'high-performing teams' that mirror this outmoded perception of 'team' has dramatically diminishing relevance in today's world of perpetual flux.

Similarly, the idea of 'high performance' could also do with a spring clean. When we think of 'high performance', we are inevitably influenced by the imagery that surrounds this: Formula 1 racing, or a finely tuned motor able to 'go faster', 'deliver more miles to the gallon', be 'more efficient'. Again we're dragged into this mental imagery by all of the 'go, go, go' style advertising messages and myriad business books that extol the virtues of the 'more, faster, now' style of productivity improvements.

In fact, the way that teams now have to operate and their purpose have changed so radically that to simply expect more 'old school' style investment in them to deliver this higher performance is both anachronistic and profligate.

The operational environment is evolving

To understand why our whole perception of teams and how we invest in their development has to change, we need to rewind to the days of stable organisational structures and cultures, when corporate loyalty was high, technology had yet to eradicate all communications boundaries and economies actually grew. In this environment, long-term investment in skills, knowledge, people and teams was viable because staff turnover was low and teams were relatively static.

Team leaders had the luxury of time to foster the team love machine, and the pursuit of team spirit almost became an end in itself. Any blockage to team spirit was nothing that a team bonding 'away day' or a few games couldn't fix.

Fast-forward to the complexity and turbulence of twenty-first century business and the landscape couldn't look more different:

  • in response to the financial crisis, globalisation, technological advances, increased competition and the need for innovation, a quarter of business leaders are transforming their business models, according to KPMG's 2012 Business Leaders Agenda survey1
  • companies recognise that business remodelling on the scale we are witnessing has inevitable implications for the way people are skilled
  • accepted dogmas of corporate loyalty and careers for life have been swept away; a more mercenary, self-interested attitude is seeping into employee behaviour
  • HR and L&D professionals are under pressure to align employee behaviours with evolving organisational needs and business objectives.

With organisations in a permanent state of flux and reinvention, it's little wonder that traditional team structures have been blown apart. Yet long-held assumptions about model team characteristics, structures and development needs still prevail. Only recently I read the words: "It takes a lot of time for team members to learn to work together at an optimum level. In sports, there is a relationship between how long team members have played together and their winning record."

Well, sorry, but no.

Organisational teams simply don't have the luxury of time to learn how to work together at optimal level; capturing and distilling a team spirit is unlikely to happen. In fact, the hackneyed labouring of sports-related analogies is now inhibiting our ability to reassess how we work together in groups.

We have to rethink 'team'

At this point, I would love to have a snappy replacement word to describe the metamorphosis of 'the team' into groups that are focused on becoming the high-impact, 'productive outcome deliverers' that businesses need today. PODs anyone… ?

Like soap bubbles in the palm of your hand, constantly reforming, these 'PODs' are anything but static; they evolve as the business need changes. Now more geographically, operationally and organisationally dispersed, virtual POD members may never even meet one another, yet the outcomes of the projects they work on are more critical to business success than ever before. Also, senior executives and middle managers are more than likely to find themselves serial or simultaneous members of multiple PODs, each of which may have a different pull on their capabilities.

These shifts in operating environment are triggering a shift in individual behaviours too: ardent, shared commitment has been replaced by arms-length commitment; the emphasis on complementary leadership skills has been replaced by individual specialist skills; collective interest has been replaced by self-interest. Friendship, trust and shared experience are things of the past.

A shift in development focus is needed

So, if the team as we once knew it is dead, team development as we once knew it has been rendered largely impotent and the potential for so-called 'high-performance teams' is not being realised, how do we enable these high-impact productive outcome deliverers (our 'PODs') to do what they were formed to do at optimal capacity?

Professor Peter Hawkins, in his work on transformational leadership, has determined that high-performing leadership teams must be effective in five core disciplines: the 'commissioning' of the team; its 'clarity' around mission; the ability to 'co-create' and to 'connect' with staff and stakeholders, and the capacity to build upon its 'core learning', by standing back and reflecting on improving its own performance2. In relatively smaller, static leadership teams, there might be a small hope of achieving this. For every other type of team, though, the inferred status required for these five disciplines to become embedded might never be achieved.

In this fluctuating environment, it is clear that a fundamental shift needs to take place from an insular focus on how well an individual team functions at a certain point in time and in relation to a specific project, to a much more strategic focus on how swiftly and effectively 'professional' POD members can modulate their behaviours and reassemble into these high-performing, outcome-driven delivery groups in any given context.

The key questions for anyone involved in the leadership, management and optimisation of team performance are:

  • when people are released from one POD to another, how do we ensure they have the skills to reform and contribute swiftly and effectively?
  • how do we instil in these POD members the determination and insight to continuously improve the productive capacity of every POD that they join?
  • how do we shift the mindset of every POD member from measuring their contribution by how much did I do? to measuring it by what value did I bring to delivering the desired outcomes?

High-performing teams need to be re-skilled

Somewhere betwixt the warm and cuddly focus of the team spirit era and the fiercely outcomes-orientated focus of the age of austerity, 'coaching culture' fever landed in the corporate psyche. A bit like the term 'high-performance teams', though, companies are still grappling with what the term 'coaching culture' actually means and how to move it beyond being a buzzword to a force for driving systemic performance and productivity enhancement.

Coaching culture may have some way to go in many organisations, but the universal skillset required to enable full and effective participation and contribution across multiple groups will depend, in the main, on an enquiry-led approach, and this is at the heart of a developing a coaching culture.

An enquiry-led approach helps groups and individual group members to:

  • question preconceived assumptions
  • take ownership, and challenge the nature, of contribution
  • stimulate more creative, innovative and productive ways of thinking
  • develop the resilience to hit the ground running whatever the context
  • quickly establish the charter and operational parameters required to give the team the backbone, infrastructure, authority and teeth to deliver against objectives
  • unleash the capabilities to rise to the leading edge of productive capacity
  • unblock progress and quell the compulsion to brain dump ideas in favour of intelligent questioning.

The capacity to continually raise the bar in terms of innovation and commercial impact - the true mark of high performance - could be unleashed if every member of every type of team was equipped with the ability to ask insightful questions. The additional up-skilling and deployment of more thoroughly trained 'team coaches' , equipped to help the team (or POD) to continually focus on unblocking the progress to 'productive outcomes', will help these groups to revisit their core purpose  and the manner of their collective functioning to achieve optimum performance.

High-performance teams need to be unharnessed to excel

Let's take customer services, a classic example of the functional team. Our team is asked what needs to be done to drive up productivity levels. The answer would probably be 'to increase the percentage of customer queries resolved within a given period by a few points'. Defined by that overriding service metric, this response would be in line with the organisation's idea of what 'high performance' would look like.

But does working faster and harder really change anything? Doing more of the same is a symptom of being stuck in a functional rut.

What if I, as the team's coach, framed that question differently and asked what could you do to bring about a level of customer service innovation that creates a new benchmark for our industry? or how would you reinvent yourselves to be at the leading edge of productive capability, the outcome of which would be even better customer service?

These types of questions, driven by coaching principles, will trigger the potential for truly high performance, enabling teams to break out of the functional rut constrained by the metrics. The potential for innovation is raised.

No matter what stage of the coaching culture journey organisations have reached, there are no downsides to introducing these enquiry-led principles as an alternative 'style' of management. Even a grasp of basic questioning skills can trigger a fundamental shift in thinking, behaviour and action. Their adoption is accelerated, however, when there is widespread corporate understanding of what building a sustainable 'coaching culture' might look like, and when senior management are aligned behind the benefits that it might generate so that it's no longer warily treated as just another HR intervention.

Organisations that can instil these skills across their workforces are creating the conditions in which high-performing functional teams or outcome-driven PODs may flourish.

In conclusion

What will drive business success in the future is the rapidity with which organisations are able to innovate, implement, and capture and disseminate benefits.

If the promise of high-performing teams (or PODs) is to be truly realised in a constantly fluctuating environment, organisations and their HR teams need to take a fresh look at:

  • a broader definition of what high performance really means: it can no longer be a shorthand for doing more of the same, but quicker and faster
  • creating an environment in which PODs can flourish and individuals are enabled to contribute at the highest levels as they move seamlessly between them
  • the new skills that are required for POD members to focus more swiftly and productively on their purpose and desired outcomes, regardless of context or boundaries.

We need to move away from a narrow task focus to a universally adopted enquiry-led approach focused on innovation and commercial impact: an approach that sits very comfortably with the potential offered by a coaching culture.

Questioning high performance

Not all teams are alike or equal in terms of contribution, but every team has the capability to be a high-impact productive outcome deliverer if the right questions are asked and the right contribution measures are in place.

Permanent or functional teams conform most closely to traditional perceptions of what a team is. They tend to be static in nature, fuelling that sense of productive cohesion and team warmth. Their typical performance issues include complacency, lack of urgency about improving their performance, recycled solutions, failure to harness the potential of new technologies and persistent silo thinking.

Key question: How do we encourage permanent team members to embrace new ways of thinking and behaving that would unleash productivity potential?

Temporary teams (from basic cross-functional to project-focused) are assembled for a specific purpose and typically comprise a couple of individuals drawn from a cross-section of departments. In the absence of familiar structures, boundaries, communication channels, deliverables and a clear charter, they are at risk of becoming an invisible entity, unable to drive worthwhile outputs.

Key question: What skills do members of temporary teams need to be able to hit the ground running, with confidence, focus and clarity, each and every time they are released from one team into another?

Virtual teams, a growing phenomenon presenting well-documented challenges, are often working on complex projects across multiple functions, territories and time zones. Their performance issues include sluggish progress due to lack of proximity, lack of clarity about charter and outcomes, protracted and inconsistent communication heightening the potential for conflict, excessive communication to compensate for lack of visibility and lower levels of commitment, motivation and satisfaction.

Key question: What skills and behaviours do members of virtual teams need to be able to contribute creatively and productively in the absence of physical contact?



2 Hawkins P Leadership Team Coaching: Developing Collective Transformational Leadership Kogan Page (2012)

About the author

Dominic Ashley-Timms is the MD of business coaching company Notion. He can be contacted via


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