When thinking about high performance teams, we tend to pin the outcome on things like skill, experience and intelligence - predictors of individual performance. While those are certainly important, it turns out they’re not the most important when it comes to teams.
This dude Daniel spent a lot of time with teams ranging from Navy SEALs to NBA Spurs to Pixar & IDEO, and found these three ingredients to be the most important in making teams successful:
- Establishing a purpose
- Sharing vulnerability
- Building safety
Not exactly what you’d expect, aye? Let’s dig deeper.
To create environments where people feel motivated to push forward, you need to establish a purpose. You start by asking questions like “What are we about?” and “Where are we headed?” then coming up with clear goals & priorities.
A clear mission and a set of priorities function as a lighthouse; orienting people, making hard decisions easier & providing a path towards the goal. It’s not about writing a “mission statement” and plastering it on your website. It’s about building a narrative, then constantly retelling it and integrating it directly into the workflow.
No, not the whole story - you distill it down to simple catchphrases & rules of thumb. The key to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, direct & actionable. Then you proceed with flooding the environment with these narrative links between what you’re doing now and why it matters.
Be about ten times as clear about your expectations & priorities as you think you should be. The value of those signals - which might at times seem overdone - is in orienting the team to the task and to one another.
What seems like repetition, is in fact, navigation.
Some say leaders need to hide their weaknesses and always appear on top of the situation. OK, Boomers. What we’re trying to establish here is an environment of safety, trust & cooperation, not an environment under authority of the great leader. In fact, leaders here need to be vulnerable first and often.
And don’t think this doesn’t apply to you. In this environment, a leader is simply the one currently most enthusiastic about the endeavour. You have probably at times been leading without even knowing. You need to be opening up, highlighting weaknesses and inviting for feedback. Always asking questions like: "What am I missing?" and "What do you think?"
This makes people feel appreciated & safe, knowing they’re in an environment where it’s ok to fail as long as you own up to it. It’s also an invitation to strengthen the connection because it sparks the listener into thinking: “How can I help?"
The key to building safety is understanding how obsessed some subconscious parts of our brain are with it. We don’t need just a hint or a signal of safety, we need those signals over and over again. Start building safety by actively inviting for input and valuing it.
Overdo thank-yous. They’re not about the thing you’re thanking the person for - the thing might even be bad news. The thank yous are about affirming the relationship & showing appreciation; they are crucial signals of belonging that generate safety & motivation.
Make sure everyone has a voice. Some groups follow a rule that no meeting can end without everyone sharing something, some regularly hold reviews of what’s being done and some establish places where anyone can bring up issues or questions.
Best teams often describe their teammates as family, this is because teams are only as strong as the ties between team members. These ties are strengthened through the above mentioned practices of building safety, sharing vulnerability & establishing a common purpose then going through a lot of ups & downs together.
But you gotta start somewhere, you can’t just magically be close with your teammates. You start by simply getting to know them - What are they like? What do they think like? What are their wants & needs?
When building a connection of high trust, ask questions that are personal, direct and focused on the big picture. Questions like “What have you always wanted to do and why haven’t you done?”, “What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?” or any of these 36 questions.
Giving feedback is the worst. The most important part of giving feedback is exposing what sucks, and telling your friends how their work sucks is just never easy. For teams to function effectively, however, there need to be many moments of honest feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling & confronting the gap between where the group is and where it wants to be.
Some might tell you the best way to deliver bad news is making a feedback sandwich. Don’t do this. Positive & negative feedback is handled differently. Negative feedback is delivered privately, with a permission and is followed by a conversation about the needed growth or improvement.
Positive feedback is better delivered through public bursts of recognition and appraisal.
Just as important as giving feedback is asking for feedback; especially crucial when doing things that may affect many people - which tends to be anything nowadays. Make sure to be asking at least these three questions: “What do you like the most?”, “What do you like the least” and “What would you change if it was up to you?”.
If someone is asking you for help, resist the temptation to offer surface advice. Do not interrupt with things like “hey, here’s an idea!” or “here’s what I would do!”.
You need to be asking more questions, actively listening, & digging deeper. Ideally, you want to lead the person into finding their own answer, not accepting yours.
“I’ve found that whenever you ask a question, the first response you get is usually not the answer—it’s just the first response,” Roshi Givechi
When it comes to practices of building feedback loops…
Here’s some practices that the highest performing teams depend on. They are essentially about breaking down work & ideas to learn from mistakes and improve things. It will be an uncomfortable experience at the least, and painful at the worst - but crucial either way.
Or after-action-reviews come from the military practice. A painful but necessary practice, asking these kinds of questions: What were our intended results? What were our actual results? What caused our results? What will we do the same next time? What will we do differently?
A team of experienced leaders with no formal authority, here to critique the strengths and weaknesses in an open and frank manner. The key rule: not allowed to suggest solutions, only highlight problems. This maintains leader ownership and prevents them from taking a passive order-taking role.
You create a red team, to come up with ideas to disrupt or defeat your proposed plan. Crucial for breaking group-think and other results of overly-enthusiastic people.
Used to build the habit of opening up vulnerabilities so that the group can better understand what works, what doesn’t work, and how to get better.
Most needed when a team or a person is facing a barrier. As the name suggests, it’s like traditional mentoring, but only lasts a few hours. Helps break down barriers inside a group, build relationships, and facilitate the awareness that fuels helping behavior.
By now you should have at least a basic idea of what these teams look like. Here’s some of the things you should be able to see in good teams:
Framing: Successful teams connect even the most dreadful of tasks to the bigger picture, constantly creating narrative links of why what they’re currently doing is important.
Roles: Each person knows their role and why it's important. Firstly, you don’t want to end up with the story of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody & Nobody. Secondly, every person needs to know why their role is important, because they just do.
Rehearsals: Successful teams break down and verbally run through tasks ahead. Making sure everyone knows their role, the sequence of action, what success looks like & how it connects to the bigger picture of what they’re up to.
Encouragement to speak up: In successful teams, people are always trained & encouraged to speak up if they think there’s a problem or have something to add.
High level of mixing, few interruptions, lots of questions, attentive courtesies like thank yous, and laughter - one of the most fundamental signs of safety and connection.
Be careful about who you let in, and don't show tolerance for bad apples. The three most common negative archetypes are: the jerk, the slacker and the downer; able to consistently reduce performance by 30-40%. You lower their effectiveness by reacting with warmth, deflecting their negativity & drawing people out by asking questions.
There isn’t a hack or a shortcut to building highly effective teams. You need to put in a lot of effort into knowing your people, building the environment that people thrive in & you need to actually care about those people. Often going out of your way to help others & make them successful.
Hope you feel inspired to go back to your people and start implementing some of the changes!