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What Makes a High Performing Team?

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This event, kindly hosted by AirBus at Pegasus House, Filton on Wednesday 18th April 2018, looked at what makes a high-performance team. Rob Blakemore, secretary for the People SIG, shared his experience from the Home Office, and the SIG’s views of team work.

Rob introduced the topic and outlined the work of the People SIG before discussing what a team is. The BoK defines teamwork is a group of people working in collaboration or co-operation towards a common goal.

Characteristics of a team include trust and rapport: Once formed the team the project manager should move away from initial ‘command and control’. As soon as possible, the team should be empowered to plan and find the best means of making progress quickly as appropriate to their knowledge and functional skills. Contemporary projects are often too complex to do otherwise. The team must share the same values to achieve a common understanding of what is required, and how team members should support each other to ensure project benefits are delivered. Leadership must be visible and active, and shared throughout the team. Teams must be resilient to be able to cope with changes and in the case of public servants, ‘media bashing’. Leadership should be very much focussed on building and maintaining resilience and removing unnecessary complexity and obstacles, as well as keeping the focus on the next delivery milestones.

Teams need a mix of different skills and personalities to be successful, a team full of Belbin “completer finishersp are unlikely to succeed. Diversity provides a wider range of perspectives on delivery problems and potentially better outcomes to problem solving. Teams are often made up of a core team who are supported by ‘temporary’ functional experts used to address specific tasks or phases. Investment is required to ‘induct’ these staff into the shared values of the team, and how they should work with other team members. Rob then led a discussion with the audience about what makes a high performing team, which highlighted the need for a clear understanding of what is expected for the current delivery phase, even as project contextual circumstances change.

Organisation context and values have a big influence on team performance. Rob used the Home Office project delivery profession as a case study to explore some of the issues. Performance reporting has been totally changed, there is a monthly mentoring meeting with staff which looks at personal wellbeing as well as coaching for performance, which helps ensure issues are raised and managed early. A culture of pride in delivery results; feeling valued; being courageous; and connectivity is fostered for project teams.

Agile is increasingly used for some work-packages in project delivery as projects increasingly involve business change as well as an IT delivery element and new technical capability tends to be delivered incrementally. Agile teams have to deal with different project governance and higher levels of risk tolerance, and project staff may need to be reminded of this as they move from ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ work-package delivery, and back again. Planning is more regular and visual, with daily stand ups during sprints, using planning walls and post it notes to visualise progress and problems. Rob led a discussion about the challenges of working in an agile team. The team has to recognise that senior staff and politicians do not always understand the realities of uncertain scope and higher risk, and the need to spend project time managing expectations and educating the user on what can be initially delivered in the available time, with the available budget, given the delivery challenges experienced.

Understanding and managing team dynamics is important. Individual and team motivation depends on a wide variety of factors, people can be motivated if they are in a role that matches their personality type. A Belbin analysis is useful for the team and individual to understand their role preferences, but also to best map individuals to the project roles required for that phase of delivery. A complementary balance of Belbin team types is essential, agile projects need more ‘plants’, ‘team workers’ and ‘shapers’ for instance. Communication from leaders needs to engage effectively with the team to maintain motivation, and recognition of David Rock’s five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, (SCARF) is likely to give better outcomes.

Typically, high performing teams seek further challenge and push for higher performance goals and higher performance of each other, encourage appropriate risk taking and to try new methods of problem solving, being creative and bringing in learning from elsewhere, and continue to seek to help each other work together to solve problems. Teams are not high performing simply by having a common goal. Teams need to be maintained and challenged to improve, both from within, and by organisational and stakeholder leaders. Common team building activities include both formal and informal team building events / away days, brain storming, workshops and joint problem solving.

High performing teams can be challenged and possibly set back by life cycle changes, which upset team dynamics. Skills audits and reworking team member responsibilities and roles may be needed – as can moving staff out and bringing new staff in to deal with the next work phase career and personal aspirations can be problematic, if these are not being met, which reduces motivation. With larger teams it is usually more difficult to maintain the desired ethos because of sub-teams, and more effort may be needed by deputy/divisional-team leaders.

Team work is built on trust, and can be stalled by mismanaged conflict, by change overload, team members being too quiet, which can signal disengagement, resentment or misbehaviour and over dependency on the team leader to direct, resolve or manage these issues.

In summary, a high performing team is built around people who are both individually successful and willing and able to work as good team players. The project leader must understand what motivates people in his or her delivery context, and to be able to create a supportive, empowering culture within which the team can grow and thrive.

The presentation is also available on the APM Slideshare page.

Martin Gosden
SWWE branch Chairman


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