5 Keys to Building High-Performing Teams

1024 576 David DeWolf

In my two most recent posts, I shared what I’ve found to be imperatives of organizational design. If you haven’t read the previous posts already (The Fatal Flaw of Organizational Design and The 5 Organizing Principles of Successful Companies), please do before diving into this one because each post builds upon the concepts introduced previously.

In this post, I’ll cover five keys to building high-performing teams. Business leaders should take these into account when organizing departments, teams, working groups, client-facing teams, etc. Teams that are fortunate enough to operate under the conditions outlined below are much more likely to deliver success than their counterparts.

It doesn’t matter if the goal is kickstarting a new line of business or pulling off a successful client council, if the people responsible are missing one of the below legs on the stool, they’ll eventually run into problems delivering outcomes with the kind of velocity that today’s business environment requires.

Specialization and Expertise 

Organizations should ideally encourage the development of specialized skills. As the global workforce becomes increasingly modernized, it’s beneficial to push your teams to explore areas where specialization can be learned by like-minded, similarly-skilled professionals working and growing together.

At 3Pillar, one way this concept comes to life is in our Communities of Practice. Communities of Practice are self-organized around topics like cloud and DevOps. Anyone in the organization can join a CoP so they can expand their knowledge and share relevant expertise with others. 

Coordination and Collaboration

Activities that are frequently done together should be coordinated in a unit. This is a great way to uncover opportunities for productivity gains and process improvement, not to mention build trust among teams and departments.

Many moons ago, one of our EdTech customers was lamenting past problems getting product updates out the door without seemingly everything breaking. It felt like the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing and didn’t particularly care. Their Dev, QA, and Ops teams were frequently at odds, especially every 3-4 months when they pushed out “big bang” product updates and held their breath. “All I want is to be able to push to production without having to alert our CEO,” this long-suffering VP of Product said at the start of our engagement.

We were able to get him and his team there in a matter of months by establishing a regular routine of updates where everyone knew what we were driving toward and what their role was in getting there. What may seem like small wins initially can add up in building momentum. 

Knowledge and Strategy

Before you can dole out the proverbial “seats at the table,” you first have to decide which are the right leadership tables to set. These should always be informed by areas that are core to your business’ strategy or operations. 

Going back to the first post in this series, I’d echo my recommendation: Strategy and Structure should inform People, not the other way around. The temptation is to say, “John, Jane, and Terry are experts in pricing strategy. They could help us evaluate what a shift to a tiered pricing model could mean for our business.” In this scenario, you’re setting a leadership table before you even know whether pricing is an issue for your customers. In other words, take an outside-in approach instead of an inside-out approach.  

Autonomy and Engagement

Decisions should be delegated to the appropriate levels to drive empowerment. Nothing is more demotivating than a command-and-control culture. If everyone has to wait for the boss to sign off on every minute detail – or worse, for the boss to have all the “good” ideas – your company will move like molasses.

What’s more, the people who are closer to the actual work are often going to have a better feel for the right decisions to make than their bosses. I’m a big believer in hiring people who are smarter than you, making sure they have whatever tools and resources they need, and giving them enough leeway to get the job done.

Getting comfortable with being hands-off can be one of the toughest things for an entrepreneur to do. Making the leap from being an individual contributor to stepping back and truly learning how to run a business was one of the first times I remember having to make a conscious decision to let others take the ball and run with it. As with anything, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  

Innovation and Adaptation

Structures should be designed to adapt in an ever-changing world. Rarely, if ever, do things go exactly according to plan in business. Customer expectations and tastes change. Technology changes all the time. The list of things that are in constant flux in a business could go on forever. And none of that accounts for a black swan event like a global pandemic that fundamentally alters life as we know it.

What this means for your organization is that you have to prioritize flexibility and agility in the name of innovation and continuous improvement. Our team members at 3Pillar used to ask me frequently when things were going to stop changing so much. Usually, the questions would spike in the wake of a major announcement, like an acquisition or a new office opening. People eventually got so used to my answer (“Things are never going to stop changing.”) that most have stopped asking. The reality is that most people don’t readily embrace change, so the question will never go away completely. I don’t want anyone to ever feel that there’s a sense of instability, but I also don’t ever want them to feel like they should expect change to stop. Businesses are like living, breathing organisms. Frequent change is inevitable, and it should be treated as such.    

Wrapping It Up 

Organizational design isn’t easy, but you can make it easier by following a methodical approach. These five keys to building high-performing teams have come in handy for me at many stages of 3Pillar’s growth. If you follow them after first focusing on Strategy and Structure, you’ll be on your way to creating an organization that’s designed for the long haul.