I have no question that when you have a team the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary, a collective creation of previously unimagined quality or beauty.
But don’t count on it.

Richard Hackman, Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, Harvard University

Is mediocre good enough? Despite lavish attention focused on improving organizational team effectiveness, it is surprising that most teams never come close to their full potential. Some accounts indicate that only 20% of teams are highly functioning, which suggests that most teams under perform. Consider that highly functioning teams are more innovative and more effective at addressing complex problems than any individual or less capable team, and you’re left wondering how much capacity and how many resources are organizations leaving on the table? Want to lead a change effort, identify a solution to a previously elusive challenge, or execute a strategy in a differentiated way? I argue that you should consider the hidden power of teams that already reside in your organization.

Characteristics of High Impact Teams

The idea that some teams simply “gel” or that teams excel purely due to the presence of a strong leader vastly distorts the reality of team dynamics. These high-performance teams don’t emerge by accident or because of any single factor. Teams that perform at higher levels do so because they are designed to constantly enable the conditions that make that performance possible. So, how do we drive performance to new levels? The answer is more straightforward than you might think. Let’s begin by reviewing the characteristics of high-performance teams.

Great teams place relentless focus on four key areas:

  1. Defining a shared purpose for which all are committed;
  2. Achieving the right size and balance of appropriate skills and representation on the team;
  3. Leveraging tension and difference as a platform for creativity and continuous learning;
  4. Understanding the dynamics that shape the quality of team relationships.

Bottom line, highly functioning teams behave differently because they learn to be different.

Team Development Approach

Years of careful observation focused on learning about and working with teams has helped me refine an approach that offers an effective roadmap for team growth and high performance. The approach is based on solid research[1], incorporates the factors most correlated with high performing team behaviors, and is centered on three sequential and distinct phases of inquiry, exploration, and team work.

Platform First: I call the first phase Platform. Here the focus is on building the following foundational elements: team composition, purpose, and understanding the level of interdependence.

Agility Second: The second phase, Agility, is about learning, which involves developing the discipline of agile self-correction.

Container Third: Container is the final phase. The container is a permeable boundary that increases awareness of team dynamics and encourages the establishment of a set of positive team norms.

Team Development Model: PAC

PAC = High Function Zone

These three phases require team members to develop increased awareness about the current team climate and work to align growth goals for each phase. The approach is sequential in that, work in one phase is compromised if it occurs in advance of the previous phase. How long a team spends on any of the three phases depends on several factors, such as: commitment to improvement, ability to address conflict, and willingness to align perspectives. Teams that utilize this process stack the deck in favor of developing increased capacity and realizing higher levels of performance in the following areas:

  • Awareness of current team dynamics and a clear sense for the most compelling opportunities for growth.
  • Understanding of the elements most associated with highly functioning team behavior and how to internalize them for the team.
  • Understanding of the conditions that inspire increased learning capacity and how to leverage that capacity to produce new solutions to complex challenges.

Steve Jobs is famously quoted for saying “Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” The proposition: organizations that don’t invest in developing their teams risk missing the opportunity to diversify business outcomes, optimize problem-solving capacity, and lead innovation. The choice is simple. Will your organization’s teams be excellent or mediocre?

Admittedly, this is not a small investment. However, when considering the return you might ask this important question: what if our teams could produce the extraordinary? You can always hope that your teams produce extraordinary results, but don’t count on it!

1 Hackman, R. J & Wageman, R. “A theory of Team Coaching” Academy of Management Review 2005 269-287

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