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Performance Design: 4 Mistaken Beliefs that Hold Teams Back

Is your project team setup for success? Well, there is a powerful way of finding out. The answer to the following 7 questions will reveal how effectively your team is set-up for peak performance. 

     Absolutely Disagree = 1,
Absolutely Agree = 5
Do you have the right people?1     2     3     4     5
Are those people in the right roles?1     2     3     4     5
Are they doing the right work?1     2     3     4     5
Are they working together in the right way?1     2     3     4     5
Have they got the right resources (information, tools, etc.)?1     2     3     4     5
Are they motivated with the right rewards/incentives?1     2     3     4     5
Is the team focused on /delivering the right results?1     2     3     4     5

Add up your scores in answer to the questions above. If your project or project team scored less than 21 above it will be almost impossible to boost performance, agility or innovation until these factors are addressed.

The Ultimate Performance Lever

The 7 factors (right people, right role, etc. as shown above) relate to the set-up or structure of a team and are collectively called ‘Performance Design”. Fancy title aside, this is one of the most powerful levers of performance for any project team.

Moreover, as the team can account for more than 50% of the KSFs and risks of any project or initiative, ‘design’ is not just a powerful lever of team performance, but of project success too.

The 7 factors labelled ‘Design’ have great power. Because, as the argument goes, if a team is set up right, it can sort out most other problems by itself. Those include the most complex problems surrounding any project or initiative.

Most performance losses are in some way related to one or more of the 7 design factors at the top of the model. In this way, Performance Design could be considered the ‘Origin of the Species’. Indeed, some see it as an organizational panacea (or universal remedy) for all issues related to performance.

If performance design is such a powerful performance lever, why isn’t every leader pulling it? Well, there are a series of mistaken beliefs that get in the way.

Mistaken Belief No. 1:

Great Individuals Make Great Teams, Naturally!

Many teams evolve with limited thought and planning as to the requirements for team performance.  Managers carefully hire or select people (often at considerable cost) to join a team.  Chosen, based on their past achievements as individuals, they are put working with other similarly talented people. What happens next?  Well, in most cases that is left to chance! 

The expectation is that if the ‘right people’ are selected they will naturally perform as a team.  More often than not, the result is disappointment for all involved. Attention immediately turns to the interpersonal relations or cultural dynamics, but the root cause (i.e. poor design) is typically overlooked.

Individual and team performance are two very different things. Yet, experts will argue that most leaders and their organizations are ‘functionally blind’ to teams1. That they don’t know how many high performing teams they have or what makes them perform. Conversely, they don’t know the number of struggling teams, or even the difference between a group and a team.

No mater how exciting the project, there is more to performance than simply bringing a group of capable individuals together and calling them a team.  Even if you get the right people on the team, that is only one of a total of seven considerations in designing for team performance.  Those people must be in the right roles, doing the right work and working towards the achievement of the right results.  That is what designing to deliver high performance is all about.

Mistaken Belief No. 2:

It is either ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’

When it comes to having the right people in the right roles, doing the right work and so on, managers often think in absolute terms. Either it is the right or it is not. It is a very black and white view of design, whereas the reality for many work situations is a shade of grey.

We often say design is a ‘dial’ not a ‘switch’.  In other words, ‘getting it right’ in respect of people, roles, ways of working etc. is not binary (i.e. right or wrong), but rather a matter of degrees. You need to continually adjust the dial to get the result that you want – adjusting it as situations change throughout the life of a team, project or initiative.

So your team may be 68% right people and 61% right roles and 65% right work. All these are framed in the context of 67% for right results. The most important question is where to find the next 3%, 5% or 15% in any of these areas. Some answers might include:

  • Right People – second a new person to the team who can bring new skills/perspectives/diversity
  • Right Roles – clarify roles to reduce the level of role overlap and conflict
  • Right Work – a new approach to the prioritization and sequencing of work, that better reflects shifting priorities / needs
  • Right Way – end team and project meetings with a reflection on how effectively the team is working for its members

Rather than sweeping changes to personnel, to job titles or roles, it is about making the best of what you have.  It is about realizing marginal gains by optimizing or refining how people work together.  However, a small improvement, even 2 or 3% on a few of these factors can have a major cumulative effect.

Mistaken Belief No. 3:

It is Outside Our Control

Right people in the Right Roles, etc. may seem like an idealistic view of a project team.  Leaders often say: ‘Well of course, if we had the right people in the right roles and all those things that would be wonderful, but we don’t!  We have the people, resources and rewards that are given! Moreover, the results we must achieve and the work that must be done has already been determined’. In this way team set-up and design is a given or a fixed variable.

Above the 7 Design Factors are shown as part of the Pitstop Meta-model – the locks show the factors managers see as outside their control (red is no control, amber is limited control).

Many executives feel disempowered to do anything about many of the 7 factors labelled ‘design’.  This robs them of the ability to use one of the most powerful levers of project success. But they need not feel straight-jacketed this way!

Executives have more control than they think over the set-up of their team and the organization of their work. They can be creative within any given structure, tweaking and adapting how they work: 

  • People can find the best roles for team members and ensure that people ‘play to their strengths’.  This can be done without re-drawing the organizational chart or changing job titles.
  • They can prioritize and allocate work in the most efficient way possible, so as to meet the deadlines and deliverables expected of them. 
  • They can find the best way of working together as a team, without having to re-shape the culture or norms of the organization.
  • Experiment with new approaches as well as new processes and tools, without calling on the corporate IT department for help2.
  • Be agile and responsive to change, tweaking the plan to reflect changing conditions and greater knowledge. 
  • They can continually review what is working and what is not, thereby adapting the approach to get the best results.

The concept of a team taking control over how it does its work is nothing new.  It has been around for more than 60 years, coming under a variety of impressive-sounding labels including Sociotechnical Systems (STS), Self-Managed Teams (SMT), High-Performance Work Systems (HPWS) and more recently Agile Teams.  So, if the idea is so old, why are we still talking about it?  Who is that still needs to be convinced?

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Mistaken Belief No. 4:

Teams Don’t Have Enough Autonomy

Even without approval from the top of the organization, there is a lot that team members can do to optimize how they work. With autonomy, they can of course do a lot more, however, most teams don’t take advantage of the potential freedom that they have.

Most of the everyday improvements that team’s might want to make to how they organize and structure their work are already within their grasp. Without getting approval, most teams can optimize how they:

  • Organize, prioritize and allocate their work
  • Meet to discuss or review the work
  • Interact in doing the work
  • Shape how the team and its work is seen by the outside world
  • Interact with the rest of the organization – presenting a united front and a consistent message to stakeholders
  • Tackle many of the impediments or frustrations that they face in getting the work done.
  • Optimize the environment that they are working in.

Most important of all, team members get to determine how much of their talent, creativity and skill they bring to their work. They also have the power to find the best way to:

  • Bring out the best in each other
  • Leverage and develop each other’s unique talents, interests and skills
  • Live the values and norms that they espouse
  • Foster an environment that is supportive, promotes growth, drives performance and sustains well-being.
  • Support each other in tackling the inevitable pressures and stresses of work
  • More courageously address issues of conflict and tension when they arise.

As the above list suggests, there is a lot that a team can do. The first step is to for teams to realize that they have the power.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” 
Alice Walker

The set-up of the team is best done by those who are closest to the work. Those who have designed the organizational chart or are to be found at the top of it, are typically too far removed to understand the best way of organizing a team to drive a project or to best leverage the talent and skill of its people.

Setting a team up for success is more DIY, than organizational re-structure.  When it comes to optimizing a team, the advice is: Do It Yourself.  That means empowering those charged with doing the work to organize themselves in the most efficient manner possible. The end-result is that people are not just more effective, but more motivated too. Indeed, you could argue that anything else is micro-managing.

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Mistaken Belief No. 5:

Cogs in the Machine

The concept of ‘Performance Design’ is not a Tayloristic ‘cogs in a machine’ view of work, but rather the very opposite.  It is about empowering people to create the optimal environment for their work.

The dividend from optimizing design or ways of working is a dual one – it promises improved vitality (another term for wellbeing) as well as performance. It should enable people to bring more of themselves to their work and to get more from their work in return, creating a work environment where people can:

  • Be the best version of themselves
  • Bring out the best in each other
  • Leverage their unique talents and skills
  • Learn, develop and grow.

  1. See Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall, Nine Lies about Work; Harvard Business Review Press, 2019 []
  2. For example, thanks to software as a service all it takes to avail of the latest productivity tools is a monthly subscription rather than a capital investment spend []

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