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Critical Teams: What is Peak Performance?

There is much talk of ‘Peak Performance’. But what exactly does it mean? When managers say they want ‘peak performance’ from their teams, what specifically do they expect to see? Moreover, what do they need to do to make such ‘peak performance’ possible? These can be difficult questions to answer. 

Looking for an actionable definition of ‘peak performance’ and a model to enable your teams to move in the direction of it? If yes, then this is a great place to start. The objective is to help you to realize the full potential of your team.

Performing in The 75% Zone

When a business unit or team is operating at 75% or more of its ‘full’ potential we describe it as being ‘in the zone’ or more specifically ‘in the Zone of Peak Performance™’. This requires some further explanation – in particular those with curious minds will ask:

  • What is meant by ‘full’ potential? 
  • Why the figure of 75%?

Let’s answer each of these questions in turn.

(a) What is meant by full potential? 

That is a great question, to which the one-line answer is; ‘that’s what the individual, unit or team is capable of’. Answering the BIG question requires making a judgment as to what your team and its members are capable of.  It also requires considering obstacles and constraints both internal and external, imagined and real. To take a motor racing example, there is no point in having a Ferrari and driving it at 61 km/hr.  If on the other hand, it is a smart car you are driving, then 61km/hr may be a fine speed and near to the car’s full potential. 

(b) Why the figure of 75%? 

Some people are surprised that the Zone of Peak Performance™ starts at just 75% – for them this seems under-ambitious. Well, as one member of the pitstop partner community argues – an individual or team can never achieve 100%.  As an experienced leadership coach, he encourages leaders to aim for a more realistic 80% or 90% and suggests (with sustainability in mind) that individuals and teams can only expect to operate at those levels 80-90% of the time.  That is interesting because if you do the math, operating at 90% for 80% of the time would equate to an overall performance level of 72%.  Hence, the P2P Metric™ of 75%+ is a realistic and yet challenging threshold for the Zone of Peak Performance™.

The Zone of Peak Performance™ is also the zone of peak potential. In the 75%+ Zone team members are fully engaged in their work, leveraging their talents and skills, and bringing out the best in each other. Here people are performing at the top of their game’ or to the fullest of their potential. Team members are bringing more of themselves to their work and getting more from their work in return. They are not just helping the organization to achieve its goals but (in the process) are maximizing their own learning, development and growth. Sustained peak performance is not possible if people are performing at the top of their game
the person and the team are not thriving too.

Performing at the Limit

Technically speaking a F1™ racing car is capable of speeds in excess of 400 km/ph.  However, cars can only perform at a fraction of their potential velocity due to safety regulations, track conditions, driver skill and of course the requirements of maintaining traction while accelerating around sharp corners.  As seasoned race champion Ross Bentley points out the job description for the professional race driver is a simple one: “to drive the car at the limit, no more no less.”1  The reality for race drivers, as well as executives, is that there is always some limit and it is these limits that test the driver, car and team.  

You have to have an inbuilt need to push the car to the limit and the fearlessness that comes with it.
Jenson Button2

Performing in The 75% zone

The 75%+ Zone is the zenith of performance.  It is the equivalent of ‘Formula One™’ in motor racing – competitive, innovative and driven by excellence.  But it is not for everybody, just the elite – those who are most passionate, disciplined and determined.  

Here are just some of the reasons why the Zone of Peak Performance™ is not a crowed space:

1. There is a high price to be paid for entry to the Peak Zone.  It demands real effort, discipline and sacrifice. It also requires trust, self-belief, risk-taking, pushing the limits and at times danger.  While this is the place for those obsessed with winning, it is paved with frustration, as well as ambition. Here the moments of celebration and self-satisfaction are often out-numbered by those of impatience, restlessness and frustration. Peak performance requires grit and the ability to make short term sacrifice for the prospect of longer term gain3.

2. It is difficult (if not impossible) to mandate or compel peak performance. Setting high standards / expectations is important, but for people to dig deep within themselves requires a passion-fueled commitment.  

3. This is a zone of heat, noise and friction.  Those who are ‘in the zone’ are demanding of themselves and others. They are often Type A personalities with high standards and impatience4. But their obsessive task focus can make them poor team players.

4. There is no standing still – sustaining peak performance is a challenge.  It requires continuous improvement and innovation, plus the ability to learn from mistakes.

5. The solo-run is common. In the race for progress other people are often left behind. For peak performers, the slow majority can be an obstacle to progress. To everybody else, peak performers can seem impatient, egotistical and selfish.

There are moments of peak performance within every team.  Instances when extraordinary discipline, creativity and perhaps even genius can be seen. In most cases these are fleeting, however. So much so that they often go unrecognized. The challenge is to have more of these peak moments, to appreciate, celebrate and reward them. Thereby encouraging people to spend more time ‘in the zone’ – making peak performance more a habit and mode of working, than an accident.  List some moments of peak performance you have recently witnessed.

6. Crashes and burnouts are common.  The peak zone doesn’t have a slow lane – those who are in it can find it difficult to relax and regularly flirt with burnout.  But performance and well-being are two sides of the same coin and in the long run you cannot have one without the other5.

Motor racing is a sport that brings people to the limit: men and machine…
Ayrton Senna6

The Normal Zone

When it comes to performance the norm is between 55% and 74%.  That is why it is called the Zone of Normal.

The Zone of Normal is a relatively safe place to be, surrounded on either side by danger – the risks associated with under-performance, as well as peak performance (e.g. burnout).  It could also be called the Comfort Zone – comfortable for all except high performers. This is the territory of the salon car – it is reliable, steady and comfortable. For more glamor or acceleration look elsewhere.

‘Everybody will tell you they are interested in performance’, says one member of the pitstop partner community, but he adds ‘in most cases it is just lip service’.  In his words ‘it is performance with a small ‘p’, rather than a capital ‘P’’.   ‘They are not prepared to stretch beyond the comfort zone – to ‘push the envelope’, or ‘rock the boat’ he adds.   In many cases the organization or team environment won’t reward it, it may not even allow it.

The Danger Zone

Where the P2P Metric™ falls below 55% an alarm bell should go off – warning the leader that something is seriously wrong and alerting him or her to danger.  Below 55% is what we call the ‘Zone of Danger’ with three of the eight members of the senior leadership team in our earlier example to be found there. 

Being in the ‘Danger Zone’ (26%-55%) is damaging to the well-being of the individual, as well as the business unit or team.  It can result in a downward spiral of confidence and motivation, as well as tension with the leader and conflict within the team.  Those in the zone are likely to be disengaged and may be at risk of leaving.  Furthermore, there is the risk of contagion outside the zone with poor performance and its associated behaviors often spreading throughout the group or team (( While the issue of performance often focuses on specific individuals who are either high performers and poor performers, we know today that individual performance cannot be separated from group performance.  While adding a high performer to a team can cause everybody to ‘raise their game’, a poor performer can have the reverse effect. ))

The Crisis Zone

The deeper a person is into the ‘Danger Zone’, the greater the cause for concern. The result is a crisis of confidence and motivation.  Importantly, there are likely to be consequences for the entire team, with many eyes focused on how the situation is handled (if at all). 

The Zone of Team

The Zone of Peak Performance™ is also the zone of peak potential.  It is where people are performing at ‘the top of their game’ or to the fullest of their potential. 

Of course, you can have individuals who are performing in the 75% zone, but the real challenge is to bring the team (or as much of the team as possible) into the Zone. 

Traditionally the focus has been on individual performance, with Peak Performance seen as the preserve of the organization’s most talented and driven – the so called ‘A Players’.

However, the heroic solo-run is not enough to meet the requirements of today’s more complex projects, strategies and initiatives.  That is because it often fosters internal competition ahead of collaboration.

Effective collaboration is essential to ‘making it happen’ – to delivering the level of speed and agility required in a time of accelerating change.  So, the Zone of Peak Performance is more accurately called the zone of collective and collaborative peak performance, or more simply the zone of peak team performance.  

Inserting the word ‘team’ is particularly important because crowds and groups (the latter often being mistaken for teams) have inherent limitations that deny them peak performance.  Most committees and working groups, if they are to achieve peak performance, must first become teams – typically that means becoming more focused in terms of purpose, numbers of people involved and the levels of interdependence among them.

Ironically, the challenge of enabling a team to realize peak performance is greatest for those teams composed of individual high performers.  That is because ‘A-players’ often find teamwork and collaboration most difficult.

Enabling a team to realize peak performance is much more complex than managing individual performance.  For a team to unlock its full potential, its people must be enabled to work together effectively. The Zone of Peak Team Performance is the ‘all for one and one for all zone’, as one of our consulting partners calls it.  The danger is that this belies the real challenges involved.

The team must succeed at leveraging the diverse talents and skills of its members, bring out the best in each other and deliver real synergy in terms of the quantity, quality or speed of its work. Otherwise, the costs of collaboration are likely to exceed the benefits, resulting in a type of performance losses that exclude most teams from the 75%+ Zone. 

The conditions that enable people to unlock 75%+ of their potential within teams are not common.  Indeed, our data suggest that fewer than one in twenty teams realize peak performance. So, it is something very special – an extraordinary level of collective performance.

  1. Bentley, R. ‘Speed Secrets: Professional Race Driving Techniques,’ Motorbooks, 1998. []
  2. Jenson Button,’Life to the Limit: My Autobiography’, Blink Publishing, 2017. []
  3. Angela Duckworth, ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, Vermillion, 2017.  []
  4. Managers with Type A personalities tend to be more competitive, stressed and time scarce – behaviors that leave them prone to coronary problems.  This Type A behavior (TAB) afflicts over three quarters of all urban American males.   See Meyer Friedman, ‘Type a Behavior: Its Diagnosis and Treatment, Springer Science & Business Media, 31 Oct 1996 – Medical. []
  5. Performance and well-being are ‘two sides of the same coin’ as pointed out in ‘Teams Don’t Work’ by Ray Collis & John O Gorman, ASG Group Press 2018 []
  6. Ayrton Senna quoted on http://www.f1-grandprix.com/?page_id=28278 []

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