5 tips to achieve high performance teams

by Lisa Pafe (connect with Lisa on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/lisapafe)

Crafting solutions is an intellectual challenge, but it is also a team challenge. Whether as part of a bid to win work or a consulting assignment to solve a customer problem, the solutioning process involves a team. Yet, no matter how many masterminds you assemble, the team is often its own worst enemy.

As a team lead, project or proposal manager, how many times have you thought you did everything right? You assemble experts to brainstorm, architect, write and review…only to result in a non-compelling or even non-compliant solution. With a solution that does not reflect the customer’s vision and objectives, what happened?

Let’s step back from the solution, and take a look at the team. Project and proposal teams are short-term, often hastily assembled, and face enormous time constraints. People cycle in and out (writers, solution architects, subject matter experts, reviewers). The team members typically offer diverse levels of understanding. Often, some members are remote and/or are at best reluctant participants. They may consider the work low priority and demonstrate a lack of commitment to the team. Team members may show disrespect for the project or proposal manager who is not their line boss. And finally, teams often include teaming partner companies with their own agendas.

These issues could be worked out if you had more time, say six months or so. All teams go through five developmental stages that psychologist and educator Bruce Tuckerman identified decades ago: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning (Bruce W. Tuckman, ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological Bulletin, 1965 & ‘’Developmental sequence in small groups – Current Concerns’, 1984). Subsequentresearch tells us that three-fifths of team time is taken up by the first two difficult stages.

With typical project or proposal time constrains, your team may have only a week or two toadvance to the performing stage. Through lessons learned, organizational and group theory, and the school of hard knocks, I’ve developed some strategies to evolve more efficiently to the performing stage.

Forming: In the forming stage, clarity and communications are paramount. How can you make things any clearer? First, ensure the team is clear on the goal. Yes, our team wants to develop a winning solution, but why? Offer a comprehensive vision of what solutioning means in terms of strategy, positioning, growth, profitability and jobs. Often team members avoid asking questions because they don’t want to appear uninformed. Why is each team member here? Team members may not know each other. Share with the group each contributor’s experience, competencies, role and responsibilities.

Tip 1: Get Off-Line: During forming, avoid relying solely on team meetings. Spend time off-line with each team member to ensure understanding and answer questions privately while building rapport. Remember that during the forming stage, team members tend to be more polite and hesitant to voice opinions or ask questions. By conversing privately, you can encourage questions, address concerns, and better gauge capabilities.

Storming: Storming is the most challenging stage, but it is necessary in order to norm. Differing opinions can create conflicts that lead to anger, confusion, hurt feelings and/or frustration. Exercise authority. Keep team meetings to the point, within time constraints and follow the agenda, but do ask people to speak up and voice opinions. Respectfully acknowledge issues or conflicts raised and try to resolve them. Continue to remind everyone of the end goal. Avoid getting defensive or taking it personally when team members express frustration or anger. If team members continue fighting and/or straying off topic, call them on it. Create a parking lot for their issues, and address them off-line, one-on-one. In other words, circumvent the team as needed.

Tip 2: Don’t Get Stuck Storming: You don’t have the luxury of time to work through storming at a leisurely pace. Therefore, apply an Agile, iterative approach. Require contributors (individuals or small groups) to submit their assignments daily in small increments so you can provide feedback and coaching. If you see a way another team member can help, get him/her involved. In other words, use storming as the pathway to continuously clarify and build a stronger team.

Norming: Norming is when the team members start to become comfortable with their individual roles as part of the group. You’ve helped them progress by confronting issues, clarifying questions and coaching poor or struggling performers. Continue to require frequent iterations of work products. Use praise and constructive, actionable criticism as needed. Quite often, a team member or two refuses to norm. You may have to remove them from the team if they are disrupting progress.

Tip 3: Anticipate and Deal with Regression: Be aware that as team members cycle out (after completing a specific assignment) and cycle in (as peer reviewers), the team may regress back to storming. You need to apply the same method of working one-on-one with new team members, coaching and clarifying to develop the solution. You also need to gather feedback and lessons learned from the exiting members.

Performing: During the performing stage, the team becomes more self-directed. As new members cycle in or out, the team is less likely to regress back to storming. Continue to be fair, decisive, in control and demanding. Ensure work products are on schedule, compliant and compelling, and re-direct the team if they are moving off course.

Tip 4: Exploit Both Strengths and Weaknesses: As the team is now a cohesive unit, team members better understand each other’s competencies. Ensure the team is exploiting these – in other words, if someone is better at reviewing the solution than writing, switch roles. Segment competencies so everyone is performing at their peak.

Adjourning: Part of the lessons learned process includes gathering feedback from each contributor as well as assessing each team member’s performance to use in the future when building teams. Record lessons learned on how well the techniques described above work. These ideas sound easy, but are often difficult to practice and require repeated efforts to perfect.

Tip 5: Don’t Forget the Team: Once the proposal or project is complete, remember to thank team members for their contributions. Inform team members of lessons learned, outcomes and results to improve individual performance and strengthen future teams.