How do you build high performing teams? How can a digital environment keep learners progressing? What is psychological safety? And how can organizational values trickle down to something meaningful at a team level? We’ve pulled out 8 key takeaways from Simon’s conversation with Tom Marsden, CEO of technology company Saberr.
Saberr enables entire organizations to build more agile, more effective teams. Find out about the key elements of what makes a high performing team and how you can enable this at scale.
Hear what Tom had to say on the Learning at Large Podcast
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Here are our 8 top takeaways
1. High performing teams have a sense of shared purpose and alignment, as well as a habit of regular reflection and course correction.
“There are a range of factors, and we’ve done a lot of research looking into what makes a high-performing team. Actually, the factors probably won’t be that surprising. The key insight we found is that it’s making teams do it that’s really hard. And that’s where we’re focusing all our effort. So, the fact is, in terms of a high-performing team, you can break them down into a few themes. One is the team composition. Have you got the right people in the team in the first place? That means not only technical skills and the right roles covered, but also the sense of shared purpose and shared alignment. In our assessment, we found that common values are quite important to bringing a cohesive team together. And then you’ve got more of the factors that Ruth Wageman and Richard Hackman researched at Harvard, which is—really, for teams to be successful, they have to be very clear upfront about what they’re trying to achieve.”
“So, the upfront element of teamwork is things like, is the team purpose really clear, have you defined that, could everyone state clearly why this team exists in the first place. You’d be surprised how many teams struggle with that question. But also the team goals—and not just the individual, but what are the connective goals the team is trying to achieve? What are the norms of behaviors they’re working to—so how does this team operate? And all those things are best done upfront, in upfront work.”
“The third behavior—and sometimes we call them “habits”—that high-performing teams have is the habit of regular reflection and course correction. Particularly in the modern age, where teams need to work in an agile fashion because the world is so fast-moving and they need to respond to change, the days of repeated direction and then just get on with it are all gone. So, agility is key. For agility, you need to be able to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working in the team, and then adjust.”
2. Teams should recognize and manage differing mindsets in order to tackle challenging issues and solve problems.
“So, what we found in our research is looking at team composition. There’s a lot of discussion around diversity within teams, and what we typically think around in terms of diversity is the ethnicity, age, gender—those kind of demographic characteristics. But there’s other types of diversity, and there’s a lot of research on it too. One is cognitive and behavioural diversity where team members think and behave differently. And actually, the research shows that’s quite correlated with good team performance. You want people who come upon problems and solve them with different mindsets. The challenge around where teams have very different values—by values, we mean the principles that you hold dear, the principles by which you make decisions in your life; that may mean things around whether you’re particularly risk adverse, or if you like to embrace dynamic change and shake things up—those kind of values that sit deeply. When people have very, very different value sets, unless they are recognized and managed, that can lead to worse team outcomes. This is what the research shows.”
“The way you address it—I think there are two main themes. The first one is getting people to recognize those different values, understand them, and talk about them. If my values are very different from yours, that could be causing conflict, because I don’t like risk and you’re always shaking things up. We found that if people start to explain why that is—you know, what is it from your experience that means you have a sort of appetite for risk that I don’t have? Why is it you’re willing to take risks that I would never want to do?—we start understanding the different motivations that each other have in the team, and we can start to build bridges.”
“The second area you can focus on when team members have different values is if they can recognize that, but also say “what is the shared objective we have together?”… how do we align around what we have to achieve together? If you’re really, really clear on that purpose and how you’re going to measure it through the goals you’ve set yourself as a team, then we found that mitigates the problem around the different value sets. And actually, we can start to see people bring those differences in a much more positive way, and it can actually become a benefit instead of a curse.”
3. A digital environment allows for learners to check in and continuously receive “nudges” to keep them progressing.
“But I think critically, one of the other things that the digital environment provides is an ability to come back and reflect on that learning. We spoke to a lot of team coaches who session off-site, and they said one of the challenges is we can’t really check in on a regular basis to see how things are going and evaluate whether there’s progress being made. A digital environment enables us to provide little nudges and notifications and check-ins so that teams can see whether they are growing as a team or not.”
4. Setting up an environment where individuals can have real discussions about real, everyday issues helps with learning retention.
“The learning happens by doing real work. I think this is one of the key themes we’ve heard from coaches. When teams are engaged with real discussions about real issues that affect their daily lives, that’s where the learning happens greatest—rather than in a more abstract educational environment where you’re talking about the theory of teamwork. So what we’re trying to do is provide the foundation conversations through structured sessions that get teams to learn by really doing—that are fashioned around their own team purpose, their own team norms. They’re learning about other perspectives within the team, and by really rooting the team learning in real work that affects them, you get a much higher level of retention in terms of understanding how these principles of teamwork play out.”
5. Creating team norms and a team culture is essential to fostering cooperation and collaboration.
“So as you’re discussing the purpose you have a team, you’re going to very quickly get into a conversation about why you exist as a team, and that will throw out questions you might have around the scope of that or how to frame purpose statements. For example, we do a session where we get teams online to do an exercise to create team norms—like team behaviors that they want to agree to. But throughout that session, we encourage them to make it really relevant to stuff that’s important to you as a team.”
“…team norms is a construct that many coaches have used for years, and interestingly, in the last four to five months, I attended two sessions held by sporting coaches. One was Clive Woodward, who coached the England rugby team to World Cup success some years ago. He said that one of the first things he did with the team was ask the team to come up with their own set of rules about how they were going to behave.”
6. Team norms can be aligned with organizational values at a broader level.
“Most of the research that looks at teams shows that as you get to teams that are bigger—twelve to fourteen people—they start operating less as a team and more as a larger grouping. So, most of the team norms we develop are at that level. However, there are constructs like organizational values that can operate at a much broader level within the organization. Our view is that these things can sit side-by-side. You can have organizational values, which are the shared values that the organization is encouraging across all of their teams, but you can also get the space for teams to create their own set of norms, their own set of behaviors they’re going to work to that are in line with their organizational values but are more meaningful in that particular team context.”
7. Members of a team should feel safe to speak their opinion and be transparent among each other and their leaders – also known as psychological safety.
“What we mean by psychological safety is that people in the team feel free to speak up—voice problems and concerns without any fear of retribution. …. And there are a number of techniques that you can use. I think the first thing is to really make sure the team understands the purpose of their work—so, it’s meaningful. Second thing is you want to invite and give space for team members to voice concerns—so, if you’ve got an introvert in the team or you’ve got someone who’s more remote. And then critically, particularly for leaders, you’ve got to make sure that when people do voice concerns, they aren’t jumped on and made to feel like they shouldn’t have done that, or they’re being critical, or they’re being obstructive. They need to be listened to, heard, and understood.”
“…. at the level of the team, we advocate transparency. So, if you’re giving feedback to an individual at a collective meeting where the team is reviewing what’s working and what’s not, you need to put your name to it. This is partly because practically, at smaller team sizes, people are going to work out who said what anyway; you don’t want any of that gaming to be going on. But also because we believe transparent feedback should be what we’re aiming for in most circumstances. The area where we do some anonymizing is if you’ve got multiple teams, say 50 teams, that are bringing up issues and challenges. At the level of the team, we say that should be transparent and they should feel safe in the environment of the team to discuss those. But what we can do is pick out themes that are at a broader organizational level that maybe senior management might want to understand, which are anonymous. So, we use text analytics to understand semantic themes that are coming out of all of those teams, but that feedback at a senior level is anonymized because we don’t want this used as a way to sort of pick out problem teams or anything like that.”
8. Measures of clear performance may be quantifiable or relatively subjective… or both.
“ Yes, in some environments. In some environments, there are relatively clear measures of performance; for example, sales environments or call center environments, where you’ve got hard data. I would say those are the two—we’ve seen they are the biggest environments of data collected. We’ve seen a lot of research in some healthcare environments as well that has shown a very powerful correlation; for example, somebody called Michael West has done research showing that the effectiveness of a team in operating has genuine and clear correlations with patient outcomes, including mortality rates.”
“So, there are environments where you can objectively measure the impact of teamwork, but there are still a lot of environments where that’s much harder. So, the reason we include a self-evaluation method and some of these intermediate methods is because we wanted to have some data at least to prove out the ROI ”
Tom’s book recommendations
“If you’re looking to understand the different types of team composition, there is a fantastic work by someone called Scott Page, who wrote a book called The Difference Around the Benefits of Cognitive Diversity.”
“There’s an academic called Amy Christoff Brown who has written about the challenges of having values differences in teams who’s got a good Youtube video as well that you can look up. It’s about an hour long, and goes into some really interesting stuff around understanding how diverse perspectives play out in teams and some of the benefits and challenges faced. Amy’s works—I think two books are great. One is called Teaming, and looks at psychological safety particularly in a team environment, and then her more recent book is around the “fearless organization,” which is looking at how psychological safety can really underpin innovation within organizations. So, it’s looking at the benefits of psychological safety for organizational change.”
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