How to Build a High Performing Team

Five core elements will determine how your team is structured and how they approach the work.

Ever since we’ve started leading organizations through change, one question has kept coming up: “How do you build an effective team?” This inevitably leads to further concerns, like:

  • How many people should be on the team?
  • What kind of expertise do we need?
  • What outcomes must we accomplish?
  • How will we prioritize?
  • What processes will we follow?
  • How will we work with other teams?
  • How will we share information?
  • How will we connect and create a sense of belonging?
  • How will we know we’re successful?

Whether you’re a well-established organization rethinking how teams must work in a hybrid or remote environment, or a startup officially launching a team for the first time, how you answer these questions will ultimately define how your team is structured, and how they do they work. We’ve put together a simple framework to help leaders think through the core elements of a team so you can set yours up for success.

The Anatomy of an Effective Team

A team is a group of people who will work together to reach a common goal. Of course, while it’s easy enough to define, putting it into practice is significantly more challenging! How do you get individuals to truly work “together,” so that the team is more than the sum of its parts? How do you align teams around a common goal, especially when so many cross-functional teams have competing priorities? We start by breaking down a team into five core elements:

  • Customers and Context: Whom we’ll serve
  • Strategies and Metrics: How we’ll serve them
  • Projects and Plans: What we’ll do
  • Roles and Domains: Who will do what
  • Policies and Process: How we’ll get along

Each of these elements are mediated through Rhythms and Tools: the meetings you attend and the tools you use to get work done as a team. Let’s look at each of these core elements in more detail.

Part I: Customers and Context 

Teams are dealing with more demands from more stakeholders than ever before, making it hard to prioritize goals and align around a clear strategy. So before we start any client engagement, the very first question that we ask the team is also the one that raises the most consternation: “Who is your customer?”

It’s our belief, reinforced by years of practice, that no team can exist without a customer—and by “customer,” we simply mean an explicit group who consumes the output of the team. This customer is often external (e.g., “people who buy our widgets”) but, for shared services teams like Finance and HR, it could be internal (e.g., “The Finance Department serves the internal teams who need to make smart financial decisions”). Note that calling another team a “customer” doesn’t necessarily define how you work with them: for instance, you might work in partnership with another team to achieve the organization’s goals. 

The better the understanding of who the team’s customer is and what they need, the greater the sense of clarity and purpose each team member feels. When you know whom you’re trying to help, it serves as a guiding principle, regardless of what else is going on in the market. It’s also especially relevant for a rapidly scaling team, as being customer-led is the most effective way to knit teams together in an expanding organization. 

Unfortunately, we’ve found that many teams never come to a consensus about who the customer is — or if they have more than one — and what they need to deliver. If you find your team is unclear about this core element, hold a brainstorm and ask:

  1. Who consumes the output of our daily work? Often, teams are quick to label their customer as an external audience, when in fact they are creating raw material that another team uses to interact with outside customers. This is especially true for companies with retail outlets or franchises; the main office rarely serves the final customer. 
  2. What do they need from us most, and why? After the customer has been identified, use Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to Be Done Framework to focus on their desired outcomes. For example, if you’re a data science team, don’t assume other teams want more data — they might just want to make better, faster decisions. That insight might change everything you do. If you’re not sure what they need, go on a listening tour of your most important customers to find out firsthand.
  3. When do we come together to assess our customers? Customers aren’t static—new needs will emerge over time, as well as completely new customers. That’s why we recommend reviewing their needs on a regular basis, such at the beginning of any new project, at a quarterly sensing session to determine what’s changing, or during a Project Retrospective, which allows the team to discuss how a project impacted the customer.

Part II: From Strategies and Metrics to Projects and Plans

One of the biggest problems any organization faces is managing through the middle: how do you cascade information so it becomes easier to execute against? Executive leadership might determine that the organization as a whole should prioritize speed or customer satisfaction, for instance, but what does that mean for a junior member of the Marketing department planning their workday? How does it help a busy Production team decide how to manage incoming (and often competing) requests?

Strategy can only be useful if it becomes more actionable as it moves through the organization. The further down the chain of command, the clearer and more tailored the strategy should become. One of our favorite tools for developing and sharing strategy is to use an “even over” statement: one that values one good choice over another, like “fast response time even over 100% accuracy.” But they’re not enough: as a leader, your role is to specify what this means for different levels and functions. A Junior Marketer, for instance, might need guidance to “send copy to a vendor within 48 hours even over a third round of editing” whereas the Production teams might need permission to  “Prioritize Project A needs even over Project B needs.”

This mindset—of adapting organization-wide strategies to each level and function—should similarly guide teams as they decide what projects and plans to work on. Given how quickly customer needs and market demands shift, we suggest planning in roughly three-month increments. Ask the team:

  1. What is our core work? Review your customers’ needs—the jobs to be done—to determine what work must be delivered above all else. Just as in Adaptive Planning, you may want to delineate work between “lights on”—the work that is essential to operating a business—and “bets”—new ideas that are aligned to strategic priorities and may deliver big results, but as of yet are untested. If these don’t align with the organization’s strategic priorities, interrogate further.
  2. What are the desired outcomes? Think about what the team hopes to achieve in terms of outcomes: that is, what will be different if you’re successful (e.g., increased market share growth, loyalty, recognition, etc.). Don’t get distracted by outputs, the “deliverables” that the business hopes will produce those outcomes (e.g., new features, ad campaigns, etc.). There may be many outputs that will help you achieve an outcome, and there’s rarely a clear, obvious path at the start.
  3. How can we measure our outcomes? Identify a few metrics or signals of progress; again, making sure you’re tracking outcomes, not outputs. This is also a good opportunity to check for alignment with organizational KPI’s or incentive structures. If people are rewarded —financially or otherwise—for different behaviors, you won’t get the traction you’re hoping for.
  4. What are our current projects across related teams? Now it’s time to think about the work itself. Compile project roadmaps and plans from teams focusing on similar outcomes. This will help avoid duplicating efforts, not to mention the possibility of forgetting a crucial element.
  5. How would we prioritize our plans based on what customers truly need? Ultimately, it’s up to the leaders to choose what to pursue, based on customers’ needs and the organization’s strategy: what work is most aligned with the stated trade-offs? Using variations on an Eisenhower matrix can help you visualize the work—but don’t forget, sometimes one the most impactful things you can do is to stop activities that aren’t adding value.

Every week during Planning meetings, teams should then review their work in light of their desired outcomes. Again, leaders should also use this time to reinforce the trade-offs the team should consider, and help individuals do the work that moves the organization forward.

Part III: Roles and Domains

Have you ever seen two outfielders run right into one another while trying to catch a fly ball? Unfortunately, that sort of collision happens on a daily basis inside most organizations. Without a clear understanding of one’s roles and responsibilities, the most ardent employee rushes to catch every fly ball. In contrast, an apathetic employee simply dismisses their responsibility because of a perceived overlap.

That’s why when forming a team, it’s so critical to not just determine roles and domains, but also how your work intersects with your colleagues’ work. What’s misaligned or missing? What support do you need to get your tasks done? What do they need from you to be successful? So when we’re working with teams that are struggling to get out of each other’s way, we’ll often try a two-part activity: Role Design, followed by Role Call.

Role Design

Whether you’re launching a new project team, restructuring a team, or simply seeing confusion around who’s responsible for what, start by asking each member of the team to fill out the following worksheet, or simply jot down their responses to the following categories: 

  1. Customers. As always, start with the customers: who will this work ultimately serve, or who will consume the output? What must they do to serve them?
  2. Role Purpose. What’s the value proposition to the business? Research indicates that teams that understand how their work impacts the organization as a whole have better team performance, so work with individuals 1:1 to connect their job to the organization’s purpose and mission.
  3. Prime Domains. While roles are discrete, individual activities: “I send the weekly report”, or “I update code for our internal software,” domains are areas of responsibility, or subcategories with roles: “Project Management” or “Programming.” What are the key areas of ownership? Where do employees have subject matter expertise?
  4. Subscribers. Other colleagues may rely on the work without being a customer. Who else needs to stay informed along the way? 
  5. Barriers and Enablers. Who or what could halt progress—or speed it up?
  6. Metrics. How should we measure progress and impact in this role? Remember, identify metrics for outcomes, not outputs, so the team is focused on doing the right work.
  7. Norms. Finally, what rules, habits, rituals, and/or working rhythms will help this role succeed? This doesn’t have to be an exhaustive list; just some of the most critical activities for the role.

As noted, though, the intersection between roles is just as important as the role itself. While you might think one colleague should play a “Subscriber” role, for instance, if they think they are “Customers,” it’s bound to lead to conflict. That’s why Role Definition shouldn’t be a stand-alone activity. Instead, you must check it against your colleagues’ definitions to make sure you’re aligned. Once everyone on the team has had a chance to fill out a basic Role Definition worksheet, bring the team together to participate in “Role Call.”

Role Call

  1. Write down tasks or information you need from other team members. Focus on what you need from other individuals—not the department or function—to be successful. For instance, “I need engagement figures from Jan” not “IT needs better data from HR.” If doing this activity in person, we recommend writing down one task per index card or post-it note. If done virtually using a program like Miro, write one task per virtual post-it. 
  2. Keep it focused. To keep the list of tasks manageable, limit your needs to a short-term time frame (e.g., this month versus this quarter) and start with your immediate team. Getting feedback from between 6-8 team members will give you enough information to check your assumptions without getting overwhelmed.
  3. Exchange cards with team members. Give cards to their respective owners (or move virtual post-its to one board) and take any cards that they have for you.
  4. Sort your cards. Now that you’ve received your required tasks from everyone else on the team, take a few minutes to review them. You’ll probably find a fair amount of overlap, so go ahead and sort them into themes, like “Budget Approver.” These are your domains—the tasks and information that you are responsible for.
  5. Compare against your original Role Definition. Review your answers from the first exercise. Are you missing domains, customers, or subscribers? Or, conversely, is there a domain that you think you should own, but no one else has mentioned it?
  6. Share out with the team. Go around the room and share your newly defined domains. If you notice an overlap or gap, this is the perfect time to discuss how to better divvy up the work. It’s also a quick way to check for motivation — if someone seems disinterested in one of their domains, ask them if they’d like to relinquish the task, and see if anyone else is willing to take it on or grow into it.
  7. Identify what you need to complete your tasks. Now that everyone knows what they’re supposed to do, double check barriers and enablers. If you’re responsible for the budget, for instance, you may need access to expense accounts, and ownership of the bank account. Your first step after completing Role Call should be to get these set up so that you can get started right away.

Of course, teams are often also responsible for tasks and requests that come from outside the team. If that’s the case, invite that team or individuals to participate in a modified version of this activity: list all the tasks you think they need, and then review with them what you got right or wrong.

Part IV: Policies, Processes, and Meetings

Finally, teams must align on how they’ll do the work: what are the established processes for getting things done? What meetings and communication must happen to coordinate activities? Ultimately, teamwork is nothing but conversations between people. You simply can’t get work done today without collaboration—and yet, in many organizations, individuals are left to work these crucial activities out on their own.

That’s why we recommend bringing the team together to establish some basic rules of engagement. To review your team’s Policies, Processes, Meetings, and Rhythms:

  1. Conduct a “meeting audit.” As a team, list all of your recurring meetings, how often they occur, and what type of meeting they are (for instance, Status, Kickoff, Retro, 1:1, Brainstorm/Working Session, Prioritization, Decision-Making, or All-Hands). Ideally, each meeting should have one, and only one, purpose: a Status meeting that gets sidetracked by a Brainstorm session can derail the whole meeting; while a meeting with no clear purpose wastes everyone’s time. If your audit reveals that you have several meetings with unclear or multiple purposes, they’re worth investigating further.
    1. For more about the meetings every team should have—and how to run them—check out our Team Tempo.
  2. Brainstorm what information is shared regularly. What information does the team need to share regularly? At the very least, this should include notes of “next steps” and “decisions made” from key meetings. If the team is struggling to develop this list, look back at the Roles and Responsibilities exercise above: what information do individuals need from each other? What data or reports are most in demand? Then note where it’s stored, and who’s responsible for keeping it updated—that way, when colleagues need information, they know where to turn.
  3. Turn key processes into checklists. Again, brainstorm some of your most common processes. If processes are well-established, turn them into checklists: identify the five to nine “killer steps” that are easy to forget, but dangerous to miss. If your team hasn’t developed clear processes yet, conduct a retrospective on a recent project to determine what worked and what didn’t, and use that as a starting point.
  4. Figure out the right tools. Especially in an age of hybrid work, most teams use lots of tools, apps, and programs. And in fact, some teams use multiple tools for the same task, or have apps that they rarely use. List the most critical tools that everyone needs to use, and what it’s used for. 
  5. Lastly, figure out some basic team norms. How should members of the team treat others? What sort of behaviors do you want to encourage? Discuss, as a group, what’s most important to the team, and how it’s expressed. It might be helpful to think about how you would welcome a new teammate: what would you tell them to make them successful in this group?

One note of caution: as you’re going through these exercises, you’ll undoubtedly identify things that you want to fix and new tools you want to try. Instead of attempting to tackle everything at once, though, compile all your policies and process, and then prioritize one or two issues. We recommend starting with a skateboard focused on freeing up more time, like “Shorten hour-long meetings to 50 minutes so people have time to stretch.” Giving your team—and yourself—time back will give you the slack you need to tackle more complex problems.

Part V: The Team Charter

Now that you’ve spent so much time and energy building the foundational elements of a high-performing team, we recommend you put all these decisions in one place: a Team Charter. Not only will this serve as an easy guide to help new team members get up to speed faster, the process of putting it together—having conversations and debates about how to work together—will help align the team.

To get started, call the team together to review and fill in the template. (If you’ve been working through the different elements of a team piece by piece, you’ll already have most of the answers.) Don’t worry if there are divergent ideas or even missing items at this point. The goal is to start somewhere, and then iterate towards greater clarity and alignment.

When you’re finished with your first version, ask a member of the team to share the content in a digital tool (we suggest something like Google Docs or Trello) so it’s easier to review and revise later. Then, update the document anytime you’re conducting a Sensing or Retrospective meeting.

Published February 6, 2022

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