As a child I can remember looking out of the car window as my father drove along the Interstate in Florida while seeing prisoners wearing bright orange jump suits and prison guards keeping a watchful eye on them. The prisoners were taking part in a prison road gang. These road gangs were formed to help the state maintain the state highway infrastructure. The prisoner’s primary responsibilities are to pick up trash and debris from the roadway. This is a prime example of a work group or working group used by most prison systems in the United States.
Work groups or working groups can be defined as a collection of individuals or entities working together to achieve a specific goal or accomplish a specific set of tasks. Typically these groups are only established for a short period of time and are dissolved once the desired outcome has been achieved. More often than not group members usually feel as though they are expendable to the group and some even dread that they are even in the group.
"A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they are mutually accountable." (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993)
So how do you determine that a team is a high-performing team? This can be determined by three base line criteria that include: consistently high quality output, the promotion of personal growth and well being of all team members, and most importantly the ability to learn and grow as a unit. Initially, a team can successfully create high-performing output without meeting all three criteria, however this will erode over time because team members will feel detached from the group or that they are not growing then the quality of the output will decline.
High performing teams are similar to work groups because they both utilize a collection of individuals or entities to accomplish tasks. What distinguish a high-performing team from a work group are its characteristics. High-performing teams contain five core characteristics. These characteristics are what separate a group from a team. The five characteristics of a high-performing team include: Purpose, Performance Measures, People with Tasks and Relationship Skills, Process, and Preparation and Practice.
A high-performing team is much more than a work group, and typically has a life cycle that can vary from team to team. The standard team lifecycle consists of five states and is comparable to a human life cycle. The five states of a high-performing team lifecycle include: Formulating, Storming, Normalizing, Performing, and Adjourning.
The Formulating State of a team is first realized when the team members are first defined and roles are assigned to all members. This initial stage is very important because it can set the tone for the team and can ultimately determine its success or failure. In addition, this stage requires the team to have a strong leader because team members are normally unclear about specific roles, specific obstacles and goals that my lay ahead of them. Finally, this stage is where most team members initially meet one another prior to working as a team unless the team members already know each other.
The Storming State normally arrives directly after the formulation of a new team because there are still a lot of unknowns amongst the newly formed assembly. As a general rule most of the parties involved in the team are still getting used to the workload, pace of work, deadlines and the validity of various tasks that need to be performed by the group. In this state everything is questioned because there are so many unknowns. Items commonly questioned include the credentials of others on the team, the actual validity of a project, and the leadership abilities of the team leader. This can be exemplified by looking at the interactions between animals when they first meet. If we look at a scenario where two people are walking directly toward each other with their dogs. The dogs will automatically enter the Storming State because they do not know the other dog. Typically in this situation, they attempt to define which is more dominating via play or fighting depending on how the dogs interact with each other. Once dominance has been defined and accepted by both dogs then they will either want to play or leave depending on how the dogs interacted and other environmental variables.
Once the Storming State has been realized then the Normalizing State takes over. This state is entered by a team once all the questions of the Storming State have been answered and the team has been tested by a few tasks or projects. Typically, participants in the team are filled with energy, and comradery, and a strong alliance with team goals and objectives. A high school football team is a perfect example of the Normalizing State when they start their season. The player positions have been assigned, the depth chart has been filled and everyone is focused on winning each game. All of the players encourage and expect each other to perform at the best of their abilities and are united by competition from other teams.
The Performing State is achieved by a team when its history, working habits, and culture solidify the team as one working unit. In this state team members can anticipate specific behaviors, attitudes, reactions, and challenges are seen as opportunities and not problems. Additionally, each team member knows their role in the team’s success, and the roles of others. This is the most productive state of a group and is where all the time invested working together really pays off. If you look at an Olympic figure skating team skate you can easily see how the time spent working together benefits their performance. They skate as one unit even though it is comprised of two skaters. Each skater has their routine completely memorized as well as their partners. This allows them to anticipate each other’s moves on the ice makes their skating look effortless.
The final state of a team is the Adjourning State. This state is where accomplishments by the team and each individual team member are recognized. Additionally, this state also allows for reflection of the interactions between team members, work accomplished and challenges that were faced. Finally, the team celebrates the challenges they have faced and overcome as a unit.
Currently in the workplace teams are divided into two different types: Co-located and Distributed Teams. Co-located teams defined as the traditional group of people working together in an office, according to Andy Singleton of Assembla. This traditional type of a team has dominated business in the past due to inadequate technology, which forced workers to primarily interact with one another via face to face meetings. Team meetings are primarily lead by the person with the highest status in the company. Having personally, participated in meetings of this type, usually a select few of the team members dominate the flow of communication which reduces the input of others in group discussions. Since discussions are dominated by a select few individuals the discussions and group discussion are skewed in favor of the individuals who communicate the most in meetings. In addition, Team members might not give their full opinions on a topic of discussion in part not to offend or create controversy amongst the team and can alter decision made in meetings towards those of the opinions of the dominating team members.
Distributed teams are by definition spread across an area or subdivided into separate sections. That is exactly what distributed teams when compared to a more traditional team. It is common place for distributed teams to have team members across town, in the next state, across the country and even with the advances in technology over the last 20 year across the world. These teams allow for more diversity compared to the other type of teams because they allow for more flexibility regarding location. A team could consist of a 30 year old male Italian project manager from New York, a 50 year old female Hispanic from California and a collection of programmers from India because technology allows them to communicate as if they were standing next to one another. In addition, distributed team members consult with more team members prior to making decisions compared to traditional teams, and take longer to come to decisions due to the changes in time zones and cultural events. However, team members feel more empowered to speak out when they do not agree with the team and to notify others of potential issues regarding the work that the team is doing.
Virtual teams which are a subset of the distributed team type is changing organizational strategies due to the fact that a team can now in essence be working 24 hrs a day because of utilizing employees in various time zones and locations. A primary example of this is with customer services departments, a company can have multiple call centers spread across multiple time zones allowing them to appear to be open 24 hours a day while all a employees work from 9AM to 5 PM every day. Virtual teams also allow human resources departments to go after the best talent for the company regardless of where the potential employee works because they will be a part of a virtual team all that is need is the proper technology to be setup to allow everyone to communicate. In addition to allowing employees to work from home, the company can save space and resources by not having to provide a desk for every team member. In fact, those team members that randomly come into the office can actually share one desk amongst multiple people. This is definitely a cost cutting plus given the current state of the economy.
One thing that can turn a team into a high-performing team is leadership. High-performing team leaders need to focus on investing in ongoing personal development, provide team members with direction, structure, and resources needed to accomplish their work, make the right interventions at the right time, and help the team manage boundaries between the team and various external parties involved in the teams work.
A team leader needs to invest in ongoing personal development in order to effectively manage their team. People have said that attitude is everything; this is very true about leaders and leadership. A team takes on the attitudes and behaviors of its leaders. This can potentially harm the team and the team’s output. Leaders must concentrate on self-awareness, and understanding their team’s group dynamics to fully understand how to lead them. In addition, always learning new leadership techniques from other effective leaders is also very beneficial.
Providing team members with direction, structure, and resources that they need to accomplish their work collectively sounds easy, but it is not. Leaders need to be able to effectively communicate with their team on how their work helps the company reach for its organizational vision. Conversely, the leader needs to allow his team to work autonomously within specific guidelines to turn the company’s vision into a reality. This being said the team must be appropriately staffed according to the size of the team’s tasks and their complexity. These tasks should be clear, and be meaningful to the company’s objectives and allow for feedback to be exchanged with the leader and the team member and the leader and upper management.
Now if the team is properly staffed, and has a clear and full understanding of what is to be done; the company also must supply the workers with the proper tools to achieve the tasks that they are asked to do. No one should be asked to dig a hole without being given a shovel. Finally, leaders must reward their team members for accomplishments that they achieve. Awards could range from just a simple congratulatory email, a party to close the completion of a large project, or other monetary rewards.
Managing boundaries is very important for team leaders because it can alter attitudes of team members and can add undue stress to the team which will force them to loose focus on the tasks at hand for the group. Team leaders should promote communication between team members so that burdens are shared amongst the team and solutions can be derived from hearing the opinions of multiple sources. This also reinforces team camaraderie and working as a unit.
Team leaders must manage the type and timing of interventions as to not create an even bigger mess within the team. Poorly timed interventions can really deflate team members and make them question themselves. This could really increase further and undue interventions by the team leader. Typically, the best time for interventions is when the team is just starting to form so that all unproductive behaviors are removed from the team and that it can retain focus on its agenda. If an intervention is effectively executed the team will feel energized about the work that they are doing, promote communication and interaction amongst the group and improve moral overall.
High-performing teams are very import to organizations because they consistently produce high quality output and develop a collective purpose for their work. This drive to succeed allows team members to utilize specific talents allowing for growth in these areas. In addition, these team members usually take on a sense of ownership with their projects and feel that the other team members are irreplaceable.
Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (1993). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-performance Organization. Boston: Harvard Business School.