Performing sounds great, doesn’t it?
A well-known team formula is Bruce Tuckman’s: Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing. But for many teams, performing is a trap that frequently holds them back.
This is because performing, in Tuckman’s model, is about finding a high quality, reliable and often ‘best’ way of repeating a task. Performing teams are well organised, cohesive and focussed on their task. They take time to notice and embed their own best practice, so they continually improve.
- Forming: Purpose, roles and tasks are unclear. Individuals are on their best behaviour. The leader directs.
- Storming: Individuals try to establish their positions. Uncertainty persists and differences appear. The leader coaches.
- Norming: The team develops its process as consensus and respect emerges. The leader facilitates and enables.
- Performing: Cohesively working to achieve the team’s task. Autonomous and developing best practice. The leader delegates and oversees.
Performance teams get plenty done. But they are prone to come undone when their situation changes. We see this in sport all the time when a consistently winning team lose their form after the championship rules change or when a star player transfers. It happens in companies too. Do you recognise any of these?
- A leadership team that has successfully achieved year on year incremental growth is thrown into disarray because customers and a cornerstone client account have been lost to a new entrant competitor
- A recruitment team too slow to accelerate when a competitor becomes faster at making successful offers to in-demand candidates
- A sales team repeatedly undershoots its targets for new propositions while maximising valuable (but declining) legacy lines of revenues
- A marketing team unable to develop new effective campaigns after a market change results in previously reliably successful channels no longer producing sufficient leads
All these are examples of teams that performed well, until they did not. The teams were performing well in their reliable world but were unable to respond to change when it came.
Performance based on continual improvement is no longer enough for teams at work today – every team needs to expect regular significant changes to which it needs to respond quickly with a novel solution. Teams need to transform as well as perform.
The world of the possible
High performing teams do things differently. They don’t develop their performance in a reliable world. Instead, theirs is the world of the possible.
Like performance teams they achieve their tasks and continually improve. Unlike their counterparts, high-performance teams:
- Consistently aim well beyond their current ability
- Repeatedly achieve firsts, breakthroughs and entirely new levels of achievement
- Produce their best results in response to unexpected big challenges
- Innovate as often as they improve
- Regroup quickly when things go wrong and come back even stronger
In these ways high performing teams regularly out-perform rival teams and surprise by exceeding all reasonable expectations, including their own.
Ask the high-performance question: ‘What’s possible?’
A single question often sits at the heart of a high performing team. They routinely and frequently ask What’s Possible.
When they do, amazing things happen. On the shoulders of this powerful question high performing teams:
- Break with the status quo. The rules of their game cease to be determined by the routine reality of their current landscape
- Define their goals and success in the context of what’s possible rather than what is expected (or achievable)
- Avoid assumptions that limit them. For example, they do not assume that their market will continue to be favourable
- Realise that to succeed they will need to constantly reinvent themselves and their approach
- Become innovative – constantly finding and testing ideas to seek out breakthroughs (not continual improvement
- Anticipate the worst as well as the best. They are likely to wargame (scenario plan) for every disaster they can imagine. (And in doing so they find breakthroughs)
The Team Tool: Workshop ‘What’s Possible’
An essential moment to ask What’s Possible is before vision setting and goal setting. If your team has never asked what’s possible then take time to set the scene and frame the question. Give the question centre stage:
- Schedule an hour or even a half or full day: with nothing else on the agenda
- Take the team off site: whether to a great retreat location or simply a local green space. The point is to be away from ‘the world of what is’ and instead in a creative place
- Ask the question in a way that stacks the odds incredibly in your favour:
What’s possible for this team in 5 to 10 years if every decision we take is right, and we execute perfectly, and the results are 2 or 3 times more that we could reasonably hope, and we also have great luck, and great collaborations, and unexpected support and assistance regularly that catapults us forward.
- Keep it going: Brainstorming rules apply here – capture every idea, say thank you and prompt for more ideas
- Reflect: What has been produced is a fantastic resource. What does the team notice? Are there some clear directions, enticing opportunities or emerging strengths amongst these?
Now (after a break) work on setting the vision or goals for the team. You will find the team naturally more confident, ambitious, strategic and innovative as they let go of old assumptions and approaches to work towards their new understanding of what’s possible.
Three more powerful moments to ask What’s Possible?
Once your team are operating in the world of the possible there are plenty of opportunities to ask What’s Possible? Here are three:
- After a set-back
- When the team is ‘on a roll’
- When recruiting
After a set back high-performance teams ask, What happened? What did we do well? What can we improve? What have we learnt? What will we change? They also ask What’s Possible? Or perhaps: With the benefit of knowing we’ve closed a blind spot: What’s possible? It helps the team to regroup and respond in the best possible way.
When the team is on a roll ask What’s Possible, but ask it slightly differently, ‘Team its going well! Let’s spend an hour exploring what’s possible both good and bad.’ Run the discussion well and the team is likely to find and choose additional goals and find and implement changes in response to potential risks that have been identified. If the worst happens to the team the chances are, they have already named that threat, have options for how to respond and hence will be able to respond productively (in fact with high performance) rather than with fright, freeze or flight.
Finally, when a team is recruiting remember to ask each candidate questions to probe whether they are most comfortable in performing or high performing teams.
High performing teams think differently. They imagine being able to do more than they know how today. And they imagine this in a world where things do not go to plan. As a result, they expect to generate the breakthrough thinking that enables the not-yet-possible (I do not like the word impossible)
Ben Wales is a coach to entrepreneurial CEOs and their senior teams and author of forthcoming book ‘Is This A Question?‘. Originally a rocket scientist for the UK’s equivalent of NASA, Ben pivoted into a 19-year career running and growing start-up and scale-up companies in entrepreneurial hotspots London and Stockholm. Today, in his coaching practice, Ben focuses on individual and team high performance. Learn more at benwales.com or Ask Ben.