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A Process to Build High-Performance Teams

Six characteristics are present in teams that are able to achieve exceptional results.

The marketplace is changing, leading to fundamental shifts in the way A/E/C firms compete now and into the future. There is growing consensus that market share growth will result from applying non-traditional forms of project delivery — construction management, design-build, and integrated project delivery, for starters. And all these methods will require higher levels of collaboration within and among project teams.

Building teams is easy to talk about and difficult to accomplish. But there is a process to accelerate the learning curve for building team skills and collaboration. We can start by looking outside the A/E/C industry to find what other organizations are doing that may offer perspective on how to develop high-performance teams.

Learning from Others

Calling a group of assembled people a team does not make them one. Telling employees they need to collaborate does not translate into collaboration. Teams do not just happen naturally.

Teams are, in the very truest sense, volunteer organizations. You cannot force someone to cooperate; you can’t mandate teamwork. A high level of cooperation is a product of choices — choices made one person at a time for reasons that are often unique to the team member.

Over the past 15 to 20 years, numerous organizations, led by the likes of Procter & Gamble and GE, have focused on deploying a team-based strategy to achieve bigger, better results. What they have demonstrated is that building a collaborative culture must be done with an understanding of the underlying principles, careful design, implementation of a single model, and adaptation to organizational needs and challenges. Knowing they would need to invest in developing team skills and attitudes, these companies turned team development into a part of their corporate strategy, making them enterprise-wide initiatives.

Having invested in initiatives to develop team skills and attitudes, these companies and others documented startling gains in productivity, increased levels of quality, reduced costs, and faster time to market.
For most of us, positive team experiences are rare or average at best. If you have been part of an extraordinary team in the past, you probably long for that experience again. People often drift into and out of extraordinary team situations, wondering what made the group click and how to replicate it. One step to predictable and enhanced team performance is understanding the common characteristics of teams that consistently achieve exceptional results.

Characteristics of High-Performance Teams

As our firm has studied and researched teams and teamwork over the years, we have found consistently similar qualities in teams that achieve exceptional results. It’s a short list. In fact, it contains only six characteristics, but each one plays a specific and vital role in making the team effective. If any one of them is missing or inadequate, the team is, at best, limping. If two or three are lacking, this group is probably not a team at all. The accompanying model shows the six characteristics in abbreviated form.

1. Common purpose. The single most important ingredient in team success is a clear, common, and compelling purpose. Too often, a team’s purpose is ill-defined, uninspiring, or foggy, leaving the team to figure out what success is supposed to look like. Teams are merely a means to an end — a method of achieving desired outcomes that are too big to reach through individual efforts; they are not the end itself.  And it is team purpose that provides the reason for collaboration. A clear, compelling purpose gives reason for people to commit to a team. A common purpose not only calls the team together, it also holds the team together during the inevitable turbulence that will be experienced on the journey.

The power of a team flows from the alignment of each member to the purpose. Creating this alignment is one of the most important roles of leadership. Misaligned teams are often a clear indicator of poorly led teams. There are five key criteria essential for team alignment:

•    Clear: I see it. The benefits of team effort are understood by everyone.
•    Relevant: I want it. Team purpose and goals align to individual goals and interests.
•    Significant: It’s worth it. Team objectives are of sufficient magnitude to make the work worth the effort.
•    Achievable: I believe it. Everyone believes the team purpose is realistic and attainable.
•    Urgent: I want it … now! A sense of timeliness drives behavior.

The above is straightforward. However, aligning to a common purpose is harder than it looks. A common mistake is to launch the team too quickly and push them into implementation before members have had the opportunity to coalesce around a purpose and ensure that everyone is aligned to it.

In short: No team purpose, no team.

2. Clear roles. How we apportion the team purpose will in large measure determine the team synergy. High-performing teams leverage individuals’ different roles against the collective work products. Therefore, it is essential that every team member is clear about his or her own role as well as the role of every other team member. Roles are about the design, division, and deployment of the work of the team. While the concept is compellingly logical, many teams find it challenging to implement. There is often a tendency to take role definition to extremes or not to take it far enough.

If the team purpose is the reason for cooperation, then the development and division of clear roles is a team’s strategy for cooperation. When teams divide the labor, they introduce a side effect called interdependence (also known as risk). Think of it this way: Interdependence is an investment; synergism is the return on investment. If the team is to reap the rewards of interdependence, its members must collaborate. Keep in mind that collaboration is a choice, and despite the obvious logic of collaborating, many teams experience interdependent people acting independently.

An activity that team leaders often avoid or fail at is facilitating the discussion about roles, especially the issues of role clarity. Achieving role clarity is accomplished through discussion — lots of it.

3. Accepted leadership. High-performance teams need competent leadership. When such leadership is lacking, groups can quickly lose their way. Whereas a common, compelling task might be the biggest contributor to team effectiveness, inadequate team leadership is often the single biggest reason for team ineffectiveness.

In most organizational settings, it is the leader who frames the team purpose and facilitates discussions on its meaning and nature. The vision, commitment, and communication of the leader govern the optics through which individual team members see the team purpose and become aligned to it.

Because collaboration is a choice held by each team member, leaders must be capable of calling out the initiative and creativity that motivate exceptional work both by individuals and through collective performance. Leaders who must rely on positional authority and autocratic style to achieve desired outcomes seldom see the levels of team performance shown to leaders who act in service and support to the team.

There are five key qualities that make up the mindset of effective team leaders:

•    They appreciate the collective intelligence of the team.
•    They believe in the power of diversity among team members.
•    They see team leadership as a role by which to serve the team, not a position to be served.
•    They see power as something to be released and shared rather than something to hold and control.
•    They understand that teams are for achieving a team purpose.

Because collaboration is a choice, it is important that the team accepts its leader. Leadership acceptance, like so many dimensions of teaming, is not an on-off concept but rather a matter of degree. Team members can strongly support and accept the leader, accept the leader with reservations, or reject the leader.

In every respect, team leadership may be the most challenging of all leadership roles.

4. Effective processes. Teams and processes go together. It would never occur to a surgical team, construction crew, string quartet, or film crew to approach tasks without clearly defined processes. The playbook of a football team or the score sheet of a string quartet clearly outlines the necessary processes. Business teams have processes as well, which might include solving problems, making decisions, managing a meeting, or designing a product.

Hopefully, for every process, each team member has a clear, specific role based on function, skills, and expertise. In many business settings, however, processes are inadequate, ill-defined, or missing entirely. High-performance teams identify, map, and then master their key team and business processes. They constantly evaluate the effectiveness of key processes, asking How are we doing? What are we learning? How can we do it better?

Organizations that leverage cross-functional project teams have learned that new team skills and well defined processes go hand in hand. Simply, there are two primary kinds of processes — working and thinking. Teaming efforts tend to focus primarily on implementation or work processes at the expense of thinking processes. Thinking processes are essential to high-performance teams. Yet teams often ignore thinking processes for expediency. Organizations that have built successful teams and a collaborative culture have made an investment to train teams in thinking processes that facilitate problem solving. In effect, these organizations have recognized the importance of addressing thinking processes with the same degree of deliberateness invested in working processes.

5. Solid relationships. One of the biggest misperceptions in the world of teams and teamwork is the belief that to work and communicate effectively, team members must be friends. In fact, the diversity of skills, experience, and knowledge needed to divide tasks effectively almost precludes high levels of friendship, which is most often based on commonality — of the way people think, their interests, or beliefs.

Speaking of diversity, we find that the more differences that exist on a team, the smarter it can be. A team whose members look at the world through the different lenses of function, gender, ethnicity, personality, experience, and perspective has a decided advantage over a more homogenous group. The diverse group will be able to surround problems, decisions, and other issues with a brighter collective intelligence. They will see more creative solutions if they can channel their differences into synergy rather than strife.

Solid team relationships provide the climate needed for high levels of collaboration and are characterized by trust, acceptance, respect, understanding, and courtesy. Trust is clearly the non-negotiable element of interdependent relationships. Team leaders cannot mandate trust, they can only attempt to create an environment and opportunities that will facilitate its development among team members. People will not be interdependent with people they do not trust; therefore, without trust, high levels of collaboration cannot be achieved.

6. Excellent communication. Communication is the very means of cooperation. One of the primary motives of companies choosing to implement teams is that team-based organizations are more responsive and move faster. A team cannot move faster than it communicates. Fast, clear, timely, accurate communication is a hallmark of high levels of team performance. High-performance teams have mastered the art of straight talk; there is little motion wasted through misunderstanding or confusion. The team understands that effective communication is essential, and as a result, they approach communication with a determined intentionality. They talk about it a lot and put effort into keeping excellent team communication.

You will notice that the team model now circles back to common purpose, the first characteristic of a high-performance team. The connection is intentional, for a team cannot maintain unity of purpose without exceptionally good communication among team members. Once a team loses its ability to communicate well and thereby understand one another, it quickly loses its sense of purpose. Confused communication and unity of purpose cannot coexist.

When it comes to building high-performance teams, these six characteristics are the essential few.  If a team gets these things right, it will raise the probability of success and therefore achieve its desired outcomes.

Building High-Performance Teams

As the A/E/C industry focuses greater intensity around improving collaboration and teaming, firms will seek strategies to accelerate development of their project-level teams. Those firms serious about seeking competitive advantages in this area might find solutions by researching other companies that have successfully deployed team-based development initiatives and strategies.

There are a few key principles to building high-performance teams that firms must consider if they are to move forward:

•    You don’t form teams; you build them.
•    Teams and team development are about results.
•    Know what you are trying to build; be clear about your collaboration efforts.
•    The team is clear about what an effective team looks like.
•    Team development is a process, not an event.
•    Just-in-time is the best time for training and developing a team.
•    Development must be a felt need of the team.
•    Use the work of the team to build the team.
•    There are no shortcuts to team effectiveness.
•    Willingness precedes skill when it comes to collaboration.

There are five stepping stones in the path to team development:

•    Orient both individuals and the team.
•    Define the team purpose to ensure clarity of task and alignment by all.
•    Develop mission-critical team processes and skills.
•    Build solid team relationships.
•    Ensure ongoing evaluation and development by monitoring progress and performance and then making adjustments accordingly.

Building high-performance teams is the product of determined intentionality. Development efforts must be designed to leverage a team’s time and resources rather than taxing them.

Portions of this article are adapted from the book The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork, a Triaxia publication.


David Thiel is the principal in charge of team practice for Triaxia Partners Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in team, leadership, and organizational development. Headquartered in Atlanta, Triaxia assists client firms in building high-performance teams and accelerating the improvement of collaborative efforts in the A/E/C industry.


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