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  • Writer's pictureSavita Ferguson

High performing teams

It doesn't matter how talented individual contributors are, high performing teams rarely just evolve into such. It takes careful local team management, and support from the larger department / organization to develop the right knowledge, relationships, culture and practices that lead to a high performing team.

If you're wondering how to begin ...

Step 1: Create a culture of continuous improvement

Solutions for all other problems will be unlocked once the team has a culture of identifying and resolving the issues they see. You want to encourage and in fact expect from the team that they will take steps each day to become better than they were the day before. This involves direct conversations, modeling the correct behaviors and generally coaxing them to come up with something to try and improve every week or so. Empower them to resolve the issues they see that hinders their progress toward becoming a better performing team.

Step 2: Make sure their goals are clear and aligned with business objectives

Teams will struggle to perform well unless they know what they are trying to accomplish with clarity. My current favorite method for doing this is to utilize OKRs as popularized by John Doerr. It answers the questions - what are we trying to achieve and how will we know that we have gotten there? Quite critically too, OKRs around the business connect to each other so it becomes clearer how the pieces of the puzzle fit together to achieve a bigger goal. Understanding how you fit into the bigger picture and how your actions provide value is also quite motivating.

Time-boxed objectives or external deadline driven constraints are also a favorite tool of mine as these provide a target. Even during day to day coding, developers are making decisions on approaches or how long to go down a rabbit hole etc. Not every idea is worth trialling. Deadlines in this way helps focus the team on what's truly important. Targets can be aspirational, but as long as they are achievable they provide a focus point for teams to unite around - this is what we've got to get done, by this date - hands in everybody ..... goooo team.

Step 3: Make sure you've got the right skillsets

It is probably fairly obvious to you that a high performing team thrust into an unfamiliar domain won't immediately be high performing in that new domain. They need time to learn and develop the skill necessary for that specific set of technologies or business cases before they can instinctively pick out where the challenging bits of a project will be or know the approaches for tackling it.

If the project you're working on requires lots of UX design, make sure you include someone with that expertise. If the project requires lots of data modeling, make sure you include someone with that expertise. Or alternatively, actively grow those skillsets on the team. If what you value is innovation, make sure you have the appropriate diversity. Whatever your goals, make sure that you're thinking about if the team members have the right skillsets for this specific problem space.

And you also need to ensure that each team member understands their role on the team.

Step 4: Create an environment that is psychologically safe

Psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished when you make a mistake. It is what allows individuals to bring new ideas and try things that can ultimately build a better performing team. A tell tale sign for how psychologically safe your team is is to look at whether the team members give candid feedback and openly admit mistakes.

Actively nurture the way communication is done between team members to build stronger relationships. For example: encourage open-discussion when there are dissenting views or make sure they are sharing funny memes to build their laughs together.

Step 5: Be patient, reflective and consistently adapting

It takes time for a group of different individuals to become a team - think storm, norm, form them perform. Each new person introduced (or removed) from the group creates a new group who have to work together to build relationships and understand where they fit in the picture. The highest performing teams are often those who know each other well having worked together for a while, and where they understand the domain they are working in well.

Bonus: Make sure they understand what you value

High performance is actually a relative team that may mean different things depending on your perspective. For example, a manager may choose to measure the team's performance by lines of code produced or by how quick they get to delivery or how many bugs produced or some combination of goals like that. Is it clear to the team that you value getting quickly to market and you are tolerant of a certain threshold of inefficiencies or bugs?

That is, it's important for a high performing team to know what is valued by the business and so they can make decisions in line with this. Also, making this clear can help weed out those individuals who find that their personal value system doesn't align with the specific approaches of the company. As sad as we get when team members leave a group, never underestimate the damage that the wrong placement can have on the performance of an entire group, so act quickly.

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