Every business wants high-performing teams. They are seen as the vital edge that can help organisations to thrive in today’s volatile landscape. Leaders striving to do more with less whilst hitting ever higher targets see a high-performance culture as critical to their success. Conventional wisdom presents high-performing teams as the essential ingredient for sparking innovation, exploring new opportunities and delivering outstanding performance year on year.
Yet, the evidence of high-performing teams in action is harder to find. Even after bringing together top performers from across disciplines, within and outside the organisation, few see the expected results. Even those that see a significant uptick in results often find it hard to repeat. In many cases, the inevitable tension between the potential of bold moves by high flyers and the security of predictable performance is resolved in favour of the latter. So, what is the magic formula for creating and maintaining high performance? What makes up a high-performing team, and how do you assemble the elements?
There is no secret formula
At Achieve Breakthrough our view is that there is no secret formula or single model for high performance. More radically, we see creating a high-performance team not as the initial input to success, but as a significant output produced by, and inextricably linked to, several other critical elements. Together these create a sort of anti-formula, a concoction that has the potential to deliver breakthrough results and high-performing teams simultaneously. High-performance teams are an emergent characteristic of this success, not a precursor to it. So instead of worrying about assembling the right skills and experience among individuals, leaders should focus on creating the context in which individuals play to their strengths and evolve into a sustainable high-performance team.
Find the Right Challenge: the Team will Follow
It is common for leaders to bemoan the fact that they neither have nor can find the right people with the right skills to meet the challenges they and the organisation face. But when pushed, can they clearly articulate precisely what that challenge is? Exhorting people to work harder without a clear goal is unlikely to encourage them to do their finest work. Instead of hesitating and missing opportunities whilst they try to assemble the perfect team, leaders should outline a bold audacious challenge to galvanise the people they have. Identifying, and clearly describing the right challenge is the key to unlocking high performance.
It must be big. Incremental change does not excite whereas seemingly impossible goals stimulate new ways of thinking and working. The best challenges are expressed as a vision of a potential future that you want to bring into existence. Think of President Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the Moon within a decade. Within a business context, it could be doubling revenues and profits, entering new markets, or disrupting markets by meeting as yet unrealised needs. These potential futures allow individuals to connect to deeply held values and desires to be part of something worthwhile and important. Elon Musk’s goal is to reach Mars within his lifetime, and those that work for him, in whatever capacity and across all his businesses, know they are playing their part in achieving that vision.
Value and Purpose Aligned
Whether internal or external, selected or thrust upon you, clearly articulating a breakthrough challenge is the catalyst that creates a high-performance team. As the COVID-19 virus created a global pandemic in early 2020, the race was on to find a viable vaccine as fast as possible. In the UK the partnership between Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and UK big pharma company AstraZeneca aligned behind a single ‘impossible’ goal. They committed to developing an effective vaccine suitable for worldwide use, in less than 12 months, and delivered on a ‘not-for-profit’ basis.
This was not the way big pharma typically worked – but for teams at AstraZeneca in particular it provided the clearing in which innovation, inspiration and new ways of working could thrive. Inhabiting this shared possible future allowed individuals to step outside of the day-to-day context and challenge assumptions, experiment and collaborate to bring it into existence. The effort created high-performing teams overnight. Crucially it was the shared challenge, the deep connection to personal values and to the corporate purpose to bring life-changing medicines to people across the globe, that galvanised existing teams to deliver this breakthrough performance. The result, as we all know was accelerated vaccine development, trials and testing delivered in months!
Declare Your Future
Defining and clearly describing a vision of a possible future that you need your team to bring to existence is the first step. But to be credible, and to build commitment, you, as a leader, need to demonstrate your complete dedication to your vision. This starts with a bold declaration of commitment to that future. Not just to the team and your direct reports, but publicly across the whole business. There can be no parallel path, safety net, or business-as-usual plan in case things don’t work out. To unleash breakthrough performance a leader must fully inhabit the potential future they have created.
This means putting everything, including their reputation, role, future prospects and even themselves personally at stake. Playing ‘all in’ inspires teams to do the same. Only when competing commitments are put aside can teams find the clearings in which new approaches, ways of working, thinking and being can develop in pursuit of that publicly declared goal.
Be cognisant of competing ‘symbols’ within the organisation. Declared commitment to a bold (and risky) possible future can be quickly undone if, for instance, bonuses are tied to business-as-usual KPIs. Innovation can be squashed by bureaucratic sign-off procedures. Expectations of ‘how things are done around here,’ can constrain imagination and self-limit permissions to do things differently. Leaders must directly and clearly challenge all these assumptions to free teams to perform.
Breakthrough performance can start with a single person. Those that have the bravery, confidence and belief in their possible future, and who are willing to declare it to the world, can start movements which bring those futures into existence.
Fully Inhabit Your Possible Future
A quarter of a century ago NASA received over 1,170 applications in response to its call for proposals as to what to include in its planned deep space telescope programme. One was from Scottish astronomer Professor Gillian Wright who asked to include a specialised mid-infrared sensor on the new array. She did not know what it would reveal at the time, or even if it could be created. But she was committed to a possible future in which humans could peer through the dust that obscured most of the galaxy from existing telescopes including the, then cutting-edge, Hubble space telescope.
Fully inhabiting this possible future, Professor Wright not only persuaded NASA to include the yet-to-be-invented sensor with unproven utility but galvanised a team to bring it to life. Over the next two decades, her team overcame countless setbacks to devise, build, test and deliver the ‘Miri’ sensor and ensure that it was integrated into the wider space platform and successfully launched.
Only when the James Webb Space Telescope sent back its first images in July 2022 could the team know that their commitment to this audacious goal had paid off. The visually stunning and scientifically invaluable images captured with the help of the Miri sensor are a testament to the power of a big idea to create and sustain a high-performance team.
Always be On-Boarding
Success breeds success as they say. People are attracted to bold visions and want to be part of things that have value, but they also want to know that they are winning. Not everyone will come on board immediately. There will be some that need convincing. Effective and continuous on-boarding is essential to sustainable high performance. Leaders need to listen closely to their own inner voices, and the spoken and unspoken concerns of their teams. This includes inevitable and natural scepticism and resistance. Will the risk pay off, does this future really align with my personal values and motivations?
Early wins are important to overcome this reticence. When people see things happen, when stepping outside of the tried and tested to experiment and explore is shown to bear fruit, more people will join the movement. Some may never commit, and there will be times when teams need pruning, but some just take longer and leaders need to make time and space to bring people in as and when they are ready.
This is diversity and inclusion in its purest form. For any movement to be successful it must unite a broad range of personalities, backgrounds, beliefs and abilities. The common thread is the commitment to the shared potential future. Individuals will come to that commitment in their own ways bringing their own experience, insights and expertise. A sustainable high-performance team is created by an environment in which they can all bring their whole selves to bear on the challenge.
We talk about vitality in this context: how to maintain performance, and keep individuals fresh and motivated so that they don’t just hit the first target, but are hungry for the next and subsequent ‘impossible’ goals. Vitality thrives where individuals participate in work that delivers results whilst being fulfilling and aligned with their own values, and through which they can witness their own development as human beings. A shared commitment to a common possible future is the foundation upon which this tripod of accomplishment rests.
But high performance is not all about success. As well as celebrating wins leaders must actively seek out breakdowns. This may seem counterintuitive. No one likes setbacks and both individuals and organisations are pre-programmed to avoid risk. But to achieve breakthrough results leaders must not only face up to difficulties but actively embrace breakdowns as ways to build momentum.
Putting aside ‘winning moves’ in favour of experimentation means, by default, less predictability, more risk and more opportunities to fall. But each of those is also an opportunity to learn, to try new approaches and to innovate. Leaders should seek out breakdowns as moments to explore what’s needed and what’s missing to move forward. Clear-sighted, fact-based examination of what caused a breakdown stimulates teams to find new solutions rather than aimlessly repeat out-of-date routines. By proactively calling out breakdowns and authentically engaging the team to ask, ‘How might we...?’ leaders involve them in high-possibility conversations that unearth potential solutions and unleash creativity in formulating answers. By deliberately and directly addressing breakdowns, leaders build the energy, momentum and commitment of high-performance teams.
The anti-formula for success
There is no single recipe for the creation and sustenance of high-performing teams. Individual circumstance and context will define the way individual ingredients interact and the results they deliver. Commitment, resilience and courage will always be necessary. But in lieu of any magic formulas, the constituent elements outlined here should be seen as reagents that mixed correctly can allow high-performance teams to evolve. To recap those key elements:
High-performing teams are essential for success, but they are the emergent quality of a declared commitment to a bold and inspiring possible future. They don’t occur by accident, and they need to be constantly nurtured. Having a high-performance team is neither a goal in itself nor a one-time achievement. Leaders must become master alchemists capable of constantly recombining the elements above in ways that work for them and their organisations. Finding, articulating and declaring a commitment to a specific challenge is just the first step.
Achieve more breakthroughs. Get expert leadership ideas, insights and advice straight to your inbox every Saturday, as well as the occasional bit of news on us, such as offers and invitations to participate in things like events, webinars and surveys. Read. Lead. Breakthrough.