Characteristics of high performing teams

In order for tech companies to be competitive and successful they need to shape their work around teams. But just organising work around teams is not sufficient, teams must also be high performing or your company will not utilise the benefits of teamwork. In my work with companies, founders, managers, leaders and team members I’ve

In order for tech companies to be competitive and successful they need to shape their work around teams. But just organising work around teams is not sufficient, teams must also be high performing or your company will not utilise the benefits of teamwork. In my work with companies, founders, managers, leaders and team members I’ve noticed too few that consciously and strategically work towards building high performing teams. One reason for this is because there’s not a good enough definition of what a high performing team is, which decreases the likelihood of building them.

In this blog post, I’ve combined the research from Susan Wheelan, Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim, the agile manifesto and my own experience to create one holistic model that gives a more complete view of what it means to be a high performing team. I specifically focus on teams that are in a technical context and with the objective to provide business and customer value by delivering software with the support of an agile mindset.

The Four Dimensions of High Performing Teams

Where many of today’s models and assessments fall short is that they base everything on one or at most two dimensions. They may look at mindset, collaboration or technical practices, but this becomes one dimensional and is not sustainable. To be effective at coaching teams I’ve had to look broader and create something entirely new that looks at teams more holistically.

Since market conditions today are rapidly changing it’s essential for organisations and their employees to collaborate and be able to adapt timely to their existing and potential customers changing needs. This is why I’ve included the following four dimensions in the model, that when fulfilled together lead to sustainable high performance.

The Four Dimensions of High Performing Teams

Collaborative Behaviour

This is the most fundamental dimension. Because unless team members, leaders and managers display collaborative behaviour it will be impossible for them to jointly integrate learning, make sense of the world, respond to change and attract & retain customers. It basically sets the basis for the other dimensions.

In the book Creating effective teams Susan Wheelan, who through more than 30 years of research on effective teams, brings valuable clarity to this dimension with the following concise list of characteristics that are identified with high performing teams:

  • All members participate and are clear about and agree with roles and the team’s goals
  • Members have relevant knowledge and skills to be able to achieve a goal that requires collaboration.
  • Members encourage high performance, quality, success and innovation
  • The team uses effective decision-making strategies and implements and evaluates their solutions and decisions
  • The team gets, gives, and uses feedback about its effectiveness and productivity
  • Periods of conflict are frequent but brief, and the group has effective conflict management strategies
  • The leadership style in the team matches the team’s development stage

If you’re interested in more detailed extensive knowledge on this topics I recommend reading the book and use her assessment material with your teams.

Team members perception

This dimension is complementary to Collaborative Behaviour, with the difference that it provides a subjective expression from an individual that’s in a high performing team. Because, even if the team is high performing in all other dimensions it will not be sustainable unless team members feel they are performing. Don’t get me wrong, the most effective teams I’ve worked with have always looked at ways to improve. But there’s a difference between that and feeling you’re not good enough.One way to assess team members perception, also taken from Susan Wheelan’s book, is with the following statements:

  • Members of high performing teams can’t wait to get to the team meeting because it’s exhilarating, fun, and important and makes you feel like a grown-up.
  • Members feel involved, committed, and valued. Time flies, work flows, and people help each other to meet goals and deadlines.
  • Members are happy they are learning so much and are eager for this experience to continue for as long as possible.
  • Members are excited by the ease with which work gets done and thrilled with the feelings of camaraderie and trust generated by the team.

Learning and Adaptability

The two remaining dimensions both relates to timely adaptation to existing and future customers changing needs. The primary difference between them is that one focuses more on people and process and the other on technology. Between the two, people sets the basis for technology and hence I elaborate on Learning and Adaptability before Software Delivery Performance.

The adoption of an agile mindset has been favourable to a considerable number of businesses and is currently considered essential for any company that aims to become and remain successful by learning and adapting. Particularly in the software industry. As an Agile Coach at Spotify I coached a multitude of teams, organisational units, and on-boarded entire new teams in bootcamps. In order to both facilitate conversations about what an agile mindset means and set expectations on teams I, along with a few other coaches, outlined the mindset into the following characteristics.

A high performing team:

  • Continuously improves their product, technology, design, ways of working and themselves
  • Delivers business value iteratively and regularly at a sustainable pace
  • Takes timely action based on clear decisions made with shared understanding
  • Has a psychologically safe* environment built on caring and empathy

* Psych safety as defined according to Google’s research

Software Delivery Performance

An often overlooked dimension is technology. It’s great that we focus on mindset, behaviours, perception and processes, but if the technology that’s being delivered is slowing the company down the rest won’t really matter. In the book “Accelerate”, Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim have through recent research defined the following four characteristics of high performing software delivery teams:

  • Change lead time is < 1h
    From code committed to deployed. Excluding the design/planning phase.
  • Deployment Frequency is on-demand (multiple times per day)
    How often a software product gets released, eg to the production backend or to an app store.
  • Change failure is < 15%
    How often a change leads to service degradation or needs a hotfix, revert, or fix-forward.
  • Mean time to recovery is < 1h
    How much time it takes the team to restore service during incidents.

Put the dimensions into practice

Now that you’ve broaden your perspective on what characterises a high performing team you might also have realised that there are a lot of aspects behind one. You’re perhaps asking yourself how you can make use of it in practice? Here are a few things that will get you started on your journey:

Educate teams, leaders and managers

  • Share your newly found insights within your organisation and teams to broaden people’s perspective of what characterises high performing teams.
  • Use the model when talking to key people to highlight the importance of investing time and resources into developing teams.
  • Present the model to teams to help them set clear expectations on themselves, give them something to aspire to as a team and see that they can grow in many different areas.

Assess and improve yourself and teams

  • Use the different dimensions with teams to assess and bring awareness to where they can and should improve for the time being.
  • Use the evaluation to gain insight whether the support you give to the team is relevant, effective and timely. E.g. if the team is weak in collaboration make sure you put a majority of your energy on improving just that and not any of the other dimensions.
  • Compare this model with whatever your company is currently using to assess your teams and organisation and fill in potential gaps.

If there’s enough interest I will update my educational slidedeck and evaluation forms to a sharable format and share it with you. So if you’re interested in getting your hands on one or both please let me know in the comments or through e-mail and I will get back to you.

If you’d like to dig deeper into this model, me facilitating a workshop with your team or organisation, or share your thoughts or feedback, please reach out to me.

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