How do teams tap into high performance, in practice?

Some questions get us outstanding outcomes and open the doors of a much better journey.

June 4, 2024
12 min read
cheerful collegues working together

This article is part of our How we work series. You can also read this article in Italian and Spanish.

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How can a team express its full potential? How can it truly perform?

There are very effective answers to this question, that we have learned in many years of work with a rainbow of high-performing teams worldwide. We would like to offer them here to you.

The challenge of performing (as we have seen in-depth in this other article) is inherently socio-technical. It is an iterative journey that sees people working together (the social side of the system) as they evolve their ability to choose, adopt, devise, and use the tools they need to succeed (the technical side of the system).

Since each one of such systems is unique, the first vital step is always to meet it by its own identity, trajectory, and context. In fact, no off-the-shelf solutions fit all teams and situations. What is available instead, is a powerful set of lenses that open the way to incredibly effective interventions.

The ACCOwnT framework

The first of these lenses is brought by as we ask a crucial question: what is the next natural step of evolution that this system can make? It’s the lens of the intervention angle we have called Evolution Flow. It reminds us that every human work-system can be seen as a flowing river in which three different evolutions have to happen in harmony with each other: the Operational Evolution, the Behavioral Evolution, and the Psychological Evolution. Moreover, it reminds us that, while they are deeply interdependent, these three evolutions don’t have the same speed. The deeper Psychological Evolution needs way more time to happen than the “tangible” Operational Evolution. Indeed, beliefs, biases, and fears need more time and care if they are to evolve, than processes or even competencies.

River Model

As we embrace this lens, we can leverage one of its applications: the ACCOwnT framework for team development. The acronym composing the name of this framework of ours is composed of its five pillars: Alignment, Communication, Commitment, Ownership, and Team Play. These five elements are assessment points as much as subsequent development topics. 

  • Alignment means ensuring that all team members share the same goals and understand their roles in achieving them. Misalignment can lead to inefficiencies, wasted resources, and missed opportunities. Operationally, alignment ensures every strategy and action is directed toward common objectives, maximizing productivity. Psychologically, it fosters a sense of purpose and cohesion within the team, reducing stress and enhancing collaboration. Addressing alignment is urgent to foster cohesive and effective team efforts, thereby driving the organization toward its strategic goals.
  • Communication refers to the clear and effective exchange of information among team members. Poor communication leads to misunderstandings, project delays, and suboptimal outcomes. Operationally, clear communication ensures smoother project execution and superior results. Socially, it builds trust and strengthens relationships, reducing conflicts and enhancing team morale. Improving communication is a pressing need to enhance coordination, prevent costly errors, and drive overall team success. Prioritizing effective communication practices is essential for maintaining momentum and achieving business objectives.
  • Commitment is the dedication and responsibility team members have toward their work and goals. Lack of commitment can result in disengagement, decreased morale, and poor performance. Operationally, commitment ensures that tasks are completed efficiently and to a high standard. Psychologically, it fosters a sense of belonging and motivation, enhancing team morale and reducing turnover. Ensuring team commitment means fostering a culture where every member is genuinely invested in the success of the project. Strengthening commitment within the team leads to increased productivity and a higher quality of work.
  • Ownership means that team members take full responsibility for their tasks and the outcomes of their work. A lack of ownership can lead to accountability issues, finger-pointing, and mediocre results. Operationally, ownership drives accountability and quality improvement. Psychologically, it empowers team members, fostering a sense of pride and accomplishment. Promoting a sense of ownership ensures that every team member is motivated to deliver their best work. Addressing ownership is vital for driving accountability and ensuring project success. Cultivating a culture of ownership leads to proactive problem-solving and a greater sense of achievement.
  • Team Play refers to the ability of team members to collaborate and support each other effectively. Poor team play leads to silos, inefficiencies, and missed synergies. Operationally, effective team play maximizes team potential and achieves superior results. Socially, it enhances relationships, builds trust, and creates a supportive work environment, reducing stress and increasing job satisfaction. Encouraging a collaborative environment ensures that diverse skills and perspectives are harnessed effectively. Fostering strong team play improves overall performance, accelerates problem-solving, and enhances creativity and innovation within the team.

Each of these 5 pillars is an important part of a coherent system for effectively growing team performance. Together, in their interaction, they generate the substantial socio-technical difference necessary for the team to express its full potential. 

Each of these pillars builds on the capabilities developed by the preceding one, starting from Alignment — the most operational and practical — down to the deepest layers of the River, where Ownership and Team Play touch the fabric of social and psychological patterns making the team thrive.

If you want an idea of how working concretely on this topic would look like, you can download a real offer we have recently proposed to one of the beautiful organizations we work with. Just the sensitive data have been cut out, the rest — from the challenges to the conceptual and operational framework of intervention — is there for you to read.


Engaging the whole person

Once the socio-technical lens of the Evolution Flow has been brought in, it’s time to include another three lenses that allow us to land it into practical interventions with our teams. The first one is the lens of the whole person

All in all, it reminds us that the tools and techniques used for supporting a team in their journey through the ACCOwnT developmental framework need to be devised to engage the wholeness of the person: both the rational and the emotional. Moreover, whatever the mix of tools used, utmost attention must be put on the flow experience of the participants

There is much more to us humans than what meets the eye. We register and process billions of inputs every day, very few of which we are aware of. We exert our meaning-making through a rainbow of biases that are inevitable and intrinsic to our thinking. Our cognition does not happen in the neurological dynamics of our brain alone, as 4E Cognition well explains — it is also developed through our bodily experience (embodied), through our relationship with the evolving context (embedded), and our actions in it (enacted), and using our ability to devise and adopt tools throughout our journey (extended). Also, we are emotional beings, and the dynamics that lead us in the making of our most important decisions, and generate all of our reactions and behaviors, have roots in our emotional sphere.

It is therefore crucial to tie all of the interventions to assess and develop the five ACCOwnT pillars to the complex fabric of our psychological and social reality. We need to create and hold the space for this to happen, for people to truly listen to each other, and themselves, and to express the whole of what they know, think, and feel about the challenges at hand.In doing this, it is equally vital to provide experiential sequences that allow each person to have autotelic experiences — to enter that state of flow, which is also called the state of peak performance.

people with Lego bricks doing strategy making

Interestingly enough, there are simple and powerful techniques for doing it. And they are not only effective, they also are pleasant. They are fun. In fact, we call them “hard fun”. They are the Serious Games methodologies.

Serious Games methods powerfully facilitate thinking, communication, and deep dives in complex matters in organizations and teams, as well as at the individual level. Leveraging on sound cognitive sciences and neurobiology, they literally bring people’s thoughts and feelings to a shared table, allowing to work with them. They help thinking and ideation from the combination of the rational and the emotional, in such a way that stimulates creativity, lateral thinking, and innovation.

Over many years, we have seen all kinds of people having fun while achieving their greatest results. Indeed, coupling these kinds of techniques with a focus on the person, on her personal and professional strengths, and her relationships and roles in the team, is where the harmony begins of the three evolutions we are after.

Evolving the whole work-system

The next lens that now comes into play is the systemic one, the lens of the team work-system. Indeed, as we have already seen in this other article, there is no team without its ecosystem. 

Are you still with me? It’s been quite a journey so far already, but this is where things start to get even more interesting, business-wise. They always do. So bear with me.

Work-System design places the key elements of each team identity within their growth trajectory. It takes work to the systemic level, generating a deep and contextual awareness of the professional dynamics at play. It is based on socio-technical systems theory and focuses its practice on key work dynamics: the narratives and processes that create value. It supports clarity, alignment, and choices about the evolution and sustainability of the work-system.

work-system canvas

The techniques we have developed to make this happen, have the team focus its attention on the flow of value that connects the resources they use to the results they get, through the uniqueness of what they are together: their team identity. This value flow is fed by two key dynamics connecting the team with its broader work-ecosystem: how the team generates and delivers value, and how the team generates and receives resonance.

Team members need to carefully reflect on the current moment in their trajectory together and redefine their work-system and related practices. Generating and holding a safe space in which both what matters to people and the challenges ahead can be explored is the only effective root for shared action and evolution. 

Evaluating progress and adjusting to the journey

We now know that the Operational Evolution, Behavioral Evolution, and Psychological Evolution needed to express a team’s high performance have to happen in harmony with each other, through the ACCOwnT framework. We also know that what makes this happen is to engage the whole person in the generation of a better team work-system. 

Yet, there is one thing we still need if we want this journey to happen: the road.

Expressing high performance means to express full adaptation capability. And that can’t happen in a day, by definition. It happens over time, it is an evolutionary journey. And just like any journey that matters, it needs rhythm. Think of your studies, your family life celebrations, fertility cycles, or the seasons in nature. All evolution needs key rhythms that carry its frequencies. In our work, we call them team heartbeats.

They are periodic occurrences in which the team focuses on an aspect of its existence that matters, in a predefined important moment and space. Their frequencies vary according to their nature: more operational heartbeats (like priorities review sessions) should happen more frequently, while heartbeats more related to sense-making, envisioning, and direction should happen less frequently. Designing the proper system of heartbeats for the best performance of a team is no easy feat. Yet, it is a necessary condition. It often results as one of the most important work-design aspects for high socio-technical performance.

Besides the frequency and the proper design of each heartbeat space, the next most important feature is to provide them with feedback-loop processing. Adaptation needs feedback. The team needs to be able to exit each heartbeat occurrence with a deeper and more accurate understanding of what is going on. The heartbeat needs to provide focus on how reality is happening in that specific scope or aspect, so that the team can adapt, and evolve. In other words, each heartbeat must improve performance.

What kind of feedback loop to design for is a very broad topic. It is a contextual design challenge, strongly depending on the team identity, moment, and context, and also on the specific heartbeat at hand. Nevertheless, the design of the system of heartbeats can’t be considered whole if it does not address triple-loop learning feedback loops. 

In short, the feedback loops to cover, involve not only modifying actions (single loop) or questioning underlying assumptions and policies (double loop) but also fundamentally rethinking the underlying norms, values, and paradigms that govern organizational behavior. In fact, this meta-learning process leads to a profound transformation in organizational culture and strategies. By critically reflecting on how learning itself is structured and valued, teams can achieve deeper systemic change, fostering innovation, adaptability, and long-term sustainability, despite stressors.

In doing so, a key tool to make sure the team devises and uses rhythmically is a system of performance indicators: basically, some important questions to ask itself about its evolution. Some of them can be quantitative indicators, but more often than not, valuable quantity is part of the output of a high-performing team, not its source. What truly matters to raise performance tends to be qualitative, and subjective. Indeed, the discussions that these indicators generate are important spaces of evolution themselves.

As a valuable piece of food for thought in choosing these indicators, we can offer the paper “Managing Adaptive Performance in Teams” (Michael A. Rosen, Wendy L. Bedwell, Jessica L. Wildman, Barbara A. Fritzsche, Eduardo Salas, C. Shawn Burke, 2011) that provides a review and synthesis of the empirical, theoretical, and methodological literature concerning team adaptation, performance, and measurement. By carefully reading it, we can extract six principles for evaluating team adaptation, each associated with examples of specific markers: 

  1. Capture bottom-up changes in team performance: Focuses on individual contributions and their adjustments in response to changes, with markers like coordination and backup behavior. Individual team member adjustments contribute to overall team adaptability.
  2. Capture top-down changes in strategy: Looks at shifts in team strategies and their impact on performance, with markers such as mission analysis and goal specification. Strategic shifts lead to improved outcomes.
  3. Capture the team’s recognition of a need for change: Emphasizes the team’s awareness of environmental cues signaling the need for adaptation, with markers like cue recognition and meaning ascription. Cue recognition and meaning ascription are critical to teams’ ability to respond to the need for change.
  4. Capture the team’s ability to self-assess: Deals with the team’s evaluation of past performance to inform future changes, with markers including reflection and critique. Teams that learn from past actions, experience improved future performance.
  5. Capture what team members are thinking and feeling: Highlights the importance of understanding the dynamic cognitive and affective states of team members, with markers such as shared mental models and team situation awareness. Shared mental models and team situation awareness have a relevant impact on adaptability.
  6. Capture a profile of team adaptation over time: Encourages longitudinal measurement to understand how teams adapt over multiple performance cycles, with an emphasis on tracking changes and outcomes. Long-term studies illustrate how teams evolve over time, adapting to new challenges and environments.

By reflecting on these principles, you can craft a set of indicators providing the team with feedback about each of the three evolutions at play. More specifically, we strongly suggest choosing a couple of indicators for each of the three evolutions: operational, behavioral, and psychological.

One last word about supporting teams to reach high performance. The evolution of a human system cannot follow a plan, as the emergence of reality can modify what is more appropriate, on several levels. It’s a type of work that needs to unfold by iterations. Content and type of intervention need to be tailored to the needs of each phase.

In domains of complexity, where the very concept of “expertise” makes no sense, notions are just the entrance sign to a world in demand of new behaviors and organizational outcomes. It is only by iteratively applying principles, tools, and practices to your unique business context and challenges that evolution happens and becomes impact.

While conceptual inceptions and informative sessions meant as creation spaces provide the orientation, understanding, and motivation needed to move real steps forward, profound learning always flows in real life.

If you want an idea of how working concretely on this topic would look like, you can download a real offer we have recently proposed to one of the beautiful organizations we work with. Just the sensitive data have been cut out, the rest — from the challenges to the conceptual and operational framework of intervention — is there for you to read.


You might also be interested to read: What does it take for a team to perform at its best?

This article is part of our “How we work” series. You can also read this article in Italian and Spanish.

If you would like to receive updates on this and other topics around the changing landscape of the world of work, subscribe to our newsletter here:

If you would like to learn more, or bring this approach to your organisation, please contact us here:

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