Creating High Performance Teams – a case study

 

For businesses to succeed, they need high performing teams throughout their organisation.

How  to get teams into that sustained, high performing cadence is a challenge laden with complexity – making a simple goal tough put into practise.

Moving beyond management speak and into some figures; a study by Google reports a typical 44% increase in performance vs target, once the right team foundations are in place. A major incentive to get this right.

Going further and giving this real-life context; I recently worked with an event organiser who was struggling to keep up with their market. Their exhibitor sales and visitor numbers were declining, and much needed innovation / change projects kept grinding to a halt in their fractious team.

Despite past efforts to motivate employees to do better, the MD just couldn’t get traction to improve results – which is when they got in touch with me.

Skipping ahead to where we are now, 4 months after starting work together, and they are reaping the rewards of their efforts on many levels;

  • Financial: One simple early win is collaboration between their sales and marketing teams to re-vamp their exhibitor promotion plan. It generated c£11k in its first month, and will deliver more as they refine it
  • Practical: The whole team in now contributing to solid development initiatives in their exhibitor mix, theatre content and show experience, and are committed to seeing them through
  • Emotional: Tensions on the team have reduced, lines of communication have opened and flight-risk has reduced

So what has made the difference, and what makes for a high performing team?

The study by Google revealed that on average sales teams with high ratings for psychological safety (across 7 factors) brought in more revenue, exceeding their targets by 17%. Teams with low psychological safety fell short by up to 19%.

Psychological safety 

In light of this our starting point was an honest audit of those factors across the team, which found the following:

Factor

Audit Findings

 

– Job Security: Do people have ambiguity about the longevity of their role?

 

 

– No issues

 

– Pay: Does it meet the individual’s needs?

 

 

– Met in most cases, but the MD chose to address the pay of one person on the team

 

– Framing of work: Is work positioned as an execution exercise, or learning problem?

 

 

– A major problem – Several team members (and the leader) were inflexible about how work should be carried out.

 

– Honesty: Do leaders and team members alike acknowledge their own fallibility?

 

 

– A major problem – Many on the team felt it best to cover up mistakes, less they get hauled over the coals for them.

 

– Encouragement: Do individuals welcome ideas in areas which aren’t their strengths, even if it’s “on their turf”?

 

 

– A perception problem: The managers felt they (and wanted to) encouraged suggestions, but staff felt that most fresh ideas would be shot down

 

 – Dependability: Do individuals trust others to get their jobs done?

 

 

– A major problem – particularly between marketing / operations and the sales team

 

– Structure & Clarity: Does everyone know what the team is working towards, and what is expected of them?

 

 

– A partial problem – Individuals felt clear on their responsibilities but less certain about the overall vision, and what might knock the whole team off that course

This exercise helped us to name and explore some key issues, and focussed our next steps on two key areas:

Communication

Conversations in the team were frequently breaking down into challenge / counter-challenge. New ideas were either getting shot-down, or agreed but then suffering from poor follow-through.

As the issue was spread across the team we needed a strong catalyst. The MD offered to lead the way, and committed to adding some new techniques into their interactions with managers and team members.

One technique they adopted was to invest a few minutes in exploring a new idea even if they couldn’t see the immediate fit with the current ‘plan’, using principles and questions like these:

    • Showing Interest: Tell me more about that
    • Investigating: How have you come to that?
    • Positive challenge: Show me how you see that feeding into the goal

This felt forced at first – but as they kept going they found that not only did more ideas surface, but the quality of suggestions rose too as team members got used to these follow-up questions – a double win.

We then moved to the managers on the team. Now that they had felt the benefit to themselves, they were happy to adopt it within their teams, and when working with the other show functions too.

Feedback

Delivering effective feedback can be one of the trickiest parts of a leader’s job.

For some it can feel uncomfortable giving criticism, however positively it is intended, but unless your team or colleagues know what they could do better, they won’t be able to grow – and no-one benefits by silently fuming at them behind a pleasant smile….

The team I was working with didn’t ‘do’ feedback. Criticism – yep. Complaining about others – yep. But no useful feedback… the MD and I identified this as a major roadblock.

This time, in addition to the leading the way themselves, the MD chose to hit the bravery button and mandate feedback in the weekly managers meeting. This involved two simple statements, that each person had to address to each other.

  • I appreciate that you…
  • I urge you to…

As expected the first tries at this were challenging, and some on the team took to it far better than others, but after only a few weeks the barrier started falling and the collaboration rising.

Disagreements are still coming up of course – but now with far more respect shown by all parties, and as the staff focus on asking questions rather than making counter-arguments, the MD is seeing his team create their own common-ground rather than demanding that he intervene.

In summary: What can you take from this? 

  • Culture counts: Whilst the initial catalyst was to drive financial results, my client and I quickly discovered that the real goal had to be making a sustained commitment to refreshing the team culture
  • Change starts at the top: Making those changes required honest appraisal of the status quo, personal reflection from its leaders, and the bravery to take bold steps
  • Play the long game: Reshaping the way a team operates can be a daunting prospect – but the investment led to quick wins, and has put them on track for bigger rewards in the future

As we move with urgency to drive through the product development initiatives, and make back the time, energy and money lost over the previous year of aggravation, the MD feels they now have solid foundations to build upon.

If you’d like to discuss any of the ideas here in more detail, or have an initial conversation about refreshing your team dynamics, please drop me a note via the form below.

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