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Qualities of High Performance Teams–Katzenbach and Smith

Authors Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith have an interesting perspective on high performance teams. The authors studied team work across several companies and base their findings on case studies spanning tough business environments and work challenges. Their findings expose the factors that stimulate high performance in teams.

‘High performance teams typically reflect strong extensions of the basic characteristics of teams’ .

According to their book The Wisdom of Teams, these strong extensions grow out of an intense commitment to the team’s mutual purpose. The qualities that distinguish a high performance team from other ordinary teams can be summed up as follows:

High performance teams have:
  • A deeper sense of purpose.
  • Relatively more ambitious performance goals compared to the average teams.
  • Better work approaches or complete approaches as the authors term it.
  • Mutual accountability; acknowledgement of their joint accountability towards a common purpose in addition to individual obligations to their specific roles.
  • Complementary skill set, and at times interchangeable skills.

The above points capture the qualities found in high performance teams and these qualities are indeed stronger extensions of the factors that are usually necessary and ideal for team work, some of which follow:

  • All teams need a sense of purpose and a clear cut mission.
  • All teams need the mission to be broken down into meaningful performance goals for each team member to pursue.
  • All teams need to develop certain work approaches, procedures and processes to ensure that they accomplish a task efficiently and effectively.
  • All teams have to support the common mission and take their individual responsibility seriously to do their part in accomplishing a task.
  • All teams need a mix of skills, experience and expertise, in order to meet the challenges of the team task.

In a high performance team, there seems to be a more advanced and full blown application of all the qualities that teams need to have in a general sense. But, the unique quality in a high performance team is that the team members have an inbuilt need and ambition to go after bigger challenges and they bring with them a work attitude and work ethic that creates a deeper commitment to the collective mission.

Let’s study the qualities in high performance teams in greater detail. In the context of ‘a deeper sense of purpose’ and ‘relatively more ambitious performance goals’ as mentioned above, an analogy can explain better the difference between a high performance team and an average team:

It is akin to the difference between a top seeded tennis player like Roger Federer and another player still striving to find his feet on the tennis circuit. The top seed has fine-tuned his game technique, is determined to play a winning game and is ready for any challenge. Another player who is yet to make a mark probably lacks the same intensity and certainly and has a thing or two to learn about both technique as well as perseverance.

Work approaches are another determinant in team performance. Work approaches comprise a whole host of team work processes such as:

  • Decision making norms within the team.
  • Approach to creativity in problem solving.
  • Work standards that conform to accepted industry norms and practices.
  • Methods for using team meetings effectively.
  • The team process for completing a task from start to finish, and so on.

When a team is able to crack this aspect of team work and successfully integrate various aspects of its functioning, it paves the way for a far better team performance than a team where they struggle to find mutually acceptable methods to move the team work forward. For example, better work approaches can ensure better planning and scheduling of activities, quicker decisions, rapid response to customers, meeting deadlines, etc.

Mutual accountability is the collective responsibility of the team towards generating results and achieving success. Mutual accountability implies an implicit acknowledgement of the joint accountability of all team members towards a common purpose, in addition to the individual obligations in their specific roles. This creates a supportive environment within the team and the performance of the team improves in the presence of this type of mutual support and cohesion.

Complementary skills are a necessity in most teams. Most team tasks require multiple skills and the when the team members have complementary skills that are well balanced and congruent to the task, it is bound to raise the team performance. Interchangeable skills can be asset in some businesses, since the team members can depend on one another to jointly accomplish a task.

Besides these qualities, ‘Shared leadership’ is another factor highlighted by Katzenbach and Smith. It is a fairly recent concept that is gaining ground and is seen as important to facilitate high performance in teams. It calls for a great deal of personal initiative from individual team members. Read this related article to understand this concept better:
Shared leadership sustains high performance in teams

To sum up, the qualities that seem to foster high team performance are primarily a cut above that of an average team. It is certainly not easy to create a high performance team with all these qualities, but an organisation can provide the building blocks with a few necessary measures such as the following-

  1. Make the attempt to set challenging and inspiring performance goals especially when you come across teams that are achievement driven
  2. Encourage personal initiative and develop individual leadership qualities
  3. Create the most appropriate team mix with the right combination of skills
  4. Pay heed to the team’s training needs to help them develop better work approaches so that they accomplish their tasks in better ways

These few measure may prove to be the magic formula seen in the findings of Katzenbach and Smith for a better team performance.

How to set goals that inspire high team performance
 

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