Organizations want high-performing teams since they have a reputation to continually deliver to their outcomes. Very few teams are high-performing and stay on the journey to mastery. Not only does the team not deliver what the organization needs, but the team members don’t grow individually and do not collectively learn from their experience.
A leader’s intent, along with the clarity from the team about a shared vision of how they would like to work together, can create the starting conditions for a high-performing team. Regardless of the specifics of a team’s journey, high performance is a mindset, not a “state” to achieve. Through the years, I have witnessed a few teams inspire me with their synergy, alignment, and diligence.
As coaches, how do we guide organizations to build high-performing teams?
In the summer of 2020, the Accounts Team was formed. Management merged two existing small teams into one and gave them the responsibility of a critical domain in our product suite. This new team had several potential strikes against them — one team came from an acquired organization; the manager was brand new to management and the team was going to be focused on a domain they were unfamiliar with.
Based on these facts, we as a coaching team were anticipatory about their journey.
How do we guide the leader to create the right conditions for the team’s journey?
What is the responsibility of each team member on this journey?
What role do the systems, structures and alliances have in helping a team work better together?
Let’s look at what transpired & how this team got to high-performing with clear intentions.
It started with Humble Leadership
The leader on this team (Hans) knew he was up for a challenge and had to start by looking inward and reflecting on how he wanted to lead. With some advice from his leader & agile coaches, he began his journey. As with any technical leader who takes pride in his craft, he was anxious about giving up coding/technical design. Being technical made him come alive & gave him a sense of purpose. How much did he need to give up to be a good leader? He had to discover that for himself.
How Hans handled this had me in awe:
Shared his intent: Hans started by sharing his commitment to being a good leader & his intent to build a high-performing team.
Shared his desire: He then shared that he wanted to stay involved in technical design/architecture and code a story or two once in a while since that gave him joy.
Consulted with the team: Having shared his intent & desire, he then asked the team what they valued & how they wanted to work as a collective.
Brilliant! After all, if Hans had not shared his intent & desire, how would the team know? Now that they knew, what were they going to do about it?
When Hans shared his intent & desire, he built clarity. The team now knew what kind of a leader he wanted to be.
The Team stepped up & co-created an Alliance
The team met Hans where he was at, they shared their hopes & fears and laid down some ground rules about how to work together. The simplicity & brilliance of what happened next is what amazed me.
The team had several open conversations and found that they have 3 things in common — the intent to:
Build a high-performing team
Call out impediments and talk about them openly
Build the right structures to support how they wanted to work.
Intent to build a high-performing team
From the product manager, developers, architect, quality engineer and engineering manager everyone wanted to build a great team. They shared their intent with each other & aligned on it.
Everyone on the team had a desire to be excel at their craft and play to their strengths:
The product manager on the team was extremely organized & cared immensely about building clarity & sharing the right information at the right time. She cared about good communication & led by example.
Each person on the development team was passionate about the product and cared about different aspects of the team. Each team member brought their skills and interests. The lead hoped a good process would help people be effective. One developer helped build an automation pipeline, to build quality in. Another developer was new, eager to help and immersed himself in learning. The principal engineer on the team focused on the architecture & design. The quality engineer was guiding the team on best practices and helping the team adopt a whole team testing mindset.
We already knew Hans the manager wanted to build a great team. With the intent set to play to their strengths, action would most likely follow.
Intent to talk about Anything in their Way
With a shared vision, the team then agreed on using radical transparency to uncover & talk about anything that needed attention. This meant talking about their impediments — process gaps, knowledge gaps & how the team needed to work together to bridge those gaps. Even though some topics were uncomfortable, the team had made a pact about surfacing anything that was in their way. This meant talking about things even if it made them uncomfortable.
We could see this as early as a product kickoff when we shared an approach to do story mapping in a user-centric manner.
As facilitators, we had surprised them with the twist of making the stories user-centric. They needed to talk about the approach amongst themselves a bit, before diving into the activity.
45 minutes went by & we had not written a single story yet since the team was talking through what size story to write & kept writing and re-writing the same story.
Finally, one of the developers on the team spoke up and said “Team, it’s been 45 minutes and we have not written a single story. Can we start & continue to refine along the way?”
As a facilitator of this product kickoff, I was ecstatic. It was an accurate observation. The team was being fearful of starting the story mapping activity & too worried about a perfect size user centric story. With this little nudge, the team got to work!
This was radical transparency in action
Intent to build the right Structures to support how they work
The 3rd intention was to build the right structures to support the way the team worked. They determined a cadence for all team events (stand-ups, backlog refinement, retrospectives, and demos). The team then thought about what additional structures they needed to address some of the gaps recently uncovered.
Business knowledge gaps: First set of gaps were the business domain. The team needed to understand the product north star & all the areas they were responsible for. The product manager got to work & setup a cadence of bi-weekly discovery sessions to help align the team.
Technical knowledge gaps: Second was the gaps on the technical side. Since two teams were merged into one, the team had to try to build a shared understanding of their code. They agreed to setup a collaboration time on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an hour to talk about gaps and conduct knowledge transfer sessions to bridge the gaps.
Process gaps: Finally, there were process gaps and it needed attention especially in the beginning when forming the team. Who was going to steer this? Remember Hans (the new manager) wanted to continue to focus his attention on the technical architecture of the domain? At this point, the lead on the team stepped up and partnered with Hans to facilitate all the team events & get the team into a rhythm.
If the structure the team put in place was not working or needed to be adjusted, the team’s intent to talk about anything in their way helped them to openly share thoughts in a team retrospective and continuously adapt. As a result, the team built the right structures to help support the way they worked.
It’s not enough to just have intent, it is also important to follow through and put the systems and structures in place for the intent to turn into reality. This is what the team did and took the journey into their own hands!
The Team continues to Inspire & Teach Us
It’s now coming up on almost 2 years of their journey, and the Accounts Team continues to inspire and teach us new ways of working.
Their journey started off aligned when the engineering manager, product manager & team members shared their intent and vision for the future. It seems so simple, and yet it’s hard to do.
Here is what we observed:
It started with the leader’s humble stance and sharing his intent for how he wanted to lead, along with his desire to stay involved in the technical aspects of the product domain. (Increased transparency & safety)
The whole team had a desire to build a high performing team. (Increased clarity & built a shared vision)
Everyone on the team had the courage to talk through their needs, formulate a way of working by setting intentions & co-creating an alliance. (Increased clarity & safety)
Then the team dove into action — they put the systems and structures in place to crush their product, technical and process gaps. (Increased transparency & clarity)
If the last 2 years tell us anything, this team will be able to overcome any struggles that come their way.
It is because the team looks at high performance as a mindset not a state that they need to reach.