This is the first blogpost in a mini-series of three in which I explore actions that Agile coaches or Agile managers can take to create high performing teams. I focus on high performing teams that consist of knowledge workers creating a software product.

It looks like we are in the middle of a social revolution equal to the scale of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century. We’re seeing more and more self-organizing teams that make their own decisions within boundaries set by organisational direction, strategy and/or vision. The benefits seem clear, teams that take ownership simply perform better. But what is exactly the mechanism behind this? Is setting a certain corporate direction and giving freedom to self-organising teams enough to end up with high performing teams?

To answer that question, I embarked on a small journey of research. In that journey, I explored:

  1. the characteristics of high performing teams;
  2. the needs of high performing teams, and;
  3. actions for Agile coaches or managers in Agile environments to achieve high performance in teams.

The characteristics of high performing teams

When embarking on the journey of identifying actionable items for Agile coaches or managers in Agile environments to create high performing teams, I needed a starting point. So, what are high performing teams and what are the characteristics of a high performing team?

A high performing team is first and foremost a team. The characteristics of a team, as opposed to a working group, can be formulated on the following eight topics, according to a Harvard Business Review article of July 2005 by Katzenbach and Smith:
In a team:

  • leadership is fulfilled by shared leadership roles (in a working group, leadership is strong and clearly focused);
  • members have individual and mutual accountability (in a working group, accountability is on individual level);
  • the purpose motive comes from a specific team purpose that the team itself delivers (in a working group, the purpose motive is the same as the broader organizational mission);
  • people work on individual and collective work products (as opposed to a working group, where members only work on individual work products);
  • performance is greater than the sum of the individual bests of the team members (in a working group performance is the sum of the individual bests of its members);
  • the meeting goal is to have open-ended discussion and active problem solving (in a working group it is efficiency);
  • the focus of the meeting process is on discussion, decisions and real working together (in a working group these are discussion, decisions, and delegation), and;
  • the measurement of effectiveness is directly done by assessing collective work products (in a working group it is indirectly measured by its influence on others).

After looking at multiple sources (source list included at bottom of blogpost), I identified the following characteristics of high performing teams:

  • The team has a specific team purpose that the team itself created
  • The team takes individual and mutual accountability. Each team member takes responsibility for the result obtained by the team as a whole.
  • The team works result-oriented, it is not the individual work product, but the collective work product that counts.
  • The team has open-ended discussion and decision making. There is real working together.
  • The team vibrates with inter-team communication. Team members give each other constructive feedback on the way they work together and on behaviour. The team members are not afraid of conflicts.

All team members have a place where they can add the most value. Each team member aligns personal goals with the team goal.
Leadership takes place within the team; there are shared leadership roles. There is autonomy on task and on group-level.
The team makes extensive use of metrics, and takes fact-based decisions. Effectiveness is directly measured by assessing the collective work product.
The team itself comes up with improvement initiatives continuously. The team is willing to invest to become better.
The team itself achieves buy-in for implementation of innovation or maintenance work items. Team members share their ideas actively and the team cares for relationships outside of the team.
Team members are prepared to work together. There are healthy attitudes within the team. There are established rules for their way of working and the team has frequent, fun, team building activities.
The team manages its performance. Team members are able to identify the weakest link of the team and act on it, whether it be some process that does not work, or a team member who does not perform. The team is able to solve inter-team conflicts.
The team has a will to be technically excellent.
As times get tough, working together intensifies. Every team member has a strong loyalty towards the team.
Now that it is clear to what my understanding is of a high performing team, I will extract the needs of a high performing team from these characteristics in the next blogpost.

Van Amelsvoort en Scholtes Team Model
Tuckman 5 Phases of Team Forming
John Maxwell – 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork
The American Society for Quality’s International Team Excellence Criteria
J. Richard Hackman – Leading Teams
B. Overeem – Characteristics of a great development team
P. Lencioni – Five dysfunctions of a team
J.R. Katzenbach & D.K. Smith – The Discipline of Teams, HBR July-August 2005
What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team – New York Times, February 28, 2016


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