The Fast Lane to High Performing Teams

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It seems like it would be great to be from the south, and not just for the biscuits. Why? Mainly because of people like Dr. Phil. When he says something like, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” we all just shake our heads in agreement, “Yup, he’s right.”

“Foundations are built, they don’t just build themselves.”  – Kim LaFever

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, that’s what I would say to anyone working in a team setting today. It’s as true of buildings and houses as it is for work teams, schools, volunteer groups, and governments (uggh, don’t worry, this won’t be about politics).

Last year, I had the good fortune to do some field research on 3 different client projects:

  1. A technology project for a Marketing department in a big corporation
  2. A technology project for Finance department in a mid-size corporation
  3. A “change how we work” project in a big corporation that affected 4-5 departments

Which of these projects do you think was the easiest and most successful? If you guessed projects 1 or 2 you were wrong. It was project #3 that was by far the most complex in many ways and yet the more successful.

Project #3 could best be described as:
“Let’s streamline the handoffs in the way we work, do the right work at the right time, with the right people, and remove decision rights that some of you never really had to begin with.” Sounds easy, right?

Why was this project, with the messier and more ambiguous scope, more successful? I have been asking myself this for a while in the hope of being able to better understand how to make future projects easier and more successful.

It all came down to foundation. This team had a compelling but difficult to achieve vision, leadership support at upper levels, and strong relationships at other levels. In essence, this project had some key foundations in place that allowed people to be successful.

Over and over again we see organizations throw people and dollars at an opportunity without building a foundation for the work. It’s like someone said, “Just get the right people in there and have them get going!” The thing is, people need a foundation just like a house does.

Google crunched the data a few years ago to identify the secret sauce of highly effective teams in their company. Was it about having the smartest people in the room with the biggest degrees? Nope. Consensus decision-making?  Nope.

The 5 factors they came up with, in order of importance were:

  1. Psychological safety: Psychological safety is about risk-taking and being comfortable with vulnerability.
  2. Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time.
  3. Structure and Clarity: This means that a team has clear roles, goals and plans. Maybe not down to the nitty gritty detail but enough where you understand your role in the overarching goal.
  4. Meaning: For individuals on a team, finding a sense of purpose in their work (or its output) is vitally important for team effectiveness.
  5. Impact: Do you fundamentally believe that the work you do makes a difference?

Psychologist Amy Edmondson offers three simple things anyone can do to foster team psychological safety:

  • Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  • Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  • Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

These simple principles don’t have to take hours or days of discussion. It’s about behaviors and a mindset, really. Spend even a few hours building a foundation first and watch as amazing things begin to unfold.

Remember how Dr. Phil said, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge?” Do you wonder how is your team doing on psychological safety?

Consider surveying your team on psychological safety and host a conversation using Amy Edmondson’s survey. To measure a team’s level of psychological safety, ask team members how strongly they agree or disagree with these statements:

  • If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  • Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  • People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  • It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  • It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  • No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  • Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

Once you gain some feedback, target your discussion on areas that need the most support.  What changes in behaviors would help foster greater levels of safety? How can we reframe the work as a learning opportunity (what can we learn about what’s not working and why) vs. an execution problem (you or they didn’t deliver)?

If you don’t feel equipped to handle a discussion like this on your own, consider seeking an independent facilitator to help.

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