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Building High Performing Teams: Putting the I Back in Teamwork

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Ever watched a really brilliant idea meet with resistance and die? Or been involved in the battle of wills created when two people (or two departments) meet head on with their independent agendas? Equally painful perhaps, have you ever sat through one tireless and non-productive meeting after the next? Believe it or not these issues are simply different sides of the same coin. Getting the right people talking together effectively and generating desirable outcomes is what high performance teamwork is all about. And it doesn't just happen. Think creatively about how to empower teams and reap the rich benefits of people's collective wisdom.

"Dilbert, Put together a team to decide who'll be on the strategy council," his boss tells him. "You want me to form a committee to create a committee that will produce a document that will be ignored?" Dilbert responds. "No, it's a team to create a council," his boss tries to clarify. But one of Dilbert's colleagues knowingly jumps in to ask, "Can I be on the team that ignores the document?" Ah, the team experience: there's nothing quite like it!

Words of wit and wisdom often remind us that if we want something to die, send it to committee. Yet, if so many have endured the insanity of the process and the frustration of the outcome, why do we continue creating teams? After all, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over expecting different results.

I would contend that we continue to create teams for two very rock solid reasons. First, people only support what they help to create. If they're not involved in the process it doesn't matter how brilliant the strategy or product, it's doomed to fail--or at very least gasp and struggle to survive amid a sea of resistance.

Secondly, processes and goods that are created without the benefit of all stakeholders' perspectives will almost always lack some genuinely needed shaping. For those involved, whatever is produced may appear flawless, but that's only because they lack the vantage point of the missing team players--and they don't know what they don't know. The bottom line? Active participation and diverse opinions are important ingredients in both the development and the implementation of nearly anything that is going to be more immediately successful--and at some level we all know this.

Unfortunately, for all of their value, we still struggle to figure out how to get the buy-in and collaborative wisdom we're seeking. Our dilemma is so great that involvement with teams has led many to adopt the mantras of our day: "I'd rather do it myself!" and "Not another stupid, meaningless meeting!" So how do we reap the benefits we know are there without making ourselves crazy in the process?

Contrary to the popular teachings of the day, and perhaps even counter-intuitively, my observations and involvement with teams have taught me that a team's effectiveness comes from an appropriate dose of "I"--creating the space and invitation for individual voices and perspectives to be heard and explored. I emphasize the word "appropriate" because, as any chef will tell you, too much or too little of a key ingredient will always spoil or alter the intended outcome. Consider the swing of the pendulum to an extreme in either direction. Too much "I" results in endless battles of ego, an exhausting process that produces inferior or no results.

Yet those who adhere to the admonition that "there is no 'I' in team" are beginning to recognize that without strong, creative, divergent, and independent voices (especially early in the process), meetings are frustratingly fruitless. Striking that all-important middle ground is imperative to success. Strong teams begin with strong membership and build from there. Managing these strong teams requires deliberate preparation and excellent facilitation.

How do you create a high performance team?

Start with a clear and compelling purpose ? A powerful mission is more than a goal. It is the broader sense of purpose that supplies meaning and the emotional energy people need to make their involvement on a team a priority.

Establish specific goals (collectively when possible) ? To maintain ongoing energy the team will need to be able to track their progress. Well-stated goals invite members to focus their efforts, provide leverage for actionable strategy, and serve as mile markers that clearly communicate that the valuable time they are investing in the process is producing a desired outcome.

Ensure that team members feel like vital participants ? Telling people that they are important to the process isn't enough. Get the right people gathered for the task and then be attentive to inviting every voice forth. Members must feel heard and see their ideas contributing to the end product/s produced.

Have effective facilitation and shared agreements about process ? Effective teams need effective facilitation. Whether that role is assigned to a team leader, is undertaken by a company executive, or is contracted to a professional facilitator, the entire team needs to make some decisions about how meetings will be conducted and decisions made. The facilitator must then be able to orchestrate the many voices accordingly--managing but not getting enmeshed in the process.

Encourage different points of view ? In order for each voice to be vital, it must also be unique. Rather than getting frustrated by differences or simply tolerating them, high performance teams count on them. When the various ideas emerge, each is explored fully before it is compared or disregarded. The group seeks synergy, a higher level of idea formulation, without resorting needlessly to the diminished returns that compromises often reflect.

Acknowledge conflict and resolve it within the group ? Dynamic tension is a wonderful catalyst for brilliant ideas. Exceptional teams create space for keeping dissenting views or intense feelings within the group process. When there is "an elephant" in the room, the group talks about it and makes decisions about what to do with it.

Supportively confront members when necessary ? As people with very distinct perspectives or different roles within an organization come together, teams of excellence ensure that there is no tolerance for finger pointing, inflammatory accusations, or the shirking of responsibility. With the support of the facilitator, constructive probing and clean, direct communication ensure that all issues are addressed thoroughly and respectfully.

Manage time well (with some allotted for laughter!) ? Start and stop meetings on time. At the beginning of each meeting be clear about what is to be accomplished and manage the flow accordingly--always with an appreciation that some of a team's best work often emerges after a good laugh! Before dispersing, summarize what has been accomplished, clarify with members the tasks each has agreed to undertake following the meeting, and establish what happens next for the team.

Expect an outcome without controlling the outcome ? Although a team's purpose and goals provide direction, specific outcomes must not be prescribed. It is one thing to develop a cross functional team with the intent of creating a seamlessness between departments, but in the design stages it is important that no assumptions be made about exactly how the team will achieve that goal. High performance teams are about an unleashing of creativity. Honoring and acting upon that creativity is the fuel needed to ensure ongoing productivity and commitment to the process.


High performance teams are high-energy, collaborative process groups. Never could they be mistaken for informational meetings or as groups waiting for their marching orders! They are the playground and work center for capable people with strong, respectful voices who understand and appreciate the power of aligning diverse perspectives. When designed and facilitated effectively, there is no need for hype or outside motivation, the team process is intrinsically rewarding for all members and the results produced are far superior to what any one individual could possibly generate.

Susan J. Schutz founded Highest Vision in 1999. Highest Vision services ? executive coaching, leadership development, and team building -- reflect her deep conviction that professionals can be attentive to their "bottom lines" while also creating lives worth living and businesses that contribute to the good of all. For a free subscription to VantagePoint, Highest Vision's free E-zine for trailblazers in life and business, go to

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