What does it take for a team to perform at its best?

Team performance in a nutshell, and why it matters so much.

May 29, 2024
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9 min read
Team on a boat rowing among waves

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: https://cocoon-pro.com/#subscribe

If you would like to learn more, or bring this approach to your organisation, please contact us here: https://cocoon-pro.com/get-in-touch/


As the functioning of our organizations becomes more fluid and modular to accommodate the rapidly changing context, our teams turn into the single most impacting unit of performance. Especially the teams taking care of your critical processes and key relationships.

Governance teams are often considered key teams in all organizations, along with many product teams, marketing teams, sales teams, customer care teams, HR teams, R&D teams, QA teams. If you are a decision-maker working to make your key teams smarter, more courageous, and more impactful, this is for you.

But — hey — what is a team?!

Let’s start from the “obvious”, shall we? In fact, in our work with a rainbow of different organizations, we have heard the term “team” used in very many different ways. At times, by “the team” some managers mean a whole division, or even a whole organization!

This is not trivial at all. Not every organizational unit is a team, with the consequence that different approaches to its design, evolution, and performance are needed.

We couldn’t resist the temptation to play with a GPT for five minutes, about the meaning of “team”. Let’s see how it did:

From an anthropological perspective, a team is a microcosm of society, where individuals with varied backgrounds and skills come together, forming a cohesive unit. Through shared rituals, symbols, and norms, they navigate the complexities of collaboration, forging a collective identity in pursuit of a common goal.

In poetic language, a team is a tapestry woven from diverse threads of individuality, each strand contributing its unique hue and texture. Together, they dance in harmony, guided by the rhythm of a shared dream, crafting a masterpiece greater than the sum of its parts.

In the language of socio-technical systems, a team is an integrated network of humans and tools, dynamically interacting within a structured framework. This synergy enhances problem-solving and innovation, optimizing the collective output through the strategic alignment of individual competencies and technological affordances.

Pretty good huh? Indeed, all of these perspectives are true, and each of them adds to how we should meet the challenge of high-performing teams. Moreover, if we look into organizational literature, we quickly move from a basic understanding of a team as a group of individuals who work interdependently towards a shared goal and hold themselves collectively accountable (Hackman, 1990) to a slightly more focused view of it as a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993).

The element of mutual accountability is quite clear. The small number of interdependent people is also key. In fact, for much that literature can vary, the number of people in a team is to be considered below 15. Above 12 people, it’s already beginning to produce a completely different work dynamic that should not be dealt with in the frame of a “team”. The optimal range is indeed between 4 and 9 team members, also depending on the context.

Let’s move beyond, though, as we still feel something crucial is missing here. We haven’t touched on the ecological relationship between the shared identity of the people in a team and the broader organization they participate in together. In fact, we love the angle of Cohen and Bailey (1997) on this, pointing out how the people in a team see themselves, and are seen by others as an intact social entity embedded in one or more larger social systems, and manage their relationships across organizational boundaries.

In other words, it’s not just the fact of being a team that matters. What matters the most is the team’s life: the process of getting together, becoming together, and evolving together. In basketball, they say that a team is “when five fingers become one hand”. Yes! And how that hand works with the whole body.

All in all, there is no team without its ecosystem, and there is no team performance but Adaptive Team Performance.

Do you see where a simple question has led us? Have you spotted the social and business implications of these reflections, already? Let’s keep going then.

To get an idea of how this could look like in practice, 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.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL DOCUMENT HERE

Now, what does “performance” really mean?

This is another very relevant question, indeed, considering that so much of the improvement effort in organizations is based on performance management and performance measurement.

Interestingly, the word performing means taking full form, to express each team’s full potential, which is an inherently socio-technical challenge. As knowledge becomes increasingly open and distributed and correct responses are uncertain, the power of diversity and collaboration becomes paramount. Strategy-making and execution can’t afford any longer the structural disconnect caused by a Tayloristic approach to organizational performance. The impulse and depth of teams as a unit of impact and decision-making is key for the future of organizations that need to respond to challenges and opportunities in real-time.


Business people discussing about work data in a table

In this scenario, our teams struggle to keep up, either with the goals they work to achieve or with their interpersonal tapestry. Or both. All of them always face crucial issues that hinder their ability to survive, let alone perform, such as:

  • How to collaborate and communicate effectively, generating shared knowledge and effective action.
  • How to interact with other areas or teams within and outside our organization with the least possible costs.
  • How to define and maintain shared focus and objectives, balancing effort and polarities.
  • How to maintain the physical and emotional well-being of the team.
  • How we embrace diversity and navigate conflict towards growth.
  • How to adapt to change smartly and healthily, keeping alive trust and the values that animate the work of the team.

To navigate these challenges and perform, ongoing professional coaching and development are crucial to today’s work teams, just like to any serious sports team. On top of the basic (and yet far from being easy to master) capabilities of daily work together, such as keeping alignment or distributing work reliably, the whole spectrum of adaptive capabilities has become paramount.

A great paper that goes with the title “Managing adaptive performance in teams” frames Adaptive Performance for a team as the ability to respond to a salient signal or flow of signals, leading to a functional outcome for the entire team. This encompasses multiple inputs, interaction flows, and emerging states, which lead to changes in group processes and characteristics, enabling higher levels of effectiveness in complex environments (Michael A. Rosen, Wendy L. Bedwell, Jessica L. Wildman, Barbara A. Fritzsche, Eduardo Salas, C. Shawn Burke, 2011)

In simpler words, the ability to change deeply and healthily within a changing context.

The good news is that developing adaptive capabilities can and should be fun, positively challenging, and engaging. The very practice of it should help build shared identity, and improve the relationship with the whole team’s ecosystem. This kind of work of coaching and development is not — and can’t be — separate from the team’s real-life work. We are not talking about “team building” activities you can run once per year in a fancy location. We are talking about learning to perform together, by adaptively performing together, iteration after iteration. It’s the ongoing journey of becoming an entity that is stronger than any of the participants alone and that makes each of them stronger individually. It’s a continuous flow of challenging, evolving, and celebrating together, on the job.

Just have a look at this list of key adaptive capabilities. Does any of them look like something you “train” for a couple of days, and then you’re done?

  • Learning and Problem-Solving: The ability to quickly learn new skills, tasks, and procedures, and apply this knowledge to solve problems creatively and efficiently in changing circumstances.
  • Emotional Regulation and Stress Management: The capacity to navigate emotions and stress effectively, maintaining composure and performance under pressure or during unforeseen challenges.
  • Flexibility: The willingness and ability to adapt behavior and work methods in response to new information, changing conditions, or unexpected obstacles.
  • Interpersonal Adaptability: The skill to adjust interpersonal behavior and communication styles to effectively interact with a diverse range of individuals, including colleagues, clients, and other stakeholders.
  • Cultural and Organizational Adaptability: The capability to understand and integrate into new cultural and organizational contexts, aligning with new values, norms, and practices as required.
  • Physical Adaptability: The aptitude for adjusting to new tools, technologies, and physical work environments, ensuring continued performance despite changes in work conditions.

Clearly, they are not quick-fix capabilities. They are vital human abilities, apt for a life-long learning journey, in which there is no limit to what can be achieved. In a nutshell, team performance is the result of developing these abilities by working together towards the team’s shared goals, having this work as a playground to express the full team’s socio-technical potential.

There is truly a lot that can and should be done to allow your key teams to develop their performance, and the importance of doing so is proportional to the importance that the work done by that team has in your organization.

It’s a strongly contextual work, depending on each team’s trajectory, identity, and ecosystem. In fact, it is a scope of work in which the iterative practice of the Evolution Flow is crucial. A stable and continuous pace of evolution has to be established: it’s what we call the team-performance system of heartbeats. And key practices need to be implemented and coordinated in this system.

To make it even more concrete, a few examples:

  • Continuous learning and development: enabling ongoing learning and skill development to prepare individuals and teams for adaptability in various scenarios.
  • Performance management for adaptability: integrating adaptability criteria into performance management systems, including setting adaptability goals, monitoring progress, and recognizing adaptive achievements.
  • Cross-functional collaboration: encouraging collaboration across different teams and departments to share knowledge, and good practices, and support mutual adaptability.
  • Proactive planning and preparedness: implementing strategies that anticipate change and prepare teams in advance through scenario planning and contingency measures.
  • Encouraging innovation and creativity: promoting an environment where team members feel empowered to suggest innovative solutions and creative approaches to work tasks with psychological safety..
  • Stress management initiatives: providing resources and training for stress management and emotional regulation to enhance resilience among team members.
  • Team Dynamics Design: cocreating and fostering strong work-dynamics that support adaptability, including effective leadership, clear roles, and constructive conflict resolution.

Easier said than done, indeed. And yet vital, and often regrettably neglected. One last question then stands: how does it look? How can we develop this work of team effectiveness, including evaluating its progress and success? Next article will explore exactly this topic. Make sure to subscrive to our newsletter (link below) to receive it directly on your inbox.

To get an idea of how this could look like in practice, 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.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL DOCUMENT HERE

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You might be also interested in reading: How do teams tap into high performance, in practice?

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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: https://cocoon-pro.com/#subscribe

If you would like to learn more, or bring this approach to your organisation, please contact us here: https://cocoon-pro.com/get-in-touch/

This is the account of our staff at Cocoon Pro. Wish to know who are the people in Cocoon curating our content production?Have a look at the people page on our website here. For any question or feedback we would be happy to hear from you! Reach out here: hello@cocoon-pro.com