5 Keys of High Performance Teams

There are a million different theories of how to build a high-performance team. Here we'll talk about some of the more popular ones. No matter which theory or combination of theories you go with, you'll see an increase team productivity.
5 Keys of High Performance Teams
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Sports Analogies

There is no end to the analogies you can pull from sports. You could be talking about anything from car mechanics to good hygiene and have plenty of material to work with for your thought-provoking analogy.

Probably the easiest connection between business and sports is teams. What makes a winning team on the basketball court is the same as what makes a winning team in the office. But what is it? What’s that “X-factor”? Is it all about the individual skill of each player? Does it come down to having a solid coach? Or does it all depend on how the team plays together?

We’ll explore each of these schools of thought as they relate to working with teams in the business world. If you’re just here to learn how to dominate the soccer field, keep reading. With a little bit of creativity, you’ll find something to benefit your team no matter the context.

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to building a high-performance team. In this post, we’ll take pieces from a few popular theories and show how these methods can help you create a team that dominates the industry, the project, or your corporate softball rivals.

Here are the five schools of thought we’ll pull from to create our high-performance team:

“There are No Bad Teams, Only Bad Leaders”

In Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Babin tells a story about when he was a SEAL instructor after his deployments in Iraq. 

In one of the training scenarios, teams of guys race with their 200 lb. boats to complete courses made by the instructor. Each team had seven SEALs in training, and the most senior guy was the boat crew leader.

If your team won, your reward was that you got to rest during the next race. In this exercise, there was one team that was winning every single race that they had to run, and there was another team that came dead last in every single race. 

The instructors decided to conduct a little leadership experiment. They switched the boat crew chiefs of the two teams and sent all the teams out for the next race. The boat crew that had been beaten miserably by every other team came in first with this new leader.

It wasn’t because of the individual men on the team that they had failed for so long. It was their leader. 

"It wasn’t because of the individual men on the team that they had failed for so long. It was their leader."

Extreme Ownership is full of information on how to develop yourself as a leader in order to win as a team. In essence, the book is about how good leaders take ownership over everything in an organization. 

No matter the problem that arises or who is involved, a good leader understands that the outcome could have been different if they had more clearly communicated “commander’s intent,” provided better training, or developed a better strategy. 

The book has tons of examples from the SEAL teams and business where principles of leadership are showcased. In every example, problems are solved and teams are lead to win by effective leaders who take ownership of the situation and apply good leadership principles.

Of course, there’s a lot more to leadership than just saying “that’s on me” every time there’s a problem. It’s an awesome book, so read it to get the full scoop.

Mixture of Experience Levels

To continue with our sports analogies, we’ll bring in some thoughts from Travis Hansen, an NBA player turned entrepreneur. He’s played on enough basketball teams and created enough business teams to know a thing or two about how to build a good one. 

Part of his advice for building a quality team comes down to the right mixture of experience. Travis has found that the best teams have a mixture of experience levels.

You need a couple of giants who have been in the industry for a long time and are exceptional at what they do. After that, you need some people who have been in a while but aren’t at their peak. These are really solid and consistent players. Then, as Travis puts it, “You hope to high heaven that you draft Donovan Mitchell.” 

The seasoned players (employees) contribute experience and expertise. They’ve gotten to where they are through long-term improvement and consistent full effort, and now they’re able to accelerate the growth of their newer peers.

Your up-and-coming “legends” have proven themselves through consistent high-quality delivery and are poised to become just as good or better than their teammates that have been working for longer.

Finally, you’ve got your rookies. This is where you accept the most risk but have potential for incredible ROI. These teammates are new, talented, and intensely motivated to thrive and grow. They’re good at what they do, but not too proud to take feedback if it means getting better.

"It creates a mentorship mentality."

This construction of a great basketball team translates over to the business world perfectly. It creates a mentorship mentality. Of course you have to find people that are willing to mentor and be mentored, but the mixture of experience lends to that end goal very well.

Complementary Strengths and Weaknesses

Don Clifton, the father of strengths-based psychology, developed an assessment that helps people find what their innate talents are through a long series of situational questions and millions of previously gathered data points. 

In honor of Clifton, Gallup and Tom Rath wrote StrengthsFinder, and, StrengthsFinder 2.0. These books and the associated assessment give insight into what a particular person’s strengths mean specifically for them.

The purpose of this assessment and book can be stated in a single quote: “You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.” Basically, you can work really hard at something you’re not talented at and end up mediocre, or you can work really hard at something you’re talented at and become extraordinary.

Gallup puts this concept in a simple formula:

Talent x Investment = Strength

Here are some definitions for those terms:

Talent – A natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving.

Investment – Time spent practicing, developing your skills, and building your knowledge base.

Strength – The ability to consistently provide near-perfect performance.

For example, on a scale of 1-5, you may be a 2 on the “talented in singing” scale and a 5 on the investment scale. The best you can be at singing is a 10. 

On the other hand, you could be a 4 on the “talented in painting” scale and a 5 on the investment scale. You can achieve a strength of 20. You can become twice as proficient at something just by investing time in what you’re already talented in.

Of course each talent and strength comes with weaknesses. Fortunately, each weakness can be covered by a person of a different strength. 

The book gives an example of a cobbler who only has time to make 30 pairs of shoes per week because he’s no good at selling them. So he partnered with a salesman. Together, they could make and sell more than 100 pairs of shoes per week.

By building teams and assigning roles based on a combination of people’s talents, investment, and subsequent strengths, you can achieve a much higher-performing team than if you ignored these variables.

"By building teams and assigning roles based on a combination of people’s talents, investment, and subsequent strengths, you can achieve a much higher-performing team than if you ignored these variables."

Two Pizza Rule

As you’re navigating the strengths, weaknesses, and talents of your team members, be careful not to make the team overly complex. There is a bit of nuance to the size of your team that may come in handy.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, is the richest man alive. As of now (mid 2019), his net worth is more than $130 billion (with a “b”). In 2018 alone, he amassed $24 billion. He’s a business genius and has some innovative ideas that have helped him grow Amazon to the huge company that it is. One of these innovations is the “two pizza” rule.

"The rule is that Amazon only holds meetings with as many people as can be fed by two pizzas. Any more than that and the group is too big. Big groups stifle creativity and nothing will get done."

Basically, the rule is that Amazon only holds meetings with as many people as can be fed by two pizzas. Any more than that and the group is too big. Big groups stifle creativity and nothing will get done. 

Fewer people in meetings fosters contribution and creativity, and it minimizes groupthink and distraction. This not only maximizes the time of those in the meetings, but it allows more people to do their work rather than waste time in a meeting they don’t contribute to.

By keeping teams and meetings small you build agility into your organization. Your organization will be able to make decisions faster and waste less time.

Engagement is King

Efficiency in a team is obviously important to the success of the team, but efficiency is not the only variable in performance. In fact, for the benefit of long-term performance, short-term efficiency cannot be the only priority.

A study at MIT revealed that a huge contributor to the performance and success of a team is how they communicate. 

Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland developed a wearable badge that tracked the types of conversations employees had. Basically, it gathered the information you would get if you watched a typical day in the office without sound. 

From the data gathered by this device, Sandy found that there was one characteristic that set apart high-performing teams from otherwise similar low-performing teams. The difference was how they communicated. 

High-performing teams had members that communicated more often, with more energy, with more people.

"High-performing teams had members that communicated more often, with more energy, with more people."

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Sandy wrote, “We’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”

He continued, “The best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”

So What?

We’ve discussed five very different theories for building a team that will perform on a high level. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but none of these theories are mutually exclusive. It’s totally possible to have one team with excellent leadership, a variety of experience levels, and complementary strengths that is relatively small and has great engagement. 

Hiring a team that optimizes each of these theories fully might be extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive; if that’s not something you can afford to do, take what you can from the theories that make sense, and build yourself an awesome team.