High performing team players

As businesses strive to thrive in an uncertain climate, there is certainly no lack of buzz around ‘Leadership’ and ‘High Performing Teams’ at the moment.

Amanda Lord on 26/04/24

However, amidst all the aspirational online fist bumping and high fives for team leaders, I wonder if enough attention is being paid to the team players and how to create the culture to enable teams to do their best work. 

As MIT Professor Edgar Shein famously said;

"The only thing of real importance that leaders do is create and manage culture. If you don't manage culture, it manages you."

There is plenty of data to verify what we all know in our guts to be true: a well-functioning and dare I say happy (such an underestimated word) team will outperform a disgruntled or otherwise dysfunctional one, however many ‘star performers’ that team may include or parachute in.

So, what is the magic culture that turns a team into a High Performing Team and team members into genuine team players; and how can leaders create and manage that culture?

Alas, rather like the Meaning of Life, there is no short, snappy answer or fail-safe formula to creating a High Performing Team (which I am going to abbreviate to HPT, as that does sound quite snappy and takes less time to type); although there is plenty of data and science around what HPTs look like and the traits HPTs share.

The bad news is that creating an HPT culture requires leaders to pay and sustain attention when they might rather be devoting their time and attention to shinier, apparently quicker ‘wins’ like lateral hires or an annual headline team-building event or even the more macho-sounding ‘strategy’.

Another management genius of yore, Peter Drucker (he of "What gets measured gets done”) also said “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”.

The good news is that when itself approached as a team sport, paying attention to culture in a structured way can actually begin to make a difference surprisingly quickly.

Ironically, since there is undoubtedly a lot of glamour around HPTs in professional sport and elite fighting forces, a great deal can be learnt from the comparatively unglamorous and real-life world of project management: a world in which dysfunctional teams come unstuck (often very publicly) when the deliverable doesn’t get delivered, or is delivered only wildly late or over-budget.

‘Scrum’ is a well-known project management tool from the ‘Agile’ toolkit, born from and most often seen in complex software development.

Dating from 1993, it famously proved its worth when its adoption by the FBI, frustrated by the post 9/11 results of 18 months work by 200 developers, got the job done with 20 developers in 5 months: a 1500% improvement, credited to the introduction of a tried and tested yet humble (also deliberately and generously left untrademarked) organisational framework of Scrum.

It is thus surprising that Scrum does not feature (at least by name) in much of the buzz around Leadership and HPT. This may be because Project Management is a field, and often a qualification, in itself; or perhaps because Scrum is rooted very much in the field of software development and product value, inclined to strict rules and jargon that can be off-putting to professionals and those not in software or Project Management; or perhaps because the only ‘leader’ in Scrum is designated a ‘servant leader’.

For all that, Scrum's values and core principles and protocols are absolutely aligned with what the data tells us turns a team into a High Performing Team.

Stripped of what is inapplicable or overly rigid to be palatable to teams of professionals, and nuanced by the ongoing research and data on HPT, I call my approach Legal Scrum.

Pre-pandemic, many of us enjoyed (without necessarily analysing) the companionship of our work colleagues and the satisfaction of working harmoniously and efficiently together as a team. We are, after all, naturally sociable creatures.

As the world of work wrestles with post-Covid protocols against a backdrop not only of economic and political instability and polarisation but also AI induced uncertainty, my unapologetically lofty aim is to put team culture back front and centre at all levels of all organisations, delivering for clients as well as the professionals from whom it should reasonably be expected, helping to embed effective team working as a reliable source of joy as well as professional pride.

Peter Drucker, who died in 2005 aged 95, saw first-hand the trajectory of those reeling from the economic storm and anxiety created by the Great War and Depression drawn into what he called the ‘abracadabra’ of fascism. What drove him thereafter was the desire to create what he termed ‘a functioning society’ as a bulwark against society ever breaking down in that way again.

The need for a harmonious ''functioning society' is as important now as it was then. Attention paid to rebuilding well-functioning, multi-faceted societal groups in the workplace will not only be repaid in the productivity and loyalty of a happy workforce and grateful clients, but just might yet (it's worth a try) help to heal more generally.

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