Clients often come to us asking how they can create high performance teams that are sustainable. They want a performance culture that continues to hit new goals month after month and year after year. They often look to winning teams in the world of sports and ask, ‘why can’t we deliver that sort of consistent high performance?’ The problem is burn out, and the critical element they miss in their sports team analogies is that not everyone sprints all the time. To create the breakthrough results they want, and to deliver them continuously, requires a reset and change in focus. Aiming for performance alone is the problem. Instead, we work with clients to create cultures of vitality that create energy and collaboration that allow everyone to bring their best selves to work every day and play their best game every time.
Creating vitality is about more than wellness. The wellness revolution in the office and across organisations is very welcome, but it is, essentially, a response to the problems caused by over-focussing on performance. In many cases it is a sticking-plaster solution that treats the side-effects of performance cultures without addressing the cause. Performance cultures are all about doing; and doing more. Key Performance Indicators – the ubiquitous KPIs – measure work done, budgets hit, sales made – the tangible outputs of work. Performance cultures idolise processes, measures and efficiencies that can improve results. These things are all important, but turning the dial too far on these indictors obscures the critical perspectives of ‘why?’ As zeitgeist commentator Maria Popova memorably put it “The cult of productivity has its place but worshipping at the altar, daily, robs us of the very capacity, joy and wonder that makes life worth living.”
Speaking at a recent Corporate Research Forum event I was lucky enough to hear Stephen Carver’s exciting exploration of the difference between culture at NASA and SpaceX. For many years, NASA was the epitome of a high-performance organisation. Set an impossible task by JFKs bold declaration to put a man on the Moon within the decade, NASA created perhaps the largest ever team of world-leading experts across disciplines to collaborate, innovate and challenge themselves to deliver on this ambition. And as we know they were successful. But it could not maintain that high performance. Without a shared possible future beyond putting man on the moon, systems and processes replaced innovation and purpose. The organisation lost its vitality and self-renewing energy.
By contrast, Carver suggests, Space X today demonstrates many of the qualities of vitality NASA once had. It has set a bold and exciting goal – to make humanity multi-planetary, without the obvious means to achieve it. But Elon Musk has created a diverse team that are aligned and motivated by this common future. Science and safety still predominate, and there are plenty of processes and KPIs – but there is also fun, and a willingness to try, fall and learn. People are committed to Space X in a way they no longer are to NASA.
But what do these two examples provide in terms of actionable insights. How can businesses create vitality cultures that self-renew and constantly feed energy back into the system? The first step is a fundamental rethink of what we mean by performance. When we watch the sports teams and athletes we revere we are seeing them at the pinnacle of their game. Afterwards they rest and recuperate – and critically let other members of the team step in to deliver their best work. Physios, nutritionists, tacticians and coaches pick up the baton and play their best game to prepare the athlete for their next win. In business, too often, we expect everyone to sprint all the time. Rather than collaborate to all deliver their best work when its most needed, teams often end up competing to deliver everything, all the time, tripping each other in the process. A vitality culture rewards the team as a whole and acknowledges the role of every player. It’s a collaboration with an ebb and flow that gives every individual the space and the opportunity to be their best selves in service of a common goal.
Boldly declaring a future state is another key requirement. Leaders must clearly paint the picture of the future they want and put themselves at stake to occupy that space. In doing so, they must tune into the little voices of their teams so that future resonates with the team’s values. JFK staked his presidency on winning the space race, and he leant into the American people’s desire to beat the Russians in doing so.
Be clear about what you measure and what you reward. One of the vitality destroying elements at NASA, according to Carver, was a culture that only prompted those that agreed with the boss. It is important to reward those that bring new ideas, who try new approaches, even if they fail, and who challenge assumptions and accepted thinking. Create diverse teams, and critically, let them bring that diversity to work every day and exercise it in pursuit of your boldly declared future.
We talk about the tripod of accomplishment, and it is important that each leg is fully supported all the time. Of course, results are important, but they cannot stand alone. Equal weight must be given to growth and fulfilment. Vital teams allow individuals to bring their whole selves to work every day and motivate them with work that is fulfilling and aligned with their own values, and through which they can witness their own development as human beings.
Measuring progress is important, but measures that get to the heart of how a team is ‘being’ are just as important as those that measure what it is ‘doing.’ Key Vitality Measures – KVIs, could sit alongside KPIs to help maintain environments that create and release energy. They could include the extent to which individuals felt listened to, the strength of their understanding of their role in creating the team’s collective future, their comfort in ‘being themselves’ in the workplace. To be effective these KVIs need to become more than annual staff engagement measures, but central to how individuals are recognised and rewarded and how overall success is measured.
High performance is the output of vitality. Vital cultures align diverse teams behind bold declarations to deliver fulfilling work. Fulfilling work drives growth and is fun. Fun work creates more engagement and individuals work better, contribute more, and deliver better results. So, work on building the vitality of your team and consistent, sustainable high performance will be the result.
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